The Journal of Sonic Studies

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

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.