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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A phenomenological approach to film theory provides a "mutually constitutive relationship" between non-filmic factors and filmic experiences as they influence each other inside and outside cinemas (Stadler 1990: 41). The sensory dynamics that manifest in the way human bodies perform in their environments are essential to the genesis of modes of inter-communication with the cellular self and others. The manner in which this sort of communication is acknowledged varies because, although it is not a metaphysical proposition, it is not a definite scientific hypothesis. These phenomenological modes of interaction and their creative aspects are sometimes dismissed in order to fence in communication methods and production models. Nevertheless, cinema sound-making is an osmotic process able to permeate all aspects of film production.

Budget constraints limit the number of sound crew involved in different stages of the film production and therefore expand the roles of the persons involved. One person can fit many production roles and can be involved at different stages of the creative process. With many production variables at play, the term "sound designer" still appears vague: individual practitioners seem to apply different criteria to its functions, at the risk that the title of "sound designer" might become meaningless. However, an important point of the study was the insistence by all participants that, as individuals, they were foremost part of a team. To my ears this constancy in their perception of their function at once increases their role as talented leaders and confirms their unpretentiousness.

The physical aspects of sound making for cinema consolidate the role of sound designers functioning as sensorial mediators able to spatially embody a story and take us under its skin, as so well demonstrated in The Hurt Locker. Could "a nurturing of affect", lead by an experiential sharing of sounds and silences, contribute to enriching and solidifying collaborations between writers, directors, producers and the sound team? Kassab describes the communication between him and directors or producers when trying to "sell" them a moment of digital silence. The complexity and possibility of digital silence makes producers, and some directors, nervous, but at the same time it is a satisfying manoeuvre for "sound designers who like to push the limit" (Kassab, personal communication, July 29, 2011). Their interaction starts with the sound designer asking "'What do you think of this?' Answer from director/producer: 'hoo I don't feel good' followed by a question from the sound designer 'but isn’t that what you want your audience to feel?' to which directors or producers often answer: 'haa ok, but only for a second, you know?'"(personal communication, July 29, 2011).

This anecdote shows the importance of affect as an essential part of a creative production mode. To some extent it confirms that the physical involvement of sound designers with other members of a movie production team should not be limited to post-production and the reliance of a visual narrative. However, in the contemporary movie industry, a lot of sound production work is now done online through exchanges of sound files and subsequent emails or video-conferencing allowing worldwide live feedback. Could the substitution of human sharing of spaces for virtual meetings have an impact on a transmission of affect between sensory makers, story devisors and film producers? Would listening only with the ears and communicating only through the voice influence an affective practice of cinema sound design?

Certainly the division of creative clusters opposing the concepts of "pure creativity" and "applied creative skills" seems irrelevant to the potential suggested by new work configurations. Rather, it is late involvement and creative input by "coenaesthetic sound sculptors" to a sensorial product, a movie, which deserves some attention. It limits the potential of storytelling by re-enforcing the assumption that movies are foremost visual experiences for many. That might be because our cognition is thought to interpret light faster than audible sound. Nevertheless, some theoreticians, producers and directors could all be guilty of the same sin: instead of talking about and feeling sound they "are actually thinking of the visual image of the sound’s source" (Metz and Gurrieri 1980: 29). Sound designers-supervisors-mixers aim to move audiences to the edge of their seats but, ultimately, they are telling a story to entertain others by responding to the ideas, and sensations, of directors. The voluntary or involuntary dismissal by some directors, and producers, of the potential creativity of sound designers' practices diminishes the authorship of the human body itself and disallows us all an exploration of our own coenaesthetic beings.