Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 6, nr. 1 (January 2014)James Batcho: THE SONIC LIFEWORLD: A PHENOMENOLOGICAL EXPLORATION OF THE IMAGINATIVE POTENTIAL OF ANIMATION SOUND
Applying the tradition of phenomenology toward animation sound is an effort to stretch the narrative possibilities in the form by re-conceptualizing how we hear, listen to and experience invented worlds. Remembering that animation is an art that builds such worlds, let us consider for a moment its predecessor, painting. Merleau-Ponty in The World of Perception illustrated how a painting is not meant to represent the world of rational objects, but as a particular presence of a world of lived experience or one fully created anew. “Suffice it to say that even when painters are working with real objects, their aim is never to evoke the object itself, but to create on the canvas a spectacle which is sufficient unto itself” (Merleau-Ponty 2004: 96). We can adopt the same spirit in animation as a whole, but particularly as concerns the sound that the form can produce. The following statement, again given in the context of painting, could just as easily relate to phenomenological approaches to sound design:
“…[A]s in the perception of things themselves, it is a matter of contemplating, of perceiving the painting by way of the silent signals which come at me from its every part, which emanate from the traces of paint set down on the canvas, until such time as all, in the absence of reason and discourse, come to form a tightly structured arrangement in which one has the distinct feeling that nothing is arbitrary, even if one is unable to give a rational explanation of this.” (Merleau-Ponty 2004: 97)
In a painting, the artist is the creator of the world. But it also achieves significance in the viewer who absorbs it. To paraphrase Theodor Adorno, what is alive in a painting is not what has been painted, but what is painted in the moment of experience (Adorno 1995). In the viewing, one gives internal time to the image. We can think of this time as giving our own sound to the painting, not so much as a conjuring of particular sonic environments per se, but rather in the way the mind thinks. In time, thinking fills the mind with language, emotion and imagination, all of which are qualities of the sounding of the world. We are always in sound, regardless of whether or not we hear anything in the world.
In animation, by contrast, time is provided. The sound that develops personally in the viewer of the painting is here offered as experience by a designer. One can choose to either design a world of objects or instead design experience itself, through hearing characters who inhabit it. If we only consider what is diegetic, nondiegetic, or some blending and crossover between the two, we are deciding that the film world is comprised of what is physically relevant. If we only consider what is subjective or objective, we are only thinking in terms of the perception of a single character. In this split—between what is (and is not) “the world” and what is (and is not) “the mind”—something is lost, something integral to the aim of storytelling itself. What we identify with in any good story is the way that we come to absorb the world through our experience of it. Being itself is not just self, nor is it just the world; it is an individual relationship of self within a lifeworld that comprises existence and experience. It is in this way of thinking that sound be free to play with ambiguities of perception, various states of attunement, shifts in modes of listening and hearing, the language that lives within us at nearly every instant, and the music that comes to signify our feelings in a condition of heightened awareness or deep turmoil. In this way, we are not simply designing a world, we are designing ourselves.