A Symphony of Tracks: Opera for the Rest of Us
As an opera fan―as well as a film fan―I am looking forward to the day when someone reconfigures the music of Nino Rota (The Godfather trilogy) and Bernard Herrmann (various Hitchcock films) for the operatic stage.
Both these giants of film music tried their hand at stage opera, but without much success: their best work was for soundtracks. That great work needs to be featured—front and center.
Film composers don’t get the respect they deserve from the music establishment. Sure, film critics appreciate what they do, but film composers never have the chance to be compared with their contemporaries who wrote traditional forms of music. Only when their work is seen in the context of the opera hall, where it can go head-to-head with the music of traditional composers, will it be appreciated for its genius.
As you learned from the reading assignment for this lesson, the basic components of the soundtrack are dialogue, effects, and music. Before we get into the details of how sound is added to a movie, though, let’s take a quick look at the historical role that music has played in theatre.
Nineteenth-century melodrama was so named because there was nearly constant background music. Theatre people had rediscovered the importance of music in the dramatic equation. The connection between music and drama goes back to the Greeks. And even though Shakespeare didn’t write melodramas, there’s almost always a song or two to break the action.
Shortly after the power of music in theatre was rediscovered, the music people realized the further drama that dialogue could add to their art, and the tradition of opera began to develop. (A side note: when music people do drama, it’s called opera; when drama people do music, it’s called melodrama.)
For more than 300 years, the music people were winning the "contest." Grand opera was the ultimate theatrical/musical art—at least, until the birth of the sound film. It was here, in opera, that all the arts came together: poetry, painting, music, drama, sculpture, lighting—you name it, opera used it. The result was an unsurpassed, transcendent emotional experience.
Then came film. Puccini yielded to Griffith. Within a few years, film could do everything opera could, and more. Because it was recorded, it could add locations and montage to the grand calculus of musical entertainment. (However, it wasn’t performed live―a crucial fact that has allowed hundreds of opera houses to still survive and thrive.)
In many ways, film music (and the images that it accompanies) has become the mainstream version of opera. Hence the title of this section―"Opera for the Rest of Us." It may not be performed live, and film and opera are of course different things. But it is interesting to note how much this powerful new art, much like opera, still depends on the ancient art of music for its full emotional effect.
Hollywood films have exploited the remarkable power of music ever since 1927's The Jazz Singer (“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”). Indeed, it’s hard to find a film―domestic or foreign, studio or independent―that doesn’t use music. It’s so common we don’t think about it. There was a period during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when a new generation of filmmakers eschewed the ever-present music track. In films like Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Easy Rider (1969), there was a minimum of music, and what there was, was rooted in the film. Then came John Williams’s score for Star Wars in 1977 and Hollywood was back on track—at least as far as constant music went.
What’s more, the people who are responsible for creating film music are artists as gifted as the creators of operas. Is there any doubt that great film composer, such as Miklòs Rosza, Max Steiner, and Franz Waxman, wouldn’t have been writing operas if they hadn’t written film scores? Film scores often define pictures, and composers are often thought of in conjunction with the directors with whom they’ve worked. Hitchcock would have been a very different director if it wasn’t for Bernard Herrmann’s striking scores. What would George Lucas and Steven Spielberg be without John Williams? Nino Rota was an essential collaborator for Federico Fellini. (Rota also wrote two traditional operas, neither of which comes close to his haunting scores for 8 1/2 or La Dolce Vita.)
So now that we recognize the importance of sound and music in film, both historically and currently, let’s take a look at how the aural tapestry is put together.
Dialogue—and sometimes even music—can be recorded on the set at the same time the picture is recorded. But both can also be recorded long after. Sound effects are almost always added afterwards. Even if dialogue is recorded at the time of shooting, it can be replaced or added to later. Often, the music score isn’t even written until shooting has started and the composer can see what’s going on in the story.
On set, the main sound person is the sound recordist. He is the one in charge of making sure that all those lines of dialogue, and the subtle verbal nuances with which the actors deliver them, are captured perfectly. The sound recordist has almost as difficult a job as his visual companion, the cinematographer—he just has less help doing it. (In fact, he’s lucky if he has a boom mic operator on staff.)
Then, of course, there is the composer. As we’ve stated, many movies are as easily identified by the composer who scored them as by the director who crafted them. The composer’s job is to create a musical picture that goes hand-in-hand with the visual one on-screen. Often, composers will watch the still unfinished film and create themes and music that match the moods of the film and the actions of the characters. They can also base ideas on the tone and feelings communicated in the film’s script.
Once the filming wraps, and the post-production phase begins, the rest of the sound work starts. Many times, a film will need certain lines of dialogue to be re-recorded, or lines of rewritten script to be inserted. To guide this process, there is an ADR supervisor (ADR stands for "additional dialogue replacement," or dubbing) who oversees the re-recording of dialogue while the voice talent is watching the picture and speaking their lines, trying to get the two to match.
There is also the Foley artist, otherwise known as the sound effects person. The Foley artist re-creates sound effects on a Foley stage, using different kinds of shoes to create sounds on a variety of textured floors, or pits. These pits are filled with things like tile, sand, grass and leaves, wood flooring, and even water. The Foley artist walks in certain pits to simulate appropriate sounds. Props are also used to create sounds. Snapping celery sticks can simulate the sound of breaking bones. Rattling belt buckles and banging wood blocks can simulate a horse’s saddle and hooves. The Foley artist can replace original sounds completely or augment existing sounds to create a richer track.
The sound editor enters the picture when the time comes to take both stock and original sound effects, and edit and manipulate them to match the action on the screen. The sound editor has perhaps an easier job than the film editor. Why? Because the visual montage has to be set down before the sound edit can be added, so the sound editor only has to follow the rough cut of the picture.
Once all of these elements―the musical score, the fine-tuned dialogue, and the dramatic sound effects―have been crafted, the work of the sound mixer begins. The sound mixer combines sound effects, dialogue, and music―and often, numerous tracks of each―into one uniform mix in which each of the three has its place without drowning out the other two. Dialogue tends to be the most important of the three and is usually left in the center channel, while effects and music more often use the left and right channels.
Unlike the picture track, the soundtrack is mixed, or layered. This results often in a much denser set of significances than we find on the image track (even when the image track is heavily edited). At the top level, the soundtrack combines dialogue, music, and sound effects. But each of these three can itself be multi-tracked. It’s common now for music to be recorded on 24-track systems. Dialogue, too, can be layered—although it has a direct tie to the single-image track. And effects can be slathered on until you are satisfied: first a little room sound; then make that door hinge creak; finally, let’s sweeten the dialogue with a little echo.
When a sound mixer is working on a film with surround sound with six or seven active speakers, the number of potential tracks in the mix can easily exceed 100.
The dialogue and effects connect directly to the picture track, but the music track is usually entirely separate. (Would that our real lives had a music track! You’d know how to feel, you’d know what was about to happen…you’d have a tune to remember for every event!)
In recent years, sound artists have been getting a lot more credit on the screen. It used to be that the recordist and the sound editor were the only ones credited. But for the last 20 years (as credit rolls have lengthened dramatically), other sound artists have been getting screen credit, including the ADR supervisor and the Foley artist. We noticed in Lesson 1 that the sound effects person has become a star in Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show. Although they get less credit, sound artists should also be regarded as stars in feature films.
Although they each get Oscars, there isn’t a sound person in Hollywood who is as celebrated as the average cinematographer. As Rodney Dangerfield would say, they just don’t get no respect. That’s why it’s so important that we spend some time examining the role of sound and music and celebrating the work of the artists who create it. We now know just how critical and involved their craft truly is.