Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sounds Like...

My husband noticed my attention to sound a long time ago on a road trip.  My mood varied in direct relation to whatever was playing on the radio, and I didn’t seem to know it.  He started skipping angry or sad songs to play energetic, peppy, or sincere and happy material, and I was effectively pleasant the rest of the trip.  I can’t say I caught on as much as one day he just decided to show me it was true, and the experience was so surreal I couldn’t even get mad at him for 1) demonstrating I’m pre-wired for audio manipulation like Pavlov’s dogs for treats, and 2) he’d been actively manipulating me with music. 

I focused on sound in film school for a lot of reasons.  I was beyond broke and needed a T.A.ship to have any hope of finishing with a thesis film, which I did.  And sound work begins in pre-production and is the final step (the mix) on any project, so working in sound gave me a great vantage of the entire life-cycle of a production.  It’s also THE way to sell a film.  Shoot a good script with a good cast, good camera, and crappy score or poor sound design, you get a kinda crappy film.  But make an okay script with descent actors, and add great sound design and score, you can get a blockbuster.  In fact, I defy you to name any block-buster that skimped on sound and music.

I won’t go with the obvious example, like what if Darth Vader spoke in a lilting Southern twang instead of that big, beautiful, base?  Stepping out of voice and performance, think of Stormtroopers giving chase through the Death Star but instead of the clinking armor-on-metal steps you hear the tubby, thumpy reverb of plastic costume boots on plywood?  Or instead of the Michael Bay KA-BOOOOOMS of explosions and gun-play you got only the comically hollow “pop, pop, pop” of real dispelled-in-atmosphere gunshots?  I can tell you from years of living in Crenshaw, even lethal use of firearms sounds like almost nothing in real-life open air.

Interestingly, any sound-designer will tell you the most disturbing sounds are human made.  Tense scenes, you might hear the barking dog in the distance (a universal and classic sound of loneliness and/or alarm), but listen closely you’ll likely hear an embedded baby cry.  Whether that sound annoys you or strikes your innate urge to protect, humans are hard-wired to react to the voices of small humans.  Our brains register human voice even when it’s so low and obscured by other sounds we can’t consciously parse it out.  But if its there, we feel it.

Way back, Nike introduced Shox running shoes with springs in the soles that were visible from the outside.  They’re pretty common now, you’ve probably seen them, but when they were new Nike did TV commercials to introduce them.  The commercials featured varied people running with joy on treadmills as “boings” emanated from the shoes with each footfall, as if every step in those shoes was a spontaneous boingy party.  Initially, the shoes said the word “boing,” and Nike tried a whole bunch of human vocalizations of the word “boing” against the footage.  It made the commercial creepy.  Horror folk might think it’s intuitive, but Nike was surprised to learn disembodied human voices are creepy.  The more cheerful and happy the voices they tried, the creepier the commercial got.  Remember that tiny, round woman with the child voice from Poltergeist?  Cheerful, high-pitched, and creepy. 

Nike finally opted for cartoony “boings,” and their shoes were suddenly fun again!

Power of the human voice, people.  And cartooniness.  Use them responsibly.

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