The Journal of Sonic Studies

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol06/nr01/a05

Designing a Lifeworld

In order to produce phenomenological disclosure with sound, one must present phenomena to be disclosed to consciousness. To accomplish this, a lifeworld of sound must first be considered and developed conceptually. “Lifeworld” is a phenomenological term that takes note of the world of experience as revealed to consciousness (Moran 2000). It is experience prior to reason, in which we are, according to Husserl, always already experiencing and interacting (Moran 2000). Sonically, this lifeworld can be revealed to the audience 1) objectively, 2) through the awareness of the characters within their world, or 3) through the blending over time or intentional ambiguity of the two. I will address two aspects of sound that have the potential to produce a richer lifeworld for character interaction in animated content: ambient sound and offscreen space.

Ambient sound

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All living things—whether of this world or any other—inhabit some kind of interior or exterior setting. Characters interact not only with each other through dialogue, but also with the space in which they presently exist. It is not simply an issue of space, however. We must also account for the unfolding of time within such settings. Time, connected with our position in space, allows sound to come and go for the hearing character. This time element comprises the audible horizons of perception for the hearer (Ihde 2007). Such time-spaces are rarely if ever silent. There is always a sonic structure pervading any setting. The most interesting environments are those that are alive with culture, atmosphere, and activity. So the first method of creating a sonic lifeworld is to consider this evolving time-space in which events occur. This kind of sound goes by many names in audiovisual production: natural sound, backgrounds, environmental sound, even “noise.” But a better descriptor of this kind of presence is “ambient sound” because it goes beyond the idea of location and into subjective awareness and personal psychology. It may seem simple to have machine hum in a factory or birds chirp in a forest. But ambient sound can do much more. It can reflect character emotion in a given situation, offer commentary, present certain conditions to the characters, and conjure a deep sense of culture.

It is also the means of establishing the subject in relation to his environment. When space and time combine effectively, it does not only produce the objective, but establishes “the timespace of the phenomenological subject who performs a reduced listening which does not hear a place but produces its own” (Voegelin 2011: 163). There is enormous creative potential here. If a story takes place in a futuristic city, for example, the designer has total freedom to create that sound culture as it relates to the individual being of a character. Somewhat akin to audible production design, ambient moves beyond such static image-based world-building and instead moves dynamically in time in relation to that character. The sonic lifeworld can breathe and change not only in its physical representation, but also as varying states of subjective co-presence and absence. It also presents the possibility of absolute subjectivity. Imagine a moment when a character either notices a particular sound or must listen carefully to one. Another approach is to develop a compelling ambient signature and then gradually removing it to silence. Through this, we can isolate some particular sound for the character as a means of isolating some key narrative moment. “The suppression of ambient sounds can create the sense that we are entering into the mind of a character absorbed by his or her personal story” (Chion 1994).

Unfortunately it is difficult to find animated films that use ambient sound well. The reason for this goes back to the idea of “location sound” in film. Because film records in a location, there is ambience already produced. It is then a matter of “sweetening” it toward various purposes—to establish sonic continuity or to produce something more creative. Because there is no location sound in animation, there is nothing to manipulate in post-production. This is why oftentimes there is simply nothing—no sound of place whatsoever and instead merely silence.

Offscreen space

There is a tendency in animation to concentrate too much on what we see directly in front of us. However, our eyes have a limited field of vision. We cannot see everywhere. Our ears, on the other hand, are omnidirectional—we hear sounds all around us, beyond our field of vision. That which is not visibly evident on the screen is “offscreen space.” Too often these sounds beyond the frame are called “offscreen sound.” But as Christian Metz has correctly noted (Metz 1985)—and Doane would likely agree (Doane 1985)—there is no such thing as offscreen sound because sound is never dealt with in regard to the enclosure of the frame. The sound of offscreen space is therefore better considered phenomenologically as “acousmatic sound.” This is a term Pierre Schaeffer lifted from Pythagoras, which was subsequently applied to film studies by Michel Chion (Chion 1994). It refers to sound which has not yet revealed its visual identity. Acousmatic sound as a concept exhibits the degree to which the visual is connected with Cartesian rationality in objects. If a listener is denied the visual source of a sound, the mind struggles to come to terms with its specific nature or cause. Denying the visual source thereby has the power of compelling the perceiving subject to imagine such an identity. “A sound or voice that remains acousmatic creates a mystery of the nature of its source…” (Chion 1994). A gradual emergence of some sound into the field of vision can therefore be used as a means of audible-to-visible disclosure. Due to the level of ambiguity inherent in audible perception, the mind must work to try and imagine what the visual embodiment of that sound is. This is something deep in our psychology of survival: We have an instinctual desire to know visually whatever we cannot picture in our minds. It sounds big. Is it big? What is it? What’s coming? Is it threatening? Later, when you finally reveal the visual source of the sound, everything comes together rationally. But until then, you can offer a profound sense of the unknown.

Offscreen space is not simply defined as being physically outside the rectangle of the screen. It can also be utilized as a presentation of phenomenological nondisclosure to consciousness. Chion identifies the phone conversation as a presentation of purposeful absence (Chion 1994). If the dialogue of the speaker on the other end is not disclosed, we are denied access to content in a way that makes us wonder what is being revealed to the character. The disclosure/nondisclosure dynamic can be used throughout the storytelling process. For example, maybe we hear the content of that conversation later, in an offscreen presentation in which the character remembers what is said. This extends to any manner of plot-based sound that is either concealed or presented in a process of unconcealment to the listener. It helps to continue the mystery and keep us in step with the evolving existential condition of a character.