The Journal of Sonic Studies
Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 6, nr. 1 (January 2014)Isabelle Delmotte: TUNED IN AND HANDS ON: SOUND DESIGNERS BEYOND TECHNICAL EXPERTISE

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Sounding silences: a practice of affect

The creation and use of "silences" is a demonstration of these primordial processes: affect and coenesthesia. Silences, in and outside cinemas, have become ubiquitous, noisy, invisible and indispensable. The silence of the everyday is a consensual silence made of frequencies that are part of the visual realm but absent from the visual field, like distant traffic. Silences are the vibrations we are immersed in and the perception of which can often be interrupted at will. An analogy with Paul Virilio’s remark that silence implies consent (Virilio 2003: 71) can be applied to human habituation and indifference to the soundscapes of modernity. For example, frequencies and vibrations emitted by air conditioning systems are often easily dismissed. We give to their presence at once a status of inevitability and consent to their indispensability: for some their constancy brings stability to their soundscapes. At the same time, the absence of these “silences” on a film soundtrack can have a destabilising effect on film-goers. The perceived ubiquity of locative silence provides a cinematic vocabulary that includes the expressions "room tone", "silence", "atmospheres", "backgrounds", and "ambiences". Creating the silences of the everyday links environmental sound, bodily absorption and creative practices.

Film director Mike Figgis directs his explanation of the fear of digital silence onto the reactions of audiences. In his career, Figgis always wanted to put some silence in a film and "have nothing on the soundtrack" (Figgis 1998: 1, italics in text). He took that opportunity in a scene in his film Leaving Las Vegas (Figgis 1995). Figgis did not attend the post-production stage, but watched the film with the crew in the big space cinema where the sound of silence sounded "gorgeous" (Figgis 1998: 2). However, when he went and experienced the movie in a crowded movie theatre, Figgis noted that "suddenly, it's so quiet in the cinema that you can literally hear everything, and you don't have the protection of this sound blanket of mush, or just ambient noise, or whatever, which we come to expect of a soundtrack" (Figgis 1998: 2).

Expectations and affective creativity can be tested by the impact of narrative embodiment. Kassab testifies to this potential when noting that "silence can make us lean forward in our seats to be absorbed by the visual drama, a sudden sound from silence can then throw us back in our seat" (personal communication, July 29, 2011). Cinema sound designers’ first public are directors and producers, an audience that can be crudely described by W.A Darlington as one that follows "the dramatist's meaning like a pack of hounds on a scent" (cited in [White 2011: 199]). A number of producers of large budget films tend to be afraid to introduce relatively inaudible quietness, to "take this risk" as explained by soundman Tony Murtagh:

Something that can be frustrating for some one who is trying to create a sound design for a film is when changes are made to the locked picture cut. Often times quieter sections of the film, usually where actors aren't speaking, will be removed, as these sections appear to slow the pace of the film. We will often get locked picture cuts of films to work on, which will have lots of nice spaces to create interesting moments in the soundtrack. This can be done through the use of the real environment sounds experienced in the film as well combining other sound sources.  Before a film reaches sound post production it has gone through a considerable number of screening. From the edit suite, to director, to producer, to production company and to investor screenings. At any of these screenings changes are likely to be made and one of the most likely changes is “Oh there is a dead space there, how about we take it out and tighten up the sequence." (personal communication, September 22, 2010)

Many sound makers and most directors would advocate the necessity to use ambient sound or "room tone". However, most study participants, when acting as sound designers, have a fascination and a great desire to use more subtle silences as spatio-narrative elements. Some of the participants also relish the use of "pure" silence, a total absence of information on the digital track.

The process of convincing directors or producers of the cultural validity of digital silence is a physical adventure in itself: one has to be in the studio or the mixing room to experience the potential of what is often thought of as a full sensorial disconnection. The experience of inserting digital silence entails the physical presence of all parties. Such collaborations are based on trust. Sound designer and study participant Carlos Choconta mentions his physical interaction and persistence at post-production stage while trying to insert digital silence instead of audible sound: "I was with the producer and that’s when a lot of sounds were chopped away. So that’s why it was a win for me, because I managed to convince him" (personal communication, May 5, 2011).