If we break down a modern film sound track into its component parts, traditionally we’d have three indispensable units: dialog, music, and effects. Each of these elements can be further sub-divided into types of dialog (voice-over narration or diegetic speech), music (source or score), and effects (footfalls, gunfire, or ambiences). But there’s a fourth component that often goes unnoticed, mainly because of its muted presence on the sound track. I am talking about silence. As filmmakers and audiences continue to complain that modern films are too loud, relying on heavy doses of ear-splitting passages to convey the intensity of an action sequence or dramatic moment, it’s worth noting some impressive forays into sonic silences.
Walter Murch has stated on occasion that today’s films risk overloading digital sound tracks with too much sonic information in a way that can lead to muddy, incomprehensible, and unnecessarily loud passages. For example, with up to eight loudspeaker channels to fill on an SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound) track, sound editors and mixers (along with some directors and producers) can become greedy. A simple dialog sequence between two characters in a park can turn ugly if the ambiences of the park are amplified to such an extent that the characters’ words are competing with the breathing sounds of nearby squirrels or the tweeting sparrows that flutter past the camera. But are the birds and other ambiences really necessary to the main conversation?
In 1979, Murch pioneered the use of the modern multichannel sound track with his work on Apocalypse Now, where he very much designed the ways in which sound moved around the theater space. In the film’s hellish combat sequences, Murch incorporated the split-surround channels to convey the spacious geography of the battle. But in other sequences, where we are plunged into the mind of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), Murch shrunk the sound space down to one channel (the center channel) to literally “focus” the audience’s attention on one or two distinct sounds. Just as a camera operator focuses on narratively pertinent objects, the sound designer can accomplish the same goals with the manipulation of our modern multichannel sound space.
Now, very few films have attempted what Murch accomplished in 1979. To this date Apocalypse Now still feels experimental. But the principles outlined by Murch — which he discusses in Michael Ondaatje’s The Conversations — have influenced a generation of Hollywood sound practitioners. One such principle applies to the use of silence in sound cinema. Writing on the interrogation scene in The English Patient, Ondaatje notes:
When Caravaggio says, “Don’t cut me,” the German pauses for a second, a flicker of disgust on his face. We see the look on the German. And now we know he has to do what he was previously just thinking about. To emphasize this, Murch, at that very moment, pulls all the sound out of the scene, so there is complete silence. And we, even if we don’t realize it as we sit in the theatre, are shocked and the reason is that quietness.
Interestingly, Murch has said that he makes a conscious effort to find a moment of silence in all of his films, where the “shock” of it will resonate more than any sound effect could. The shock of silence in modern movies is due, in many respects, to its foreignness on the sound track. There’s a certain discomfort that comes with a silent sound track. In life, we’re surrounded by noise emiting from our environment, televisions, personal stereos, and other media outlets including the movies. When that noise is silenced, there’s a good chance that something has gone wrong. Imagine the street traffic outside your window ceases and you’re left with the thin sound of the wind and the beating of your own heart.
As television commercials are growing increasingly louder than the programs they sponsor, it’s downright eerie when an ad opts for a sparse sound track, devoid of any loud music stings or portentous voice-overs. I can say the same thing for movie trailers. When was the last time a trailer impressed you with moments of relative silence?
Obviously, the shock of silence is only effective when used in conservative amounts. Gary Rydstrom — who designed the sound for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, among others — believes that effective sound design begins with contrasts:
But it’s also about how frequencies work together. There’s a trick to making a gunshot big using multiple layers of elements. You take the high snap of a pistol and add to it the low boom of a cannon and the midrange of a canyon echo. You orchestrate it. On an Ã¼ber scale then, we do that to the whole soundtrack, making sounds work together.
For a sound to be perceived as loud, it makes sense to sandwich it between quiet sounds. For instance, there’s a wonderful moment of shock in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster when Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) threatens Tango outside the diner by pointing a .45 pistol at his head. We’re unsure if Frank — who stands stone-faced — will actually shoot Tango in broad daylight, in the middle of a busy street corner. Scott focuses the camera on Frank as he makes up his mind, even though Tango is slightly visible at the left side of the frame. Frank hears enough from the insolent thug and fires the pistol at his head. The gunshot is noticeably louder than any other sound in the scene — richly detailed and sharply defined. It’s startling because Frank actually murders Tango in cold blood, but also because of the hyper-real sound of the gun firing. Scott and his sound crew force the audience to listen intently as Frank stands in silence before upsetting the balance with an unusually loud gun shot effect. It’s a stylized move from Scott to intensify the drama of that moment, when Frank becomes a feared figure in Harlem.
Rydstrom’s concept of contrasts dovetails nicely with Murch’s notion of sonic silence. The contrast from loud to quiet can be intense, as Murch demonstrated with the interrogation scene in The English Patient. Slowly, Murch builds suspense by pulling sounds out. It’s subtle and doesn’t last for too long, but long enough to register a sense of discomfort and eeriness. In some sense, sonic silences constitute the uncanny, that which is unfamiliar and unsettling. By pulling sound out of a scene we are faced with an otherwise “unrealistic” situation: by all accounts we should be able to hear what the characters are saying and what their natural environment sounds like. In this way, the rules of sound cinema are violated and we are plunged into an unfamiliar sonic environment.
Silence can be thought of as a type of sound. It’s like when somebody years ago figured out that zero was a number. And silence is just as valid as an amazing sound. Every sound editor can’t help but think of how to fill up a track; it’s what we’re paid for.
Because of its ability to distance the audience from the narrative, most filmmakers avoid complete silences. In many cases silence can be achieved through what Michel Chion has called the silence around the single instrument. If we think of an orchestral solo, the entire orchestra is silent except for the lone soloist whose sound fills the entire hall. With film, the solo instrument can be a single sound effect played through one loudspeaker channel, while the others remain empty (or simply carry the reverb of the solo effect).
The T-Rex attack in The Lost World: Jurassic Park offers a fine example of this type of silence. The angry dinos have pushed the research trailer over a cliff, leaving Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Sarah (Julianne Moore), and Nick (Vince Vaughn) dangling inside. Sarah loses her grip on a door handle and falls to the bottom of the trailer, landing on the back window, which slowly begins to crack. She lies motionless as the cracks widen and grow like spiderwebs around her hands and legs. When Spielberg’s camera is on Sarah and the glass, the sound track deadens to a low frequency hum (a combination of music score and effects). On top of this hum is the sound of cracking glass. The glass effects build over time as more and more cracks appear around Sarah’s body. When Spielberg cuts away to Malcolm and Nick, the sound track resumes with other effects that connote the chaotic environment: creaking metal, shouting, and rain ambiences.
Much like the close-ups on the cracking glass, Spielberg’s aural close-ups convey a more immediate sense of danger. As the cracks intensify, their sound grows more heavy: the next one could crack open the entire window! Finally, the tension is released when the mobile phone drops through the window just as Sarah grabs something to hold on to. The final smashing sound is the proverbial crescendo to this mini-sequence.
This is not a pure example of silence, but something we might call “near silence,” where the air around the solo sound is silent. That might sound pretentious but it speaks to the psychological weight of sound in modern cinema. With so many loudspeaker channels and tracks available to sound mixers today, sometimes it’s a single sound surrounded by its own echo that communicates the most information.
Another modern example I find effective is from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. At the end of the film when Munny (Eastwood) is about to kill Little Bill (Gene Hackman) Munny cocks his rifle and takes aim. The sound track deadens and we wait as Bill speaks his dying words. Then, in near silence, we hear Bill inhale for the last time. The sound of his breath — metaphorically, his life — fills the front channels right before the rifle is fired. It is a quiet sound, but one that is surrounded by thick silence. It’s no surprise that pauses during dramatic confrontations sometimes represent the most tense moments, since there is often little to no sonic accompaniment. I’m thinking specifically of Hitchcock’s tense finale to Rear Window when the only rear sound is that of Jeffries’s flashbulbs. Randy Thom’s work on Cast Away (2000) is another case where near-silences dominate entire sequences. When we’re on the island with Chuck (Tom Hanks), the sound of the ocean often fills the empty sonic space to remind us that he isn’t quite alone. He’s immersed in the natural environment, which has its own set of sounds.
So it seems relatively common for filmmakers today to imbue sound tracks with near-silences that focus narrative attention to a solo sound. What about absolute silences? Remarkably, I have encountered very few films that incorporate moments of absolute silence, where even room tone and other “natural” ambiences are stripped from the sound track in favor of an empty track. As I have already suggested, a muted track can potentially distract an audience because of its utter foreignness. We’re just not used to hearing nothing when we go to the movies. Or, perhaps more accurately, we’re not accustomed to hearing the people around us in theater move around in their seats and chew on their popcorn and candy.
One of the more impressive moments of absolute silence occurs in Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator. After Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) has locked himself in his office and he begins to hallucinate, Scorcese pulls the sound of the scene. Hughes is naked, watching his own films on a loop. We stare at Hughes in a medium-long shot and as he sits in his chair the sound track goes mute. Not even the sound of the projector. Not even the sound of Hughes breathing. Nothing. It’s a stark moment because at this point he has sunk so low into depression and sickness that he finally alone. The silence lasts for only a few seconds, but its presence is hard to ignore.
Absolute silence is certainly rare in longer sequences, especially in mainstream movies. It may be an effective dramatic device, but the fear of distraction often trumps aesthetic experimentation.
My last example is a mix between near and absolute silence. It’s hybrid character is unique among Hollywood movies in that it takes an opportunity to underline the importance of sound (or lack thereof) in dramatic situations. Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible includes an impressive sequence within the headquarters of the C.I.A. in Langley, Virginia. Ethan Hunt and his team of operatives must infultrate a secured vault and retrieve a set of computer files. The only problem is that the room is sound and heat sensitive, so any increase in body temperature or noise will set off the alarm.
Ethan must be lowered into the vault — which bears a striking resemblance to the design of several sets in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — and retrieve the hard-disk files without breaking a sweat or making any noise. This becomes even more difficult since he is lowered upside-down and the room temperature must remain below 73 degrees. De Palma and his sound crew take this opportunity to engineer a sequence that unfolds in relative silence. Before entering the vault Ethan tells his team, “From here on in, absolute silence.” We then cut to a close-up of the vent grate being removed and then a close-up of Ethan being lowered down, face first. Following Ethan’s directive, we are treated to the same silence that Ethan experiences in the vault. For a moment there’s a faint hum from the computer terminal, but even this is reduced to a whisper as Ethan continues his descent.
There is some sonic reprieve each time we cut back to Krieger (Jean Reno), who is holding the rope apparatus, and Luther who is in a separate location handling surveillance. Their sound spaces are filled with ambiences and mild effects, while Ethan’s vault space is sonically barren.
Gary Rydstrom recalls working on this scene:
I remember a scene in the first Mission Impossible in which Tom Cruise breaks into a computer room at the CIA, for which we’d added all these sound details for equipment he was using to
lower himself in. Yet the idea was that if he made any sound over a certain level, he would trip the alarm. Brian De Palma ultimately said, â€œNo, take it all out.â€ And for the most part, that scene plays with nothing on the track. I went to see it with an audience and it had the desired effect: It made everyone lean in, pay closer attention, get nervous. Tension comes from the silence of that scene.
I remember watching this sequence in the theater and realizing that in the silence everyone stopped eating and moving. There was stillness for those few moments. Not only was their tension in Ethan’s descent, but also in the audience’s self-consciousness at being exposed. You could hear a kernel of popcorn drop.
It becomes obvious that sound has been pulled from the vault shots when the rope apparatus makes no noise when Ethan is prematurely lifted out. Sound returns to the vault when the C.I.A. employee enters and the chamber is unlocked with a crisp thudding effect. When Ethan gets the data he is pulled up once again, but this time the wires make a distinct noise that was not heard when he lifted earlier. The rope begins to rub against the vent, creating a tearing sound that threatens to cross the sound threshold of the vault security system. To make matters worse, just as Krieger takes the disk from Ethan, he drops a long knife. We follow the knife as it falls through the air — no sound, just a tense sigh from Ethan. The knife hits the desk simultaneously as the C.I.A. employee returns and disarms the alarm. Throughout the sequence, a cluster of problems arise that threaten the security of our protagonists, each tied to the element of sound.
Brian De Palma is no stranger to aesthetic experimentation and innovation (see his use of split-screens throughout the 1970s), and so it doesn’t surprise me that he would try to stretch the extent to which silence can be deployed in a Dolbyized multichannel environment. He does it convincingly by having the silence grow organically from the plot, which lessens the extent to which we can be pulled out of the narrative. It is surprising, however, that all of these techniques are not used more often to pique interest, drive narratives, and communicate meaning. Silence is a powerful sound that does something that no other element of film sound does: it forces the audience to listen more intently to the air between the sounds.