jazz singerWe tend to think of film as a visual art form, and it is! But the great thing about film is that it isn’t just one thing: it’s certainly visual like painting or photography; it's kinetic like dance; narrative like books and oral storytelling; aural like music and real life. The sound for a film gives us things like the human voice, diegetic sound (sound within the context of the story), incidental sound (to suggest mood), the musical score. There has pretty much always been sound in films, as even during the age of silent films music would have been played nearby in the theater. But synchronized sound had a difficult and uphill journey, as it required fairly sophisticated technology to synchronize both a film camera and an audio recording device.

The first commercial, feature-length film to feature sync sound was Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson, and back then it was pretty earth-shattering (and totally racist). Today we take sound for granted, though sound has had a complicated role in the history of film, and was largely bemoaned at first as a gimmick that cheapened the artform.

The Reading

Read Chapter 8 (pgs. 220 – 224) in The Art of Watching Films to learn about sound in film.\

The Watching

The Vast of Night (2019) by Andrew Patterson

Vast of night posterThe Vast of Night was just released on Amazon, though it was made in 2016 on a shoestring budget, completely self-funded by novice director Andrew Patterson to the tune of $700,000! It tells the story of two young people – a local radio personality and a bookish telephone switchboard operator – as they discover a bizarre series of events in their sleepy, New Mexico town. This film is beautifully shot, with liberal use of the kind of continuous camera we already saw in Iñárritu's The Revenant (2015), but the storytelling is mostly dialog and sound driven.

Now, normally I wouldn't gravitate toward a dialog-driven movie because, as a visual medium, films should show not tell. However, as we've read in the textbook, films are not just visual: they are aural (sound and music); they have rhythm like poetry, music, and dance; and they have a story just like the written word. Films are complex structures of many types of information. 

The dialog, acting, and cinematography in this film are really tremendous for such a low-budget film, and that is a notable enough reason to watch it. But I was actually quite taken with the sound design, as it is an absolutely critical – and chilling – element to the storytelling. Enjoy!

Note: as always, the media for this can be found in the LEH 353 - Visual Storytelling library on Plex.


The Questions