Black Swan and the Manipulation of Sound

In Darren Aronofksy’s Black Swan (2010), sound became a pivotal part of communicating to the audience the state of mind of Nina (Natalie Portman). As Nina becomes more and more engrossed into her obsession of becoming the Swan Queen, she quickly becomes aware that she must complete the dance of the Black Swan equally as well as the White Swan. Nina is pressured by her mother, her director, and Lily (Mila Kunis). Her obsessive delusions are accompanied by the rather visceral sound design. The sound is most noticeable when Nina seems to be slipping into her delusions. For example, when she begins to see hallucinations, the song “Swan Lake” becomes audible. This of course reminds the audience of what is seemingly driving Nina slowly insane. This is also an indicator to the audience that there is something clearly wrong with Nina, and what she is seeing can not be real. Certain physical motions and aspects of Nina’s delusions and hallucinations contain sounds which are extremely exaggerated over the rest of the sound design. For example, when Nina finds the first feather on her back she pulls it out, the sound of the feather is excruciating; creating a blood curdling effect. The sound is drawn out, as opposed to making a clean quick sound. The scene in which Nina is practicing her turns in her living room is another clear example of how sound exemplifies what is important to Nina. After taking numerous turns on her point shoes, Nina hurts her ankle. The sound from this becomes louder than the other sounds in the scene and is also extremely over exaggerated. This over exaggeration of Nina hurting herself shows the audience the horror Nina would face if she would be physically incapable of performing in Swan Lake. Sounds such as eating are also emphasized, for example in the scene where Lilly takes Nina out for dinner, Lilly digs into her dinner, unafraid of her surroundings. This is a stark contrast from Nina who timidly eats her hamburger with a knife and fork. The sound of the audience seems to become drowned out by the crunching and chewing of Lily gnawing on her hamburger. This gives the impression that we are not only seeing what Nina wants the audience to see, but also what Nina wants us to hear. Additionally, as Nina rides the subway a strange man, which seems to be completely in Nina’s sexually repressed imagination, begins making sexual gestures towards her. He begins making a noise with his mouth which becomes louder than the sound of the subway car. This not only creates a sickening feeling within the audience, but also reflects Nina’s thoughts and feelings. The sound of the man making sexual nuances towards Nina enhances the audience’s notion that Nina is extremely sexually repressed. In this way the sound and the visual aspects of the film work together to show events which Nina’s mind has manipulated. This manipulation becomes apparent through the sound design.

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Some thoughts…

I often find the nature of viewing films extremely interesting. With the ability to instantly stream a film online through Netflix, I can easily catch up on an entire season of a show in only a few days. The sheer factor accessibility makes it so much easier for me to stay caught up on many independent films I didn’t have time to see. Additionally many of these independent films are not often shown in local theaters. The closest theater to view many independent films is Ann Arbor, MI which makes it difficult for me to find the time to make that kind of trip. However, though convenience is a factor, I still find the element of the cinematic experience extremely important. For example, I grew up with the film To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962), and had seen many times throughout the course of my childhood. Last year I found out the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor was playing classic films, and one of those was To Kill a Mockingbird. Coincidentally, the film was being shown on my father’s birthday, it was also my father who had introduced me to the film so many years ago. The experience was incredible, the perfect example of how seeing something on the big screen can take a childhood classic and turn it into an unforgettable experience. The sound seemed even richer coming through large speakers, even more remarkable, the ability to view a film in such a way that every facial expression becomes visible, simple nuances which had been previously missed are finally seen. I am also very thankful to have seen North By Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959), another childhood classic, on the big screen. I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to see the film and meet Eva Marie Saint and Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies. I also take great pride in owning my favorite films on DVD. I also have to purchase those films at midnight of the day they come out to DVD. I waited until midnight to purchase Black Swan (Aronofsky, 2010), Social Network (Fincher, 2010), and Super 8 (Abrams, 2011).

I found the book itself to be historically interesting. Although, I didn’t like how much it only focused on the science fiction genre, although, I do understand from reading the book how pivotal that genre was to sound design. I would have rather read something that was more geared toward the production aspect as opposed to the film studies aspect. I would like to read guides on how to comprise sounds and different technologies I can use. I did find the material interesting, I just wish I could have obtained more information on how to go about creating sounds as opposed to the history of sound design.

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Sound Design

In Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), many sound design techniques were employed to give a layered effect “In this final stage of sound construction and design, a paradox arises. Specifically, the sound mix seeks to be self-effacing through the manipulation of volume levels, uniform placement of sound elements, and attentiveness to image (in terms of scale, synchronization, and content); yet the sound mix also calls attention to the sound design as a construction and form of spectacle through the manipulation of sound perspective, anthropomorphism, and localization of sound elements within the exhibition space” (Whittington 193). In my own film I will be incorporating the song “My Body is a Cage” by Arcade Fire, from the which the original concept for the project derived. I intentionally filmed certain elements that are present within the song. For example, one of the lyrics which is “my body is a cage”, will be reflected with images of bird cages. In this way my film reflects the notion which was employed in Terminator 2, which emphasized an importance of image. The song also moved me to incorporate cages throughout the piece. I used the notion of cages to influence the lighting. For example, I used a light outside of my window so that the blinds would cast shadows on my characters, giving a cage like feel. This influence of cages is also representational of my created sound design which will include the sound of the bird cage opening and closing. In my film I also incorporated shots of eyes opening and closing, implying that our minds are also cages, I also used a panning shot of one of my character’s bodies to imply what the title suggests, which is that our bodies act as cages to contain our souls. To emphasize this element I will be incorporating the sounds of breathing and heart beats.

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Blade Runner and The Hold Up

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is a source of controversy regarding science fiction film. The film was of course released in 1982, followed by the director’s cut coming out in 1992. The main source of controversy between these two films can be found in the director’s release which contained a voice over. Much of the debate revolving around this subject rested within the voice over’s necessity. This debate greatly reflected the debate which surrounded the “need and function of sound in cinema during the transition to sound” (Whittington 169). This voice over is of course reminiscent of film noir, which Blade Runner contains qualities of both film noir and science fiction “drawing on a stylistic approach that looked forty years forward into the future and forty years back” (Whittington 169). With our project in class The Hold Up, we had to at first create a short film out of the footage using conventional linear editing techniques. The second project was used to explore the characteristics of montage editing. I preferred the montage project over the conventional editing project because of the freedom that is allowed through montage techniques. Within this project I prioritized rhythm and image, by cutting on the pieces of movement and action within the footage. I also placed on importance in communicating that nothing in cinema is in “reel time”, as in we place emphasis, while we watch film, on past and present, but technically everything we have seen on screen is in the past. I wanted to bring this to light by using the slate in my montage to show the audience that they were in fact watching a piece of film, also a piece of film from the past. This is of course very much different from the affect which was created by the linear editing style of the first The Hold Up, where a simple account of a bank robbery was told.

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From Horror to Science Fiction

The science fiction genre saw a shift following the film Alien (Scott, 1979), which “launched science fiction cinema into the darkest recesses of space with the warning, “In space no one can hear you scream”” (Whittington 129). Alien incorporated both aspects from the science fiction genre and horror genre “These genres collided on nearly every level of the production, from the narrative, which begins as an exploration mission to investigate an acoustical beacon but abruptly turns into a mission of survival, to the production design, which offers renderings of speculative technologies of the future set against primordial, almost dreamlike organic masses” (Whittington 129). The affect on sound design regarded that of “the generic exchange” which “transformed the sound track of Alien into a kind of sonic organism, which connected deeply with filmgoers on a conscious and subconscious level” (Whittington 130). Foley effects could then be “pushed into the realm of the supernatural with only the slightest urgings” (Whittington 145). This combination of techniques from both horror and science fiction then “allowed sound to move into the physical landscapes of the imagery presented on the screen into psychological landscapes of the characters and subsequently the filmgoers” (Whittington 145).  For my final sound design project, which I based off the Arcade Fire song “My Body is a Cage”, I intend on incorporating both natural and expressionistic sound effects. For parts of the project I intend on using parts of the song, specifically the line “My body is a”, and once the image of the bird cage is shown, I plan on using the sound of a rusted cage door opening and closing. My project entails the relationship of a man and woman who have been torn apart by heroine. For part of my project I also intend on incorporating bits and pieces of conversation from the first point in which they met, before heroine affected either of their lives.

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The Ides of March (Screening Essay)

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011) is a film with editing that primarily focuses on narrative. There is particular attention to continuity, and little to no use of montage style editing. There are many long takes without rhythm, but rather allow the meaning of the shot to be created within the shot as opposed to meaning created from the juxtaposition of shots. The editing within this film is not stylistic in any sense, as its cinematography and lighting exhibit’s a largely stylistic quality. This technique in editing was employed so that the audience could better understand the characters which were presented. For example, there are long takes of Steven, played by Ryan Gosling, walking in and out of shadows within numerous shots to represent his changing feelings towards his profession. There are also numerous point of view shots which communicate to the audience how these politicians view one another. For example, there is a long shot from Steven’s point of view where he views Mike, played by George Clooney, through shelves in a kitchen, there is also a striking  point of view shot where Mike searches for Steven through an audience. From this example, one can gather also that the edits within this film also prioritize spectacle, such as the take where Steven sits in his car after finding one of the interns has killed herself, where rain falls onto the windshield and creates shadows that seem like tears coming down Steven’s cheeks. I would say that this film is well edited in the way that the editing adequately portrayed the meaning of the film by not distracting the audience with numerous cuts and edits, but rather allowed the meaning to be communicated within the given shots. Though the editing does not exhibit a stylistic quality, this is made up for within the film’s stylistic cinematography and lighting.

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Sound Sampling and Genre

Sampling is what Whittington refers to as “to retrieve a portion of another sound or piece of music and integrate into a new construction” ( 259).  This technique of sampling was used substantially in Science Fiction films, as filmmakers drew upon concepts from the old Hollywood era. This notion of sampling within sound design comes into play with the conventions of genre. And though the Hollywood era saw a “period that was highly dependent on the reusable studio libraries that would reinforce house style”, the sound design for Star Wars rejected the notion of “using previously recorded sound libraries” to “offer the film a new and innovative sound texture” (Whittington 101). In the creation of the sound design for Star Wars, sound designer Ben Burtt used “sound selection and creation” to unify “over the various reels of the film to build motifs, accentuate themes, and punctuate dramatic passages” (Whittington 107). Burtt then intentionally used these conventions of genre by engaging “the film’s themes (good versus evil, man versus machine), the iconography (lasers, spacecraft, and communication devices) and the narrative archetypes (good son/evil father) with his sound design to offer new layers of meaning” (Whittington 107). Within Burtt’s design, he wished to harken back to “the style of classic serials, particularly Westerns and science fiction shorts” (Whittington 107). It is therefore very important to note as a sound designer that “there is a historically vested component to any sound design. How sounds were captured, manipulated, and applied in the past often informs how they are created and used in films today” (Whittington 112). It was this attention to “past codes and methods of sound construction and capture” that painted the overall “style of Star Wars, which offers a pastiche of elements borrowed from classical Hollywood genres but has implications for subsequent blockbusters” (Whittington 112).

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A shift of sound design

Whittington notes a shift in sound design from sound which was focused on representing reality toward one which focused on experimentation. One progression of sound design can be viewed through the progression of the science fiction genre. This in itself is an explanation to Whittington’s point of sound moving from realistic to artificial, because one convention of science fiction is its unrealistic quality. Sound design began to shift also because of  filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who wished to escape the confinements of the sound unions so they could truly obtain the freedom to experiment in postproduction. Additionally, this notion of experimentation in sound design was grasped from the French New Wave movement and with the advent of the “portable camera, sound technology, as well as low-light film stocks” which “made film production easier, faster, and more mobile” (Whittington 59-60), in France, filmmakers were even more likely to experiment with sound design. This shift is also due to the concept of sound and aesthetic relationship and that “Sound would no longer simply accompany the image. Rather, it would challenge it for primacy” (Whittington 68). The notion of sound montage and the experimentation of “image-sound relations” forced filmgoers to “assume more aggressive reading strategies in terms of narrative comprehension and visceral intents” (Whittington 57). Hollywood soon became interested in upgrading sound technology and with the advent of “multitrack recording, portable technologies, and new re-recording and ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) technologies”  eventually led filmmakers to “unprecedented refinements in cinema sound” (Whittington 69). Today sound design has moved even farther away from realism, which can be seen most evidently in action summer blockbusters. Films like the Transformers films or Cowboys & Aliens (2011) highlights the element of spectacle with huge explosion, and of course to accompany these images there must be larger than life sound design.

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