Updated: Sep 30
How It All Started
In 1894, the first documented use of sound in film occurred. With the Kinetophone, a piece of technology invented by Thomas Edison, William Dickinson recorded audio of himself playing the violin while simultaneously filming two men dancing. Since then, sound and film have become synonymous and their relationship is constantly evolving to new heights
It wasn’t until the late 1920s that ‘talkies’ brought recorded dialogue to film. Combination moving images with recorded dialogue, the audience was provided with an immersive experience unlike anything that had ever seen, or heard, before. Now, it is difficult to imagine a world where movies do not include high-quality audio that accompanies and elevates the footage on the screen.
From monophonic recordings to surround sound, the evolution of audio in film is a testament not only to our ability for innovation, but also our desire for fully-immersive experiences that carry us away from the day-to-day and into the stories and worlds of the others.
Where We Are Now
While monophonic recordings contain only one track of audio, designed to come out of one speaker, innovations such as Dolby Atmos allow audio designers to introduce sound from any point in the 360 degrees around the viewer's head. This not only keeps the audience engaged with the film, but places them even deeper into the experience by immersing them in the sound design, creating the illusion that they are part of the story.
A famous quote regarding the role of sound in cinema came from Gary Rydstrom when he stated that “you do a great job in sound when no one notices it.” Now, that may not have been the case when sound was first introduced to cinema, but after decades of experiencing them in combination, we have come to expect it. Clean, balanced and well-mixed audio has become the norm and anything less is simply not acceptable. However, there are some cases in which lower quality audio is the desired outcome.
This may occur when the footage appears to be from the past, where audio that sounds similar to the recording technology of the time is utilized to create the full experience of sending the viewer back in time.
Such an example of this can be found in David Fincher’s Mank. With an outstanding performance from Gary Oldman, the film features a soundtrack manipulated digitally to sound as if it were made in the 1940s. With a technique dubbed “the patina”, the film's sound designers began with a clean mix and then adjusted certain frequencies in order to match the old film sound Fincher wanted to replicate. Exhibiting Fincher’s attention to detail and commitment to his art, Mank reminds that while it is nice to have crisp, clear, and stereo audio, it is sometimes desirable to lessen the quality in order to serve the film. Sound can be used in a myriad of ways in film and is not limited to the current standard.
Where We're Headed
An example of musical and sonic innovation that goes in the opposite direction of Mank's sound design is found in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. In order to create the sounds he wanted, composer Hans Zimmer required new instruments to be designed and created for the film’s score. This is a far cry from the monophonic recording created in 1894 by Dickinson, and the limited sonic spectrum of the 1940s, and exhibits our desire to continuously push the envelope further.
To further develop the world of Dune and realize Villeneuve’s vision, Zimmer’s otherworldly score paints an auditory picture of what the year 10,191 may sound like on the desert planet of Arrakis. He successfully manages to do this while supplying the film with his usual emotional and dramatic moments that support and elevate the visuals. With digitally augmented sounds and barely recognizable speech designed to elicit specific emotions, the sound design of Dune is innovative and sets a precedent for how music and audio can be used in film.
Music, though crucial to the film experience, is not the only sonic aspect of movies that deserves our attention. Sound design is the secret weapon that creates the full experience we have come to expect. Foley, the art of replicating real-life sounds or generating new ones, fleshes out the visuals on the screen and ensures that each and every important sound is heard. From footsteps to gunshots, modern film would suffer greatly without the incredible sound artists who create and record those sounds. ADR, additional dialogue replacement, is another crucial piece of the film process. Re-recording dialogue in a studio during post-production ensures that every word is clear and intelligible, should that be the desire of the filmmaking team. The video below presents Hugh Jackman's incredible ability to act in the studio while showing us just how far we can come from the 'talkies' of the 1920s.
In a time of high-budget blockbusters and action-packed superhero movies, it can be easy to take for granted the high level of audio design found in the films we watch. We are inundated with content that has been specifically designed to overwhelm our senses and entertain us for the entire runtime. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, I enjoy a good Marvel movie theatre experience as the next person, it can detract from the artistry found in the audio experience that accompanies these visual wonders.
The next time you are at a movie theatre or watching a movie at home, particularly if you are using headphones, take a second to place your focus on the sounds you are hearing. You will be amazed by what audio can do.
Where do you think innovation will take us next?