As we know, the film sound design is divided into two main categories.
The first is sound effects design, mostly non-musicals.
The second is film scores composing, in other words, the background music that is written specifically along with a film, mostly musicals.
Film score ought to contain cue tracks. Each track is an individual piece, which will typically be a composition from instruments. Nowadays, a growing number of film scores include a mixture of orchestral and electronic instruments.
The notion of a point of audition can have two meanings:
1. A spatial sense: from where do I hear, from what point in the space represented on the screen or on the soundtrack?
2. A subjective sense: which character, at a given moment of the story, is hearing what I hear? (Chion, 1994)
Sound is indexical in our natural way of listening. Sound conveys time information more accurately than visuals. When sound occurs, an event of material interaction is taking place. Sound fertilises and enhances the visual landscape, makes us able to make an outline of information about the source as well as the cause. In short words, sound reflects the physical reality of the scene, immerses the listener into the world, which makes the environment comes alive.
What is important to the audience is to know what produces the sound and where it comes from.
Diegetic sound is sound whose apparent source is in the space-time continuum of the scene onscreen. Diegetic sound is sound that the film leads us to believe the characters can hear. (Chion, 2009)
For indicating the materiality of the sound source more accurately, the dimensions and distances more precisely, sound effects design has more to be considered.
While some sound effects are recorded while they are produced, most of them are added or created afterwards. Production mixers normally ask that all action cease for a few moments on each location so that they may record the continuous background ambient sound in that space, such as water lapping on shore. Editors will later have to reinsert ambience under dialogue and effects created during postproduction for continuity with production sound. Sounds from disparate sources must be adjusted with tools like equalisers and filters to match and flow seamlessly. Choices of characteristics imparted to the sound in reverberation, pacing, timbre, volume, and mixing of sounds with each other may not only decide our sense of the physical reality of the space, but also suggest a number of feelings, such as loneliness, joys, paranoia and so on.
Reverberation is an essential tool for placing a sound in a space to indicate how far we are from a sound’s source.
You can clarify an element of the plot with sound, or you can make things more ambiguous, which is often what you want to do.
In such close-ups of sound we must be careful, however, to bear in mind the specific nature of sound which never permits sound to be isolated from its acoustic environment as a close-up shot can be isolated from its surroundings.
Music played in a restaurant cannot be completely cut out if a special close-up of say two people softly talking together in a corner is to be shown. The band may not always be seen in the picture, but it will always be heard. The close-up will contain the whole acoustic atmosphere of the restaurant space. Thus we will hear not only the people talking, we will also hear in what relation their talking is to the sounds all round them. We will be able to place it in its acoustic environment. (Weis, 1985)
Sound can heighten realism or it can diminish it. Sound can draw attention to a detail or draw attention away from it. (Sider, 2003)
The microphone is not as selective. The sound designers have to eliminate that unintended cacophony from global for audience.
The camera shoots directly at a ticking clock, we may hear the ticking. But a few seconds after the character looks away, the ticking will be gradually dropped out.
“Inception” is a film that tells a story about inception of idea in dream. The movie itself is a mind altering brainstorm and an intelligent experience. It implants much plot clue using a very good sound design. In fact, it is also a successful aural inception. This is a going through of all the interesting technical points in this film.
The thing that differs “Inception” from the other film is the simultaneous hierarchy architecture. It is common in this film that multilayers of sound happen at the same time in the movie. And in different levels of dream, the audience get different pace of sound.
You can tell somebody what part of the world they are in, depending on what kinds of sound you play.
The basic timeline and plot are based on dream within a dream. Even if the characters are in dreams, we expect them to follow the laws of physics.
The very use of sound in this film is that the sound is used for connecting the different layers of dreaming.
The song used for the “musical countdown” to make the dreaming characters aware of the impending kick is “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf. There are 3 versions of “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien”, which are the original, the slowed version and the super-slowed version.
When time is shifting between the dreams, the original “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” is slowing down and being cross-faded with Zimmer’s score.
When the musical countdown is heard down a level from its origin, it’s slowed down by 300%, and when it passes down another level, it slows by 300% again.
By slowing down “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” by 300%, the sound becomes very similar to the slow horns in “Half Remembered Dream” at the beginning of the film.
When Cobb and Ariadne descend into limbo, without any headphones on to re-adjust the tempo of the music, that same score is heard slowed down by 300%. As Cobb and Ariadne wash up on the shores of Cobb’s subconscious, the loudest and most drawn-out horn section of the entire soundtrack takes place in the end of the score “528491”.
The audience is not the only part involved hearing the slowed score, but so are the characters in the film.
Many different films have made use of first person perspectives. It is just like experiencing life from the first person point of view of Malkovich in the movie “Being John Malkovich (1999)”. The first-person aural perspective has an immense impact on viewing film. The first person perspectives will surely make the audience feel in the characters’ way. The audience hears what exactly the characters hear.
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Since the characters can hear the music with us, the score itself is a hint at what layer of a dream we are viewing. Knowing this, it becomes possible to distinguish between dream and reality by merely hearing the music. The fact that score never dips into the slow droning in the reality level is a pretty good proof that the top level in the movie is indeed reality.
The better-defined film sound became in the high frequency range, the more it induced a rapid perception of what was onscreen. This film has a very good dynamic frequency range. As for low frequency, there is the shaking of the building and the thunder sound. As for high frequency, there is water lapping and the gun shot recording.
Mysterious electronic sound at the beginning implies that it is going to be a very unusual film.
The water lapping and waves sound on shore goes from right to left according to the water flowing on screen. It can be a live record, but more probably is reinserted when post production.
“We Built Our Own World” begins when Cobb is lying on the shore. It provides a strong sense of desolation when Cobb is looking at his children, which means he is not in the reality.
The sound of spinning top is much louder than it should be because the filmmaker wants us to focus on the spinning top but not anything else. Then the spinning sound gradually fades out after switching views.
Recording the background voices in a restaurant where Cobb was having a meal with Saito was a clever way of delivering the idea that they were in a very big building. We can hear low-frequency noise which sounds like the ground that is shaking at the same time. And then it gets louder and louder. All the above information that sound conveys is a clue that they are actually in dreams and lay the groundwork for the building collapse soon after that. Later the audience can hear the shaking sound of the tables and the glasses very clearly. Then the ticking sound of the clock goes faster and faster, which means we are travelling from dream to reality. Without sound, the audience do not even know what is going on. Sound inevitably carries much useful information in this collapsing scene indeed.
The audience can hear background riot voices when there is only inside-house shots taking on, which means these background voices come from the riot people outside. Then we hear a simulated explosion sound which makes us feel we are in the scene.
When Cobb is talking with Mal, we can hear ambience sound of water lapping sound again while we cannot see the shore, which means the shore is right beside the building.
“One Simple Idea” takes place when Cobb is trying to steal an idea from Saito in dream. That is obviously a working theme that calms the audience down and tells the audience that Cobb is in the process of doing something important.
Sound designer should record the building collapsing sound or simulate it in post-production in order to immense the audience into a surround atmosphere of danger. The background music “Dream Is Collapsing” is a magnificent piece that we can feel the dream is in the process of collapsing.
In the gun shot scene, we cannot see the bullet or the fire light but we can hear very loud gunshot so that we know they are firing at each other.
When Cobb is falling into water, it seems that we can hear what Cobb is hearing. Because Cobb is dreaming, so actually he is in two layers of world. In the upper layer dream, we here the water bubble sound when Cobb is drowning into water and water is running into his ears, thus causing a reverberation. But in the dream within a dream, the water is crushing into the building from everywhere, and then we should hear a sound like massive water drop on the ground, which is very similar to waterfall sound. When the scene goes back to drowning Cobb, we hear a pulse with its frequency getting faster and faster, which means he is crossing one dream layer up.
We can hear the sound of a moving train when we see the characters are sleeping and dreaming together, which means in reality they are actually dreaming in a moving train. The sound designer perfectly builds up three layers of world using sound as a clue to the audience, but it is hard for the audience to notice these little clues. Anyway the sound clue will become clear when the audience watch the film a second time. When the dreaming character listens to the music on headphone, the audiences hear “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” as if they are the dreaming character. Again there are two layers of sound at the same time. In the dream layer, the character can only hear a highly filtered version of “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” in a low voice as if someone is whispering beside the ears.
Sound images are often used in the film for the purpose of creating an atmosphere. Just as the film can show visual landscapes, so it can show acoustic landscapes. (Weis, 1985) Sound can describe an acoustic space. (Sider, 2003)
Sometimes sound is simple enough to tell the audience what is happening, we do not need an extra visual image showing the detail. When Cobb drags Saito to the ground, there is no image showing Cobb has loaded the gun, but the audience hear a bullet loaded sound, which means Cobb is threatening Saito and probably he is going to kill Saito if Saito does not tell the secret of his company. That same thing happens again in the scene when Cobb is about to kill himself in dream.
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When Cobb is playing the spinning top, we hear the familiar “Old Souls” again. Every time when Cobb is not sure if he is in dream, the theme “Old Souls” will appear. It feels like a looping paradox. We can never make it right; we can never go out of the paradox. That is what Zimmer tries to convey to the audience through “Old Souls”.
When Cobb is having conversation through telephone, we hear Cobb is speaking normally, but obviously reverberation is added to the voices come from the other end and these voices are so clear as if we are hearing it from Cobb’s first person perspective. The sound designer has to make it clear so as the audience will not miss any information or emotion that Cobb receives from the telephone. When they mention Mal in the telephone, the background music suddenly changes into a soft and sad piece. That means Mal’s dead is really a nightmare for Cobb. He cannot stop his endless grieve about Mal.
The microphone is placed in two places to record the speech in a big concert room between Cobb and his architect teacher. At first it is a close-up record. When the scene changes into a wide shot, the audience can hear a distant record version with more echoes which makes the ambience sounds more realistic than before. And that truly helps push the audience into the world. During the conversation, the background music “Old Souls” comes up again because they are talking about the idea of designing dream.
“One Simple Idea” is a good choice of background music when Cobb is teaching Ariadne how to design a dream world like maze. That music simply draws the audience’s attention to difficult staff they are going through but not itself. That is to say, when background music goes off or goes down without any supporting emotion, it leaves the space for the audience to stay in the visual and the profound idea naturally.
To make the story more logical and each plot scene connected better, a good, logical and complicated sound design is required. Even if it is in dreams, the ambience sound goes like it is in reality. When Cobb is talking with Ariadne, the voices of the other people around are still available. In order to surprise the audience with a later explosion scene, the designer would rather let the audience believe this is a reality scene at first. So everything sounds as normal as daily life at the beginning. In fact few people can notice that the “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” is “fading in” in the explosion scene when the dream is collapsing, which means the headphone on Ariadne’s ear is playing to wake her up.
A ground moving sound is simulated in the scene that Ariadne is folding the ground upside down in her dream. Everybody knows there is no way to record this sound in real life, we have to record the other sound, such as rock moving on the ground, to replace the imagined sound in the scene to make it sounds like what it should be.
“Radical Notion” is on the way when Ariadne makes everything functioning radical and unbelievable in her experimental dream. The two gradually switching chords make us feel the way like “How could it be like that?” “What an amazing thing!”
If the scene has a big change, it is a good practice to insert a background music which is in completely different style from the music in the scene before. Actually the “Mombasa” theme has already begun long before the chasing takes place, but again it is a gradually fading in, which means something excited should be just around the corner.
We can hear sound similar to helicopter and also the sound of wind when Mal is sitting on the window. The moment when she jumps out, the background music suddenly changes into a sad tune. That seems to say it is not in dream but in reality. So it deserves to be a tragedy definitely. And this theme lasts until Cobb’s narration is over.
When they are taking action to hijack the son of the company’s head, the music becomes very intense from that time. When Arthur is having gun fire, we hear the sound from his angel but not enemies’ angel because we only need a first person record. The sound the enemies are hearing is not that important to the plot.
We can notice that whenever the speech between the characters is over, the background music will soon get louder. The sound designer does not want the background music cover our semantic listening.
It is always a serious headache to record the sound when several driving cars are firing at each other, because there is often fast switching shot. In the film, the car braking sound, the gun fire sound, the braking glass sound because of the gun shot and the water lapping sound, every sound mix with each other at exactly the same time. So post production edit for the recorded sound is obviously needed at this specific moment. Some part of the sound is reinforced while some is reduced or diminished. It is the way to select useful sound information for the audience.
When we see a close-up shot of a glass of water is shaking, we get a glass shaking sound. After the shot switches to people’s face, we still get that glass shaking sound. This time we know what it is the glass that is generating the sound. And also we can judge the shaking intensity simply by the acquiring the volume of the glass shaking sound. When the glass hits the table and breaks, we hear a sound which is similar to metal ringing and the ringing keeps lasting for a long time. And that is the time when Cobb’s attention is extracted by his subconscious. That ringing is a clue that he may lose himself in thinking about Mal and his children. He simply cannot run away from the idea.
The sound designer has to think of a best way to deliver the sound in a virtual environment. When the scene is switching between two levels of dream, especially at the conjunction point, sound effects do not necessary have to complete a sudden change. Sometimes for the consideration for continuity the sound from the upper level will pass on to the next level. The wind blowing sound and water lapping sound from the upper level become the thunder sound causing by the strange weather in the next level. This is a very good example of designing sound according to the requirement of plot and environment. I have to say that this is really a very smart sound design.
A close-up shot on Robert Fischer’s face with a thunder sound above makes the whole scenery more nervous. Robert Fischer definitely feels anxious about being in dream with a strange continuing thunder sound above. The very clear fast breathing sound of Robert Fischer also reveals his anxiety. We can hear almost all the detail from Robert Fischer’s mouth so clear that it sounds like the microphone is just around the mouth of Robert Fischer. Thus it has to be a later recorded version of syncing facial expression with a close-up recorded sound.
The messy footsteps sound is a good way to show a chaotic scene, thus reflects people’s tension. When Robert Fischer is escaping with Cobb from the men who were sent to abduct Robert Fischer, the sound of footstep is getting louder and quicker.
At the best part of the film when five levels of dream are interacting and the shots keep switching between these five levels every few seconds, there is no speech, only the sound effects with magnificent background music which sounds like orchestra march. That particular background piece makes up the best part of the film, telling the audience this should be a spectacular moment that they would never see in any other film. In a word this piece stirs the emotion to the climax of the whole film.
When the characters on the third and fourth level of the dream put on headphone on the second level, they hear a distorted version of “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien”. All the perception on the upper level has a reflection effects on the deeper level. In here, the music reflection effect is distortion music sound.
The music at the shore of Cobb’s subconscious is a woozy piece. It makes us don’t know where we are. In fact it is the fifth level of dream. It is also desolation piece that few people can enter this level of dream so far. It becomes a strong kick with a long horn when the music “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” is on. This time it is not a distorted version, it is a new recorded slow version of “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien”.
Let us take a look at the film score part of sound design. What can film score does to the film? The obvious first thing to say: It makes you feel a certain way. It adds emotion, it evokes feelings, and it creates a mood.
They can establish the pace of a scene. Directors are constantly asking composers to write a piece of music which will make the scene seem to go faster, or slower, than it goes. (Sider, 2003)
A good film score will push the audience into the movie’s plot. It should reach the perfect interaction point between audio and visuals. Usually the composer is shown an unpolished “rough cut” of the film, and talks to the director about what music styles should be followed. Once a composer has the film, they will then work on composing the score. Some composers prefer to work with traditional paper scores, but if it comes to score like “Inception” that contains odd ambient and electronic noises, it has to be written in a computer-based environment. In some instances, film composers may be asked by the director to imitate a specific style.
As seen in many film DVDs, the orchestra performs in front of a large screen depicting the movie, assisting the conductor to synchronize the music with the film.
Films often have different themes for important characters, events, ideas or objects. So we divide the whole soundtrack into pieces of scores.
By convention, the film soundtrack is constructed so as not to draw the audience’s attention to itself but to accompany the film unless it is part of the plot.
The director, composer, and music editor will have a spotting session, running through and agreeing on where and what kind of music is needed.
The composer of the “Inception” scores is Hans Zimmer, whose music is characterized by high audible. Because “Inception” is based on the practice of entering dreams and planting an idea in someone’s head, the soundtracks to “Inception” should be designed as dream-like and create a complete sonic world to immerse the audience into each layers of the dreams. The original soundtrack album is largely an atmospheric album. The soundtrack has to be composed in ways that are quite unrealistic so that the audience will not notice the background music. Listening to this soundtrack really guide me to recall most of the main plot, at the same time music is the perfect embodiment of the film’s theme. It is an aural journey into one’s imagination which creates images and story lines in my mind. It is a soundtrack to the imagination, or perhaps, dreams.
In viewing period, the film score will never grab the limelight of the film itself, but to help the audience build up the courage of the dream and promote the development of the plot.
Inception movie scores rely more on real live instruments rather than digital audio samples. The whole soundtrack is a combination of electronic and classical. Traditional orchestra can be heard here and there in each track. Some cues even play with electric guitar, odd ambient and electronic noises.
“Dream Is Collapsing” is one of the most powerful tracks in the score. It is seen as perfectly rational that all characters in this scene keep calm and behave naturally with having a house collapse. This technique increases the contrast of the characters’ rational behaviour against the powerful background score which tells the audience that it deserves to be a nervous scene. “Dream is Collapsing” is very well done and incredibly addictive. “Dream is Collapsing” is the most memorable song.
“Radical Notion” begins with heart beat which makes the audience lulled into a false sense of security. Those low chords that switch up and down before lie underneath strings as if a beast is softly breathing, or perhaps, it implies that it is the dreamer who is breathing, and always with a slowed down version.
Recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition
“Radical Notion” is a track that walks in familiar territory in terms of the string ostinatos.
It is a motif which is persistently repeated in the same musical voice. It is a succession of equal sounds, wherein each note always has the same weight or stress. The repeated idea may be a rhythmic pattern in itself.
Starts off playing the main motif rather dramatically then dips into some too cool for school stuff before playing around with the little motif some more. The last moments of the track gets aggressive.
“Old Souls” reflects Mal’s anxious about living in dreams. It makes the audience puzzled, wondering if they are living in dreams. And the vibrating electronic underscoring is used in such a special way. It is a long and effective track that continues the atmospheric feelings of the album. “Old Souls” is a cue that leads us into the conversation between Cobb and Mal and make every audience puzzled with what they are doing and why they are acting like that.
Most of the original background cues have something in common, but some of cues have slight differences. “Mombasa” is the only percussion in the score, which has distinctive flavour from the rest of the score. What is occurring on screen is a chasing scene which lasts about 4 minutes. Thus the accompanying soundtrack should be a very fast on-going rhythm in order to provoke audience’s emotions. The Hi Octane element provides intense personal experience and delivers a paranoid sense of being chased when Cobb is running to get out of the chasers. It has a fairly light start, but it soon explodes into an action cue.
“Dream within a Dream” brings back the motif heard in “Dream is Collapsing” but adds some too cool for school percussion.
“Waiting for a Train” is the longest cue of all, which feels very mysterious and nostalgic when there are too many musical elements and emotion changing blended in. Around 3 minutes, it changes the feeling completely and the atmosphere becomes a little darker in nature. At around 5:30, it gets more dramatic as there are almost only synths left. In stark contrast, Edith Piaf is in there at around 7:04. “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” is a classic, but it still sounded strange there. The female voice wakes up the dreamers. All of these form 9 minutes and 29 seconds of continuous wonderfulness.
Great inspirational scores and soundtracks should all have the quality of independence from their intended film. “Time” may be one of the most beautiful epic songs in the soundtrack that can be appreciated independently from “Inception”. It gives a sense of closure by building up an emotional thread from beginning to end. There is no doubt that “Time” should be the main title in this original soundtrack album. The piano gets the view feeling sentimental, which brings tears to the eyes, especially at the very end after the audience has experienced all the dreams in the film. This is probably the one that most people will truly love and listen to a thousand times without being tired of. What Time did was no pure sensationalism, the fate of a sense of desolation in which the melody is along with the spinning top, so that we cannot distinguish if it is a dream or not.
It is not just orchestral music, but every form of music because you never know when you might need to use some electric guitars.
Great composers adapt to the story and to their director’s vision.
It can be said that sound’s greatest influence on the film is manifested at the heart of the image itself. (Chion, 1994)
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