Listen to part of a lecture in a film studies class.
Nowadays, we take sound in films for granted—I mean, you still might see black and white films occasionally, but you‘ll hardly ever see silent films anymore.
So it’s interesting to note that the use of recorded sound was originally controversial. And some directors, uh, some filmmakers even thought it shouldn’t be used.
That it would destroy the purity of cinema, somehow reverse all the progress that had been made in the art of cinema. Abby?
What about all the sounds you hear in some silent movies?
Like, you know, er... a loud sound when somebody falls down or something?
OK, you’re talking about a soundtrack added much later, which has, over time, become part of the film we know. But this recorded track didn’t exist then.
And it’s not that most people didn’t want sound in films; it’s just that the technology wasn’t available yet.
Don’t forget that instead of recorded sound there was often live music that accompanied movies in those days—like a piano player or a larger orchestra in the movie theater.
Also, think of the stage, the live theater—it has used wonderful sound effects for a long time. And if wanted, these could be produced during the viewing of a film.
You know, the rolling of drums for thunder or whatever. But that wasn’t as common.
Oh, and another thing, that they might have in movie theaters in the early days, was a group of live actors reading the parts to go along with the film.
Or, and this seems a particularly bad idea to us now, one person narrating the action… an early example of a long tradition of movie producers, the ones concerned mostly about making money, not having much confidence in their audience, thinking that people somehow couldn’t follow the events otherwise.
So, it finally became possible to play recorded sound as part of the film in the 1920s.
Trouble was, it wasn’t always used to very good effect.
First, it was, you know, amazing to see somebody’s mouth move at the same time you hear the words… or hear a door close when you see it closing on-screen.
But that luster wears off, of course, and if you’re a director, a filmmaker, what’s the next step?
Well, use sound to enhance the movie, right? Bring something more to it that wasn’t possible…
Yes, that’s exactly what directors who were more interested in cinema as art, not commerce, were thinking.
But they also predicted that there would be a problem that sound would be misused and, boy, was it ever…
Because the commercial types, the producers and so on, were thinking,"OK, now that sound is possible, let’s talk as much as possible and forget about the fact that we’re making a movie, that we have this powerful visual medium."
So, many of the films of the twenties were basically straight adaptations of successful shows from the stage, theater.
The name they used for sound films then was “talking films,” and that was on the mark, since, well, all they pretty much did was talk. And talk. So, the remedy?
Well, what was proposed by a number of filmmakers and theorists was the creative, expressive use of sound, what they generally called nonsynchronous sound.
OK, synchronous sound means basically that what we hear is what we see.
Everything on the soundtrack is seen on the screen.
And everything was recorded simultaneously, which, well, since the sound technicians working on films often had experience with live radio, that made sense to them.
Recording the sound separately and adding it in afterward, that idea was less obvious.
Anyway, synchronous sound means the source of the sound is the image on the screen. Nonsynchronous sound then, is…
The sound doesn’t match the picture?
Right. Now we can look at this in various ways, but let’s take it as literally as possible.
Music, unless we see the radio or the orchestra, that’s nonsynchronous.
If the camera shot is of the listener rather than the speaker, that’s nonsynchronous.
If we hear, say, background sounds that aren’t on the screen, that’s nonsynchronous.
So, that doesn’t seem so radical, does it?
But, again, those early producers didn’t think their audiences could keep up with this.
Excuse me, but did you say earlier that some filmmakers actually advocated not using sound at all?
Well, yes, but that was a bit of an exaggeration, I guess.
What I meant to say was that some filmmakers thought that the way the film sound was actually used was setting the art of filmmaking back.
But everyone agreed that sound solved some very difficult issues, and offered potentially exciting tools.