What’s in a noise?

In certain arenas of live theatre, one thing still exists; the need for the “illusion”. The boundaries on this have become skewed more in recent times, with more “interactive” stage performances, but more often than not some basic rules still apply.

To an actor of a period drama, sit-com or the like, such things as being seen off-stage in costume, or making eye contact with a member of the audience (a big no-no- the bubble of detachment is immediately burst) are very undesirable. This is primarily so that the viewer can be drawn away from the real world and into the imaginary plot of the production; otherwise, where is the escapism, and how is the imagination entertained?

The same is true of cinematic productions. Such basic faux-pas as microphones being in-shot, a mobile phone being left on the table of an 18th. Century blockbuster (yes, it really did happen!) transform many millions of pounds’ worth of effort into a laughing stock quicker than someone can say “cut!”. The bubble is burst, and credibility is lost.

The best things often go unnoticed.

There is, in certain productions, a pecking order, if you will, of expenditure. One would have thought that the same amount of attention to detail would be applied across every discipline to ensure that none of the above happens. One of the most dedicated proponents of this was the late “Cubby” Broccolli, who said that every pound that was spent on the production should be visible on the screen. I would say he succeeded, and observe that one of the hallmarks of the Bond films generally is that they were more immune from many of the traps of the moviemaker’s art such as bad lighting (of some very tricky sets in this case) and a very high standard of “Foley” work, the application post-production of sounds, and of course of music.

The more one doesn’t notice these things, the better they are; watch an early Bond film and it’s way ahead of its time in these details alone. There is one exception – the Mercedes 600 briefly used in Diamonds Are Forever has suddenly acquired a six-cylinder motor instead of a V8, and the Triumph Stag has suddenly lost its sweet V8 engine too, and is now a Triumph Herald.

Pecking order

Unfortunately, not everyone was, or is, as thorough as they could be. Even productions made now can fall victim to some terrible gaffes, and one has to ask the question, how did that get through? The answer is in the pecking order, as I put it, of expenditure.

In an ideal world, any cinematic or TV production should be planned well enough by the producers for the right money to be invested in the right areas at the right time. In reality, this is quite often not the case. Someone somewhere will be tempted to cut costs and increase profits and/or simply forget about something.

One area where this happens the most is music and sounds. You’d be surprised how many composers have drawn the short straw over the years, presented with the rushes to something with the message to create a whole production’s worth of incidental music or sound effects within even a few days, because they’ve been underestimated and forgotten about. This could be nothing more sinister than human nature in play, where for example, the director has little grasp of, or interest in, this area. But sometimes it shows, and there’s really no excuse for that.

One of the more obvious examples of this is in the 2003 remake of the Italian Job. Take an expensive cast including Donald Sutherland, Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron, strong cinematography across several continents, and then edit it with glaring mistakes sound-wise. Okay, I do confess to being a nerd in this area, but a Subaru-engined Mini Cooper, and (my personal favourite) a generic Japanese in-line four-cylinder bike engine substituted over a uniquely sonorous and distinctive Ducati V-Twin? “Sacrilegio!” they must have cried in Borgo Panigale.

Other more recent rotten tomatoes contenders for sound own-goals include Heartbeat (American phone ringtone), Endeavour, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (both using V-8 engined Jaguars, a Mk.1 and an E Type respectively), both of which didn’t exist. There’s also the Audi S8 in John Frankenheimer’s otherwise excellent action movie Ronin, which seems to have lost a couple of cylinders from its V8 engine. The list goes on and on. Perhaps in the case of Ronin it sounded too similar to the Mercedes 450SEL 6.9 also used in the same set-piece (also a V8) because otherwise the details are reasonably accurate.

I believe that one reason this can happen nowadays more than before is that any sound engineer will have a cache of sampled sounds within their studio, to be copied and pasted with little effort. But please producers, try and keep the distractions to a minimum, so that we, the viewers, can be immersed in your stories without being jolted out of our escapism too much.

Motif and misdirection

Of course, there are also many movies that are adorned with an exquisite music and sound production, and when done just right, it genuinely enhances the experience of the audience.

A great soundtrack can steer us through the story, evoking a broad range of emotions including empathy, fear, anger, joy, laughter and so on. It can also be used as a form of misdirection to create shock and surprise. A perfect example of this, is the penultimate scene from the 1970’s horror movie Friday the 13th, which cunningly combines the tranquillity of a lake with a serene musical passage; then suddenly– pow! It’s one you really have to watch!

Iain at the mixing desk in Pinewood Studio One  where all of the Bond films were mixed.
Image: Iain pictured at the mixing desk in Pinewood Studio One where all of the Bond films were mixed.

Going back to Bond, the custodians of this now great “institution” genuinely understand the relationship between the sound and visual components of the film. Without wishing to appear biased, the Bond movies have always been blessed with talent in all areas, including having one of the greatest production designers of all time, Sir Ken Adam, whom I had the immense privilege of interviewing shortly before he died.

The Bond theme was written by Monty Norman, but it was arranged by the late great John Barry, starting with Dr No in 1964. Barry was a masterful composer and arranger, who scored eleven of the bond movie soundtracks, in addition to a long list of hugely successful movies during his glittering career. With the Bond movie scores, he made perfect use of the leitmotif – a musical theme synonymous with the character – in this case a snippet of Monty Norman’s theme. Sub-consciously we anticipate the appearance of 007, creating a certain dynamic within the experience – we expect that something is about to happen!

That in essence is the very fine balance between purity and missing the mark. Attention to detail across ALL disciplines in stories is paramount (no pun intended), in the internet age more than ever to satisfy an ever-more knowledgeable, discerning and informed audience.

The end
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay
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