Les États généraux du film documentaire 2007 Territories of the Audible

Territories of the Audible



Territories of Sound, Practical Aspects

Before starting out on this new session, we have to recall a preliminary consideration that was stated during our previous "Territories of Sound" seminar at Lussas in 2006.

Dealing with the issue of sound in cinema supposes that we question the nature and the role of the sounds that we wish to confront with the image, but also the methods of choice, their place and the operations we organise to capture them; finally when must this questioning take place?
While it is true that post-production is a decisive moment, we also noted that we could not forget the work that takes place earlier in the production process, i.e. everything included under the term "sound recording". This term tends to erase the staging with which it is correlated. We added that this issue could not be solved just by delegating it to a specialist, i.e. a sound recorder, for the simple reason that the choices are not always implicit. Even more, this function represents a true place of creation which is not enough thought about, a place where form is created, where content is selected and organised. Consequently, we said that this operation is part of the process of staging and film direction.
In the simple operation of filming a person in the process of speaking, freedom of movement is not evenly distributed. If it is understood that the audio must transmit the speech in the best possible quality, the image can take its liberty and dispose of the distance necessary to raise the questions, how can we look at this person, what shall we reveal of the subject. This liberty taken with the image seems to arise from an implicit authorisation given to the image to detach itself from the speaking subject, a position particular to a photography based art. Thus an ordering in the distribution of tasks appears: if the image is free, it is because the sound is "constrained".

To describe this further, we have to return to what we designated as a model of conception, to the assumptions and basics we share and work with: the conditions of our perception.
How do we hear? For it is by observing what engages our attention that we will find the effective tools to produce a desire to listen.
When we record, we hope from the outset that the mike will pick up everything and that this everything will represent what we heard. But what did we hear? Did all of the subjects present hear the same thing? Is this hearing doubtlessly unquestionable? Do we have the right tools to capture, as we would wish, what actually happened? Let us understand by that, will the tools we are using for this purpose reproduce for us the sound object we expect to find?
For on listening to the recording, we are often disappointed. It restitutes something unrecognised, a sort of deviation from the lived experience...
The reason is simple. When I am facing the world, I look for the elements I desire to hear and my relationship to the world is permanently engaged in a choice. When I am plunged in a sound space, I am attentive to everything that emerges around me, to be sure that these elements are not dangerous or harmful to the animal I am. If a sound indicates danger, I protect myself... In listening, the indication of a danger is more important than any discourse, i.e. the listening of protection is always stronger than the listening of desire... What emerges before me? Like the animal, I am protective of my territory... If I observe that all danger is clear, I forget the incident and can return to the desired object. If the sound produced excites my curiosity, I will listen to it, but this liberty is established posterior to the act of protection.

Permanently our hearing is torn in a desired progression between what interests me in the world around me – that's what thinking about the Real is – and whatever emerges to sweep this desired progression away, overwhelming me sometimes (the sound level reaches a point where I can no longer hear; that is the limit of my hearing...).

Thus the question of choice is formidably difficult. What did the microphone pick up? What I heard is drowned in the ambiance because the microphone assembles at the same time and at their multiple levels of presence everything that emits soundwaves in the surrounding area. It does not have the faculty of discriminating between the components of the total sound, whereas the listener in a very short time forgets the surrounding sound scene to focus on the detail she or he has chosen to listen to. But if, when I listen to the recording, I perceive that what I have obtained has nothing to do with the experience I lived, then what becomes apparent, and which is much worse, is that within the recording I can no longer distinguish what I want to hear in the recorded scene.
This is why we have to organise the presence value of what we want people to hear, we have to organise a path of restitution for the listener, a "presented to hear". And to do that, we have to choose and design the sound scene simultaneously with the emergence and disappearance of sound elements. That is what recording direct sound for film is all about.

But how can we choose?

We all know the tools for picking up sound, lavalier mikes, directional mikes... They are used to tighten the zone of sound capture. In a wide shot offering many things to see and in which the eye moves around, we can draw attention, thanks to these tools, to specific events. If we want to limit the space by reducing the cone of sensitivity, everything which exists behind the mike nonetheless is recorded after bouncing off the walls. What is emitted behind the mike remains audible even if the level is attenuated. No microphone is completely capable of isolating a sound zone in space. Even with a directional mike, I pick up the entire sound ambiance of the place revealing at the same time its acoustics. Consequently, when I record a sound, I determine a relation between a sound-producing element and the space of its environment. I cannot think that I am recording only objects, I am recording relations. In what relation will I pick up an element? Is the most important the fat, round sounding voice with the fine timbre which allows me to forget the rest, or is the rest important and what relationship does it have with the voice? It varies and I will have to choose, constantly decide.

But how to choose during the shoot?

Not everything can be decided at this point, that's for sure. That's when it can be justified to push things back to postproduction. It is then possible to consider the direct sound as simply an indication, a testimonial, and redo everything from the top; or, on the contrary, clean up what has been recorded, take out what we do not want heard. This is the origin of the idea that the soundtrack is a space where things can be "fixed up"... And it's true that fixing and improvising repair-work is possible. But the a posteriori fixing effects the whole of the take... For if it's always possible to insert new sounds, you cannot remove the ambiance behind a conversation or modify the levels.
Doesn't the sound of places, the soundspace, indicate something additional: the social nature of space... If all you desire to hear is the content of the speech, you just need the proximity of HF mikes. But to the nature of the recorded object can be added a point of view placed near the recorded object. This is the equivalent in the image of a tight shot. Do we desire to hear tight shots, close ups whatever the nature of the shot?

Last year, I showed an excerpt from a film directed by Jean-Pierre Duret which interested us because of the method he used. His experience as a sound recorder (with Pialat, Dardenne, Des Pallières, Nicole Garcia, Agnès Jaoui, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, etc.) gave him the liberty to consider his methods with some distance and to imagine different conditions of shooting for his own film-making. He frames his image once he has decided his strategy for recording the sound. Instead of previously choosing a point of view on a character or a situation and then constructing a sound recording strategy submitted to the constraints of the image, he reverses priorities. First of all he determines his point of hearing; it depends on the place from which he desires to hear the scene that he sets up his frame... "It is from the point of hearing that I make the audience see." He works alone, recording sound and image together with a mini DV camera to which is connected a stereo pair of mikes. He chooses a soundspace, decides on a focal length then does the focus. He decides on what he wants us to see in relation to what he wants us to hear. This is an example of a new attitude: that of thinking the point of view on the basis of the point of hearing.

Return to listening.

It is fundamental to understand that the microphone does not capture what we hear. This is the basis on which we must rethink audio. This implies a single strategy to construct sound in cinema: we are obliged to reconstruct the Real, deconstruct it to reconstruct it, rebuild to designate with clarity. As the mike offers us too much, we have to establish strategies of loss. To cast off the excess that it proposes. For when the sound is recorded, it is no longer possible for our brain to separate the audio components gathered in too great a number on the recording, we have lost our power of separation compared with what we were able to do in the Real. Organising the sounds of a film involves trying to counteract the loss of separating power linked to the restitution of the sound take within an overall system of perception. This obliges us to decide to select a method, or to invent one that will allow us to bring out more acutely what we choose to make audible.
At this moment, we are generally far from being in an ideal situation. And faced with the habits of dominant practice, what should we choose:
- should we allow the mike to pick up direct sound? We must understand that the result of this inscription is revealed suddenly to the public as a given object, a form in itself, and it is the dominant form that we confuse, given its ubiquity, with our perception of the Real.
- or should we totally reconstruct the sound?
Deciding that a mike will pick up the direct ambiance is deciding a dominant form of screenwriting just as using an HF determines a particular framing of the sound in a certain format that will have repercussions on the form and colour of the global sound.

If we define a soundspace, we determine a way of listening. What way of listening is defined by the HF mike? In real life, when do we find ourselves at that distance from a voice? At the moment we are extremely close to the person. We place the voice with the proximity of the intimate, indeed of a confession. It is incredible to hear in some fiction films, people swearing at each other with the voices of the intimate, even if it is true that there is a certain intimacy in a shouting match! What we discover here is that technological choices create meaning at places where directors are hardly conscious of it and where people believe in technology as a kind of absolute...

Habits dominate consciousness; a kind of collective agreement on the representation of sound in cinema, through infinite repetition, has become a kind of dogma. We believe that the sound offered to us most of the time "is" the sound of the Real; we think: "that it is what I would have heard from this point". "It's the truth because it's what we've always heard in a film." And this form has become a representative convention in the language of sound, recognised and accepted by all as the "sound of the shot". Yet if we listen to the sound of a shot produced in 1929, 1970 and 2007, we can see an evolution in the forms and values of audio representation.

What is essential to note here, is the appearance of the historical nature of sound in cinema. A history of the recording and representation of voices, sounds and music has appeared, even if it is not often seen and understood as such. If we want to think about the history of sound forms, we have to speak of the reasons which organise its content.
The content is also, and in all ways, linked to the progress of technology, to the birth of new tools: the sudden arrival of a portable tape recorder allowed the cinema to enter spaces in which, previously, recording had not been possible. But we were then suddenly confronted with the question of the acoustics of these spaces. It took a certain number of years to choose a solution, until the arrival of lavalier mikes which allowed us to record at close quarters without having the mike visible in the frame. The desire not to be limited to tight shots and close ups created the necessity to hide the mikes, allowing us to widen the frame.
In this way, audio in cinema is created when everything else has been done. I do not imagine that people are not conscious of the fact, but the recording of sound is often carried out by default. Creating sound in cinema is too often organised as a last minute rush to save what can be saved. Even in a fiction film, where there is time for rehearsal and time to place the mikes, this notion of working as if we had to save things at the last minute remains commonplace.

Playing with sound

Finally doing sound in cinema means organising the conditions of the progress of events in time and space. It also means organising the progress of the particular ways the material exists.

We have to try to maintain a consciousness of details within the whole, discern that which, from the direct, belongs to the space, to acoustics, to distance, to residuals, to background noise; but also to the sounds themselves, their nature, their plasticity, because in the end, all sound refers back to its material quality which is linked to the nature of its source. If all sound comes from an object being either struck or rubbed, it is born of an event under way which confronts energies and masses within volumes. We must finally perceive that each one of these elements is a variable.
So, if I produce sounds for a film, I cannot simply cull sounds in a sound library; I will have to, like in the theatre, choose and record specifically for each event the sound I wish to place. If I want this scene to be deaf, I will have to organise things so that my vision of the world is deaf at the moment the sound is recorded. I will organise "deafness". We cannot simply satisfy ourselves with a simple correction inserted on the console at the moment of the mix. I will have to think and organise a way of capturing a deaf audition of the world. The question can be deducted: how can we play with sounds alone? Violently? Will they come from afar? Will they already be there? What is their progress over time? What is the mode of existence of this simple sound?
It is based on these questions that the work of cinema is carried out, in those little spaces, in this almost nothing. Because our ear is an instrument which picks up almost nothing. Our ear works at this scale, that of the extreme nuance, it is here that the intelligence of listening is located.
So when we record a voice-over, it is not simply a question of giving someone a text and having them articulate correctly. Entering the world of sound means discerning finely among the elements, discovering the variables and playing them wittingly one against the other. Making things audible is a way of building a complicity with the other at the place where sound touches the spirit, indeed where the spirit becomes word.
At this place decisions are to be made which will shift the destiny of a film. These decisions often are beyond the filmmaker's control. Yet we cannot say that in the cinema, there's no work on the sound. On the contrary, there's a hell of lot of work. The only problem is that people constantly work on the same variables. How many times have we heard film directors say: "for me, the sound is essential!" Unfortunately, the directors delegate, telling themselves "there's a guy on the sound who knows how to do this and we'll hire a great sound editor". They must finally understand that this is not good enough because the area of creation is also and above all in the field of sound. And if there is an advance in cinema, it is not in terms of the tools, but in the creation of sound, in its qualities. The director must choose, determine, it is up to her or him to decide and not hand the decision down to someone else. For there are choices of writing, form, esthetics, fundamental choices which can be of a thousand kinds and which have profound effects, for the soundspace is a major area where the perceptible is shared.


Coordination : Daniel Deshays, Julien Cloquet


Guests : Extrait du séminaire 2006 « Territoires du sonore », coordonné par Daniel Deshays. L’intégralité est publiée dans La Revue documentaire, été 2007.

Remerciements à Brice Cannavo et Tomas Matauko.