Sound is all around us. We cannot see it, nor can we smell it. Most importantly, though we cannot touch sound, we can still feel it. Of course we all know early films did not have sound in terms of audible dialogue. Not until the technological revolution of film allowed for sound and movement to be recorded simultaneously do we begin to witness how sound can further manipulate our film viewing experience. Many experiments with sound can be researched when considering how sound influences our viewing experience, but for the purpose of this assignment, we will focus on three: What effect does omitting all sound during the viewing have? What impact does having full sound, but no images evoke? And finally, what observations can be made when watching a film with the original soundtrack, images, but no character dialogue?
To begin our investigation, we must choose a film to explore the relationship between sound and movement. There are countless excellent examples where sound is a critical element in the film’s composition. Some films are more dependent on sound than others. Therefore, a film heavily reliant on dialogue sound, musical accompaniment, and sound effects to advance the plotline may provide the best example to analyze the differences between a film saturated by sound, the same film with sound omitted, then finally with sound altered. Action has always been a fundamental theme throughout many different movie styles. In the genre of Sci-fi/Fantasy, action is almost synonymously connected to the film type, so much that it becomes difficult to have one without the other. Therefore, The Fifth Element (1997) should offer a perfect specimen to examine the correlation between sound and motion within a genre of film heavily dominated by it.
The film is based around the battle between good and evil. We learn within the first opening scenes that the movie’s universe operates on a cycle system. Every five thousand years a great evil returns to destroy all life. The only weapon to defeat evil consists of four stones which each represent one of the four elements; earth, wind, fire and water. These four stones act together with a fifth element, a young women named Leeloo, to defend all life against evil. The story follows a ex-military soldier, Korben Dallas, who gets thrust into the plot when the newly re-generated, Leeloo, literally falls into his cab as he is taking the car to be serviced. With some assistance from the military, the two travel together to an arranged meeting to recieve the stones as Leeloo continues to learn English and about the last five thousand years she has missed. The whole time being pursued by the agent of evil, Gary Oldman’s character; a band of alien mercenaries further complicate the storyline as the quest to defend life against evil continues. After Leeloo is injured and then saved by Korben, she continues to study history alphabetically as they race to the temple where the weapon must be activated before evil stands there. She reaches “w”, and learns of the many wars that took place as she slept, she loses her faith in life being worth saving. Bruce Willis’ character, Korben eventually convinces Leeloo that love is why life is worth saving and the weapon is switched on at the very last possible second before evil reaches the the temple.
The first method was without any sound. The most immediate observation was how amazing the cinematography is. The opening scenes are filmed so effectively that even without sound, we can still understand the seriousness of the situation. But, from having watched the movie before, a comedic line when the Professor asks the aliens (Mondoshawan) if they are German is lost to the absence of dialogue sound. We can ask the question, would the joke have the same impact with an “intertitle” (line board), like in a silent movie? What about when translated and transcribed as a subtitle? Probably not, but it would prevent us from missing the joke completely. But with only images the audience is not aware of the joke’s existence. If we choose to keep score, sound vs motion, its 1-0.
A second observation, a more comprehensive examination of the creative and special effects used during filming can be had without sound. This includes the many props, costumes, cosmetic designs, scenic and special effects. Without the distraction of sound, the focus on these visual details is amplified. The film uses a unique blend of computer generated effects and high quality traditional set designs. Without sound, it is possible to further identify the seams where technologies of real world set construction and computer generated effects are blended into one scene. On the other side of the spectrum, the absence of sound highlights some of the limitations of the technology at that time. Due to the enhanced attention to detail, more focus is placed on small faults in special effects; an example is the clearly etched-out glass area where Lee Loo punches through to unlock the re-generation chamber/reactor. A detail previously noticed, but considered less significant with audio present. The sound pulls focus away from minuscule special effect failings like the pre-etched glass. The score now becomes tied at 1-1.
The next method of viewing was with sound, but no images. Immediately there is a much different feeling with sound. The first major observation is the feeling of being entertained. When the film was viewed without sound, the images received more focus, but from the extra work required to interpret the progression of the story, it felt more like work than play. There is definitely a lower entertainment factor with images alone. The foley artists that worked on the film represented the movements and actions with sound effectively within the movie. A clear understanding of the progression of the actions is easily visualized as a result. The film could be aired as a radio program, increasing the significance of sound.
With the addition of a beautifully composed soundtrack, the second method of viewing was observed to be the favorite. Having seen the movie before, a very accurate imagining of the visual aspects of the film can be maintained, this result may differ when watching a previously unseen film with only sound. Without ever seeing the film, we might not appreciate the sound Gary Oldman’s characters bizarre looking futuristic boots make while he walks to his meeting with the Mangalores. Music is played throughout the majority of the film’s running time. An original soundtrack provides a special exclusive audio feeling unique to this film. While not having the images does allow for the potential of confusing certain sounds, it does not feel absolutely essential to being entertained. After watching this movie with sound, it is concluded that sound is essential to be sufficiently entertained by the film. Images help, but do not eliminate the work-like feeling of not having sound. One point is awarded, 2-1 for sound.
The final viewing method was the strangest, but oddly enjoyable at the same time. Watching the images with no audio dialogue, but with the official soundtrack album, made it feel as though the credits should be rolling at the same time; or possibly like the movie had been edited into a tribute for production members. Track 1 on the soundtrack “Little light of Love” happens to be the last song played on the film. But, the second and third tracks, “Mondonshawan”, and “Timecrash” match almost perfectly to the corresponding scene in the movie. That is where any actual link between the soundtrack and movie ends. This deviation between the film and the soundtrack creates some very comical moments, when a serious moment in the film occurs during a light-hearted musical interlude, the result can be quite humorous; or vice versa between a funny moment and a serious musical selection. But, overall the soundtrack actually matches the movie quite well, possibly because the soundtrack tends to use rearrangements of similar tunes throughout various tracks. Often there is a soundtrack tune that applies to at least one character in any scene from the movie. Though reggae-inspired music plays during Leeloo’s escape from the reactor, this a prime example of when a serious scene becomes humorous. Sound and motion are equally matched in the third method.
In conclusion, this experience has brought forth a central theme, sound. Specifically how its absence or presence directly affects the focus of a film. The first example showed us how visual effects can be accentuated through the omission of all sound, yet how the entertainment factor goes down. The second method shows us how a good soundtrack and sound techniques make the visual almost expendable, yet ultimately desirable. The third method created an odd nostalgic feeling that seemed like it belonged to a “favorite scenes from the movie” collection video on Youtube. If asked to pick just one method, The third actually has the most to offer, but which method would best help understand the movie, the second method would have to be selected. And finally the score, 3-2 for sound. In this experiment with viewing tactics, sound has proven to be a very important element in where the audience’s focus is enhanced, distributed, modified and concentrated. Though a different perspective is allowed by the elimination of sound, its absence is ultimately required to intensify the quality of the entertainment experienced.