Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 6, nr. 1 (January 2014)Isabelle Delmotte: TUNED IN AND HANDS ON: SOUND DESIGNERS BEYOND TECHNICAL EXPERTISE
My interest in the silences of the everyday, the ubiquitous sonic ecologies related to mechanical contraptions and human activity, is triggered by the human capacity to adapt, or not, to the elemental vibrations of our common existence. Often the sources of these sounds are invisible but act as sentinels of our inclusion into the physical realms of contemporary socio-cultural situations. My motive for developing a study examining these aspects of our lives in sound was to get a glimpse at two human processes: cultural habituation to silences and professional expression of their existences.
This study has been enlightening in this regard, but also went far beyond technical or industrial concerns, thanks to the altruistic participations of some Australian cinema professionals. Currently sound crews still operate in the shadow of the moving image. Cinema and theatre sound man Daniel Deshays assimilates “le sonore”, the audible, as a clandestine entity that works without cinema-goers' awareness (Deshays 2004). The sound crew of a film production seems almost innocuous to some because of their public invisibility and, often discreet, professional indispensability. I find it logical to interact with the individuals producing sonic ubiquity for socio-cultural purposes, such as films, to get a better understanding of our elemental interactions with sonic environments and with each other.
So, what happens when members of a sound crew take centre-stage and modify at once their relationships to sound, to its narrative potential and to their own usual work patterns?
Rather than examining in detail the mechanisms linking cinema sound production and theoretical film studies, I chose to gain reflexive insights into the personal and creative practices of individual sound designers. Through the design of my study, I had the good fortune to gain a greater awareness than I expected in the practice and humanity of a profession operating behind and around the screen. The creative participation of eight Australian cinema sound designers and a scriptwriter allowed for a personification of cinema sound design as a phenomenological storyteller, demonstrating human inter-relations around the creation of sonic narrative. All study participants were living and working in or from Australia. That they were all males aged between 25 and 45 years old was circumstantial. All the film professionals involved in this study demonstrated the same qualities: unpretentiousness and generosity. Several of the participants have won Australian professional awards from the Australian Film Institute (AFI), the Inside Film award (IF) or the Australian Screen Sound Guild (ASSG), and/or contributed to awarded movies (AFI, Emmy, American Oscars or Golden Reel).
A script specifically designed for this study was given to the participating cinema sound professionals. Being provided with written material to start their work rather than visual guidelines, such as edited footage, meant that the participants modified their creative patterns. The scripted scene called for the creation of "silences" and gave participants scope for personal experimentation without aesthetic constraints or commercial imperatives. Some of them found the concept and its realisation confronting. Subsequent interviews with all creative participants between 2010 and 2012 proved to be eye-openers for some individuals on their own professional practices. The content of these interviews and electronic correspondence highlighted the importance of human interactions and the influence of associated technology to the current phenomenological processes of cinema sound-making in commercial settings.
In this article I canvass definitions of the term "sound designers" through examining the roles, experiences, and aspirations of individuals usually operating as members of a complex creative team. I consider the way current technologies and subsequent professional inter-relationships influence sound design practices. I reflect on the role of sound design in the elemental relationships between the self and others. Finally, I address the creative potential of a more widespread sharing of experiential situations within the cinema industry setting.