Soundscaping (1993)

Videodrome (1983)

Kevin J. Crosby, University of Washington, Fall 1993

Soundscaping

Editing is the process of creating a space in which reality is catered to creative intent. A filmmaker attempts to reproduce in two dimensions what is inherent to three-dimensional space. A film space encompasses everything in, on and around the camera, governs which frame of film borders another, and which sounds will fill that space. The space is a combination of diegetic and off screen mis-en-scene as well as montage effects and sound manipulation. A complete space is both a landscape and a soundscape since both to add depth and realism to an otherwise two-dimensional media.

The acoustics of a space help determine the realism of that space. An inherent quality of real spaces is reverberation. “Natural reverberation is produced by the reflections of sounds off surfaces. They disperse the sound, enriching it by overlapping the sound with its reflections. This process colors the sound to some extent, imparting a change in timbre.”[ Charles Dodge and Thomas A. Jerse, Computer Music (New York: Schirmer Books, 1985) 223] Reverberation aides in depth perception, sound source localization, and gives details about the size of a space. The realism of a space depends on auditory clues matching visual cues.

The space in which the sound is replayed also colors the sound, and sound editing techniques like postsynchronization and looping will also impart their own acoustics. Much of this information is subliminal, but as Professor Brian O’Blivion states in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, “The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it.” Unlike film screens large enough to necessitate eye movements in order to watch the whole image, televisions are small enough to allow the entire image to be captured within a stare. With the mind so relaxed, subliminal impressions will create imagery.

Nonsequential sequences can alter perception of time, nondiegetic inserts can effect subjective perception of object relationships, and sound can create its own space. A small space can appear larger if the reverberation time is long, and a cavernous space shrinks by shortening the time between the arrival of the direct sound and its first reflections and by increasing the number of echoes in a shorter reverberation time. Reverberation can give a sense of emptiness, hollowness, or openness. Max’s auditory flashbacks have additional reverberation to give them a distant feeling.

Reverberation also affects subjective perception of room size. Cronenberg varies the physical, visual space independent of subjective, auditory space in Videodrome:

Cut to shot of Videodrome broadcast of [redacted] prodded with an electrified stick. Reverse angle shot to Harlan’s work space: a myriad of electronic equipment. Fans and motors hum along the noise floor while cries of pain from Videodrome resonate within the room. We’re standing behind a cathode ray tube that tightly frames Max and Harlan into a two-shot in the upper half of the picture. There is no door nor window nor ceiling in their space. We can’t see the ceiling so we imagine how low it might be, and only the back wall has any estimable size. When Harlan moves laterally through the space, we track his movement by panning about a point behind the cathode ray tube. There is very little freedom of movement since either end of Harlan’s space is bounded by another monitor. “We never leave that room” prompts Max to Harlan concerning the Videodrome broadcast. Their voices reflect coldly from the plaster walls of the small room. Max’s comment alludes to being trapped in a cell, and claustrophobia finally sets in when Harlan informs Max that the Videodrome program originates from Pittsburgh and not from halfway around the world in Malaysia.

Cut to an establishment shot of an office space with a side wall of glass panels, a staircase entry, and a large transparent porthole. We’re sitting in a corner barely able to admire the architecture when Nicki’s breathy, intimate voice tells us to “get professional help.” Visually, the space has expanded: people walk about, a ceiling slants down in the upper right-hand corner and shadows barely fill recesses; but the illusion of Nicki’s voice next to our ear (even amongst the distant chatter of office workers) makes the space feel small as Harlan’s work room. We are then drawn to Nicki, and through the round window we see her speaking.

Cut to Nicki’s point of view. We see Max through part of the round window while Nicki tells us that we’re going insane. Her voice is practically inside our head and there aren’t enough visual clues to bound the space. There is only the one wall of glass looking out to Max looking in. The space appears boundless, but the voice inside our head creates the illusion that we’re confined.

Cronenberg is able to create the illusion of decreasing subjective space while increasing physical space by increasing the ratio of direct sound to reflected sound while reducing the number of visual clues necessary to determine physical dimensions. He overrides visual stimulus with auditory cues to fool the mind’s perception of space and distance. He uses this localization trick again to personalize a message:

Cut to Max snorting in response to Professor O’Blivion’s Retina conjectures. Reverse shot to Professor O’Blivion speaking from Max’s television. The acoustics of the television in the room have been established from previous speech. Professor O’Blivion calls Max by name in a voice that sounds closer than before. After this auditory jump, new the acoustic mode has been established and nonsynchronous music begins. The effect is startling since the localization of the his voice alludes to coming from within our head. The voice is too close.

Changing the localization cues of a sound can create the illusion that its physical source is somewhere other than its visual source. The scene in which Max hallucinates while wearing the helmet has reverberation characteristics such that Nicki’s footsteps crackle. Nicki’s feet remain the physical sound source, but the artificial reverberation displaces the source in subjective space. This works well with the hallucinatory theme of the scene by locating the sound in an artificial space.

Subtle changes in sound quality will also be detected. Sometimes these changes manifest themselves during continuity editing. The scene in which Max hallucinates that he strikes his personal assistant uses match on action of Nicki that has a significantly quieter soundtrack than the surrounding film. This inconsistency, while barely audible, creates a subliminal image of multiple spaces within a single shot. Maintaining an invariant noise floor across cuts and adding postsynchronous sound to the entire sequence can eliminate this discrepancy and assure clean transitions between cuts.

Vocality has enormous impact on the viewer’s subjective experience. Verbal speech sounds can add color to a soundscape as well as trigger subliminal responses from the viewer. Sounds can increase awareness levels, flashback memories, or trigger psychomotor responses:

Cut to Barry Convex crumbling to pieces on stage. His blood flows in rivers from his body as his innards chew outward. A microphone amplifies Barry’s gut-wrenching cries throughout the convention complex. His disembodied screams carry with them the afterimage of his carnage.

Music announces an event or punctuates it. It can set a mood or place an event in time. The mood-setting music of Videodrome lulls the viewer into a relaxed, hypnotically sensitive state that allows subliminal imagery to be effortlessly absorbed by the mind. The brain quickly habituates the music’s redundant drone so that it fades into the background. This helps to accent changes in the soundscape. Sounds stand out against musical counterpoint.

Cut to Max’s television image holding a gun to his head. The music crescendos a final cadence. Max disrupts the silence with, “Long live the new flesh,” and a single gunshot thunders for seconds while the television explodes viscera. The gunshot decays back into the music while auditory acuteness focuses on dripping water and Max’s zipper.

Reverse shot to Max looking at the remnants of his television image. He puts the pistol to his head and pulls the trigger. The final explosion has no thunderous effect: only the reverberant fade-to-silence of the pistol’s percussion in the darkness of the faded-out video image.

Visual and auditory cues interact with psychological patterns to create realities that the filmmaker controls. Sound fills these pseudo realities with auditory imagery that the brain translates into neural responses. Sound alters depth perception, is capable of auditory hallucination, and creates a backdrop upon which reality lies. Filmmakers use sound to enhance the details of their space, and Videodrome succeeds in creating virtual spaces sculpted from sound.



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