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Sound/Music in Film

King Kong (1933) – One of the first films to utilize sound effects to create a fantasy world, as well as the movie soundtrack as we know it today

Have you ever seen that movie where the musical score seems to be carrying the entire emotional burden of the film? That scene where a character is starring off into the distance while the music does the actual emoting? Or even that scene where the music feels superfluous?

I used to consider music an integral part of the emotional make-up of a film, but I’ve begun to realize that cinema offers many options when it comes to creating an emotional, aural, and visual landscape.

Yasujiro Ozu is acknowledged as one of the greatest directors of cinema, but he has a very unique approach to the use of music. The music in his films often does not provide any obvious emotional cues for the audience. There is a steadiness, sometimes even a cheerfulness, a serenity to the music he employs, even during dramatic situations. It contributes to the sense overall in his films that life goes on and that we must all move on, no matter what happens, but it also leaves the emotional cues to come from the actors, the story itself, and the framing.

Even when Ozu made silent films, he said that he preferred that the music have no connection with the plot itself. No use of music to highlight a tense moment, a romantic moment, to cue the audience on how they should feel. It all must come from within the screen itself.

Alfred Hitchcock, on the other hand, seems to have been quite comfortable with fairly dramatic, romantic, and tense music and Hitchcock films have produced some of the most memorable movie soundtracks we have today: PsychoMarnieNorth By NorthwestVertigo. But he also experimented with an electronic score in The Birds, which employed simulated sound effects, such as the shrieks of birds. I recently watched Rear WIndow and realized that the film almost exclusively employs diegetic music, music and sound coming from the apartment building complex’s different rooms. There is a scene in the 1956 The Man who Knew Too Much, where Jimmy Stewart believes himself to be followed and hears footsteps behind him. It is the footsteps, not music, that creates the tension.

I think the point is that Hitchcock used music to complement his films, never to overshadow. The emotion is already inherent in his films, augmented with sound, even without the musical scores, but the music makes those images all that more potent and memorable.

In 2018, I discovered two French directors and comedians, Pierre Etaix and Jacques Tati. They made their films in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Tati began in mime, Etaix worked with Tati, before going out on his own. They are very different comedians, but their films are rooted in the visual comedy of the silent era and they also make superb use of sound effects.

Beginning at around 3:05 into the video, there is a discussion of Tati’s use of sound to build a gag. But Pierre Etaix also uses exaggerated sound effects of common objects around him to hilarious effect. It creates an internal rhythm to the comedy, rhythm apart from music, that makes one aware of the rhythm of sounds all around us. For me, in my life, it might be the rhythm of keys on a keyboard, footsteps, a clock, the whistling of a water pot, the cycles of a washer machine, rustlings created when one moves in a chair, running water, birds singing, rain falling, wind blowing, cars driving by, even the sound of my cat stretching or of her little paw pads sinking into the carpet as she walks.

Another director who makes notable use of sound is Andrei Tarkovsky. He singles out certain sounds and heightens them to create emotion (a discussion begins at 4:40 into the video below).

Interestingly, pre-code cinema (cinema made between 1929-1933) almost never employs a musical score. It was thought, when sound films were first made, that audiences would not be able to accept the sudden intrusion of music with no discernible source. The result is that nearly the only music one hears in a pre-code film is diegetic music, music from a visible source within the screen, like a radio, record player, singer, or band. Early sound films are not noted for their music, then, but their talking and the sound effects.

I actually think this contributes to a pre-code film’s energy and vitality. Think of the scene where James Cagney stands in the rain before going into a building to shoot up some gangsters in The Public Enemy. We hear the sound of the rain, of the car breaking to a stop, the sound of voices (and actors like Cagney or William Powell often speak in a rabid patter during these early years that has a rhythm and tone all its own). One almost has the feeling one could stick one’s hand into the frame and it would come out wet.

For me, the absence of music and the judicious use of sound effects gives a film a more tactile sense. Music, I think, can flatten the world, create a kind of distance between the audience and the image that is seen, because of the very unreality of non-diegetic music. This is why I think musical scores work so well for fantasy. Think of Lord of the Ring or Star Wars (a space opera, though I always appreciate the aural world created in those films: lightsabers, TIE fighters, blasters, Darth Vader’s breathing).

It does not seem like an accident that the first movie to make use of a musical score in much the same way movies do today should be the 1933 King Kong, a fantasy/adventure/romance (he film was also notable for its use of sound effects to create the unique roar of Kong or the other dinosaurs). Or think of Gone With the Wind, a lush romance that bears little resemblance to reality.

Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann

Or think of Vertigo or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, with scores by Bernard Herrmann, which create a dreamlike, visual tone-poem feeling for the audience.

What ultimately prompted these thoughts was watching Dunkirk, which had a score so overwhelming that it irritated me and seemed to put the audience at a remove from the battle taking place before us. It submerged all the sounds of the engines of planes, gunfire, shouts of men, the water and waves and caused a certain muddiness and overwhelming of the senses.

Though music can also be used to turn carnage into elegy, as Mel Gibson did in the film Hacksaw Ridge. It was a movie that I quickly realized I should not eat while watching, but I was also astonished at how Gibson could portray scenes of such wretched human suffering and overlay it with music, so that the scene then became an elegy to the suffering of the men. But it was achieved by using music to put a slight distance between the audience and the suffering of the men so that the audience could step out of their initial gut horror and think about the nature of their suffering. It was a very curious affect.

I have been extremely curious to know what other people think on this topic? Are there scores your love, scores that drive you up the wall, favorite sound effects from movies?

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2019 in Movies

 

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Willis O’Brien and Stop Motion Animation

Willis_H._O'Brien (1)When Ray Harryhausen made his last movie The Clash of the Titans in 1981 and Tim Burton produced A Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993, they were creating their worlds using the same technology pioneered by Willis O’Brien in 1925 with The Lost World: stop motion animation. Then, in 1993 with films like Jurassic Park, special effects technology underwent a revolution and CGI became the norm. In many ways, CGI has allowed filmmakers to do things they never dreamed of before.

But part of the allure of stop motion animation is precisely that it never achieved the same ubiquity in film as CGI. There is an aura of arcane knowledge, super-human patience, the personal touch in creation and animation, the magical illusion of an inanimate object coming to life.

Stop motion animation is the process of filming an object by adjusting the object between each frame so that it appears to be moving when the film is run at full speed (according to Steve Archer, who worked with Ray Harryhausen on The Clash of the Titans, five seconds of footage a day is average for an animator). This technique existed nearly from the beginning of film and was employed by George Melies, early animator J. Stuart Blackton and even Edwin S. Porter.

Willis O’Brien, however, seems to have stumbled on stop motion animation on his own. He created a boxer that he wanted to see move, so he made it move…using stop motion animation. He came to his vocation later in life. He was 29 and had already been a boxer, newspaper animator, cowboy, fur trapper, and bartender. He liked to draw and was fascinated by dinosaurs, anatomy and movement.

After making a variety of short films for the Edison Company and a 40 minute adventure/fantasy called The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (of which we now only have 16 minutes), O’Brien finally had a chance to showcase his work in the 1925 The Lost World, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name.

The Lost World perfectly captures O’Brien’s capacity to imbue his creatures with unique personalities. One can almost follow their line of thought as they interact with each other: the Brontosaurus who sneers at the Allosaurus who dares attack him, the evident chagrin of the Allosaurus when the Brontosaurus falls over the cliff, the way the Allosaurus, clearly miffed, looks at the wound inflicted by the Triceratops and concludes that the Triceratops is more trouble than it’s worth.

However, in 1925, there was no way to directly interface the animated models with the actors and most of the interaction is limited to the people marveling at the dinosaurs. But audiences had never seen anything like it and there was a lot of mystery surrounding how exactly the effects had been achieved (there would be similar head scratching after King Kong). It would help set the template for fantasy/action/adventure films to come.

Willis O’Brien would spend the next few years of his life in a rut that would become very familiar to him throughout his life: creating story ideas that were not turned into film and working on projects that would be axed. However, in 1932 he began work on his greatest achievement. In fact, it can be argued that though there would be many improvements on these techniques and many incomparable films, King Kong represents the apotheosis of the dramatic and emotional potential of stop motion animation. It is Kong – fully integrated into a live-action story – who is the emotional center of the film, who provides the dramatic propulsion of the story filled with live actors.

One of the marvels of King Kong is how Willis O’Brien took an 18 inch figure (actually there were several figures of various sizes – as well as a giant face and a giant hand to hold Fay Wray) and made an immortal colossus out of him. Just a model, an armature with ball and socket joints, covered in rubber, foam and rabbit fur. It’s like magic.

There was a richness to King Kong, as well. O’Brien would paint glass to put between the camera and his models to create a dense, layered jungle. He also used a variety of techniques – rear-screen projection for the actors to react to, exposing part of the frame while filming the actors and then exposing the rest of it while filming the models, as well as rear-screen projection onto miniature shots of Kong. In fact, the animators went out of their way to keep the actors in the images with any of the animated creatures in order to enhance the sense of tension and awareness of the threat posed.

After the success of King Kong, a sequel was rushed into production, Son of Kong, though Willis O’Brien always said he hardly worked on it. It was a tragic time for him personally. His wife shot and killed both their sons and then tried to commit suicide. Eventually, O’Brien found stability in life when he remarried, but he was never to come close to the success he had with King Kong. Partly, according to his second wife, Darlyne O’Brien, he never asserted or promoted himself. He sold stories to people who used his ideas without hiring him to do the animation and he was unwilling to work on B movies (unlike Ray Harryhausen, who used B movies as a launch to greater things), though he eventually was obliged to make a few, simply to earn a living.

His last great film was Mighty Joe Young in 1949, made with largely the same creative team behind King Kong. By all accounts, however, he remained a contented man (if occasionally frustrated) and never let himself be discouraged. He just kept working, creating and generating ideas until the day he died.

One of the things that fascinates me about stop motion animation is that very quality of creating life, as it were, where there is none. It is in contrast to the modern method of motion capture to record an actor and animate a digital character (such as Andy Serkis as Gollum, King Kong and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). I can sympathize with Serkis’ frequent complaint that motion capture actors are not given their due. The emotion and acting is largely coming from them (which is not to take anything away from the extraordinary skill of animating that emotion digitally). But with stop motion animation, the emotion  and personality is coming from the animator.

During the making of King Kong, there was very little detail in the script about how Kong should behave. Much of his humanizing gestures come from O’Brien. The boxing moves King employs against the T-Rex, how he is picking a flower for Fay Wray (just before she is attacked by a giant snake), the way he sniffs her and starts to pull her clothes off, even the way that Kong kills the snake (he was supposed to strangle it, O’Brien had him grab its tail and dash its brains out).

According to Paul M. Jenson, author of The Men Who Made the Monsters, the script merely said that at the end of King Kong, Kong was to “stagger(s), turn(s) slowly, and topple(s) off the roof.” The defiance against the planes, the picking up of Fay Wray’s character to say a kind of goodbye, his expressions, that all came from O’Brien. It is a wonder how fresh and vital his work feels to this day.

Sources

“A Short History of Stop Motion Animation”

“Puppetry in King Kong, 1933”

Willis O’Brien: Special Effects Genius – Steve Archer

The Men Who Made the Monsters – Paul M. Jenson

This post was written for the Classic Movie History Project, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen. Be sure to check out the rest of the fascinating posts, here.

history-project-2016-godzilla

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Son of Kong (1933)

download (1)The more I see King Kong the better it seems. Actually, the more I see any King Kong film of any kind, the better the original seems. It’s nearly a perfect movie, paced with a sense of perpetual forward momentum, with the stakes constantly raised until the final moment when Kong dies on top of the Empire State Building. There’s no dross, no meandering plot, the effects are impressive, Kong commands sympathy (the poor guy’s got a bad case of Galahad syndrome), I even like the lead actors as a foil for Kong. It didn’t initially look like much to me, but viewing subsequent remakes has illustrated just how special the original was.

In 1933, not a remake, but a sequel was hurriedly released the same year that King Kong was such an outstanding success. It’s called Son of Kong and is distinctly subpar, though entertaining enough for what it is. Neither Fay Wray nor Bruce Cabot reprise their roles, but the film does bring back Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham, Frank Reicher as Captain Englehorn, Victor Wong as the ship’s cook, Charlie, and even Noble Johnson as the native chief, though his role is infinitesimal. The film also brings back director Ernest B. Shoedsack, producer Merian C. Cooper (who originated the idea of Kong Kong and partnered with Shoedsack on many other films), composer Max Steiner, and stop motion animator Willis O’Brien.

The story opens three months after Kong’s epic demise in New York City with Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) broke and besieged in his home by lawsuits, court summons and reporters. Captain Englehorn was with Denham in the original film and is concerned that he could lose his ship, the Venture, so he proposes that Denham and he slip out of New York and pick up work shipping cargo around the Orient.

Work is sparse for Denham and Englehorn and their crew is troublesome, led by the subtly named Red (Ed Brady). But when they stop at a port city called Dakang, they meet shifty Captain Helstrom (John Marston), the man who gave Denham the map that lead to Kong’s island. To convince Denham and Englehorn to take him along with them (he intentionally sank his ship and the authorities want him), he tells them that there is treasure on Kong’s island. Denham and Englehorn are apparently desperate enough believe him.

Helen Mack and Jack Armstrong cautiously approach Baby Kong

Helen Mack and Jack Armstrong cautiously approach Baby Kong

Also on Dakang is Hilda Peterson (Helen Mack), who’s father is a drunken former circus performer now touring his rather pathetic monkey show around unappreciative audiences in obscure locations. After he dies – as the result of an altercation with Helstrom – Denham is kind to her and she stows away aboard his ship.

Unfortunately, Helstrom has no intention of looking for treasure and instead provokes the crew to mutiny. Denham, Englehorn, Hilda, and Charlie are dropped off on Kong’s island and when Helstrom tries to take over as captain, he too is kicked off. The crew is evidently modelling their ship on communist principles and have no intention of having a captain at all (I wonder how that works out for them).

On the island, Denham expects a welcome from the natives for having removed Kong, but the chief (Noble Johnson) warns them to leave since they’ve caused enough trouble (their village was nearly wiped out by Kong in the previous film). So the group have to land on the more dangerous side of the island where the dinosaurs roam. And finally, after forty minutes in a sixty-nine minute film, we meet the son of Kong. He’s stuck in quick sand and Denham helps him get out (prompted by remorse over what he did to Kong and encouragement from the animal-loving Hilda). Baby Kong is grateful and fights a dinosaur and a giant bear for them (I don’t know what it is about the island, but in both King Kong and Son of Kong, the moment people arrive on the island wild animals start coming out of the woodwork to attack them; is this usual or is it just the presence of the humans that inspires these attacks?). They also find a little treasure. Oh, and the island sinks.

Part of what makes this film subpar is the meandering plot. Written by Ruth Rose (wife director Ernest B. Shoedsack and author of the original King Kong screenplay), there is none of the urgency or sense of forward momentum so well employed in the first film. Denham seems to just float around from one situation to another without a sense of going anywhere in particular. By the time we get to the island, everything goes by so fast that we don’t have time to properly enjoy it fully.

Baby Kong, not looking quite so cute here

Baby Kong, not looking quite so cute here

Another problem is baby Kong. He’s played for cuteness rather than awesomeness. We never fear him. I have to admit, he is very cute, but I miss the sense of awe that Kong commanded. I don’t recall baby Kong once thumping his chest after defeating a foe, though he does look at his fingers in perplexity when they are injured and looks coy when Denham and Hilda snuggle. The stop motion animation also looks a trifle rushed.

Denham, at least, is a consistent character from the original. He wasn’t an evil guy, so it makes sense he would feel remorse in the sequel. He was just, in the words of Captain Englehorn in the original, “enthusiastic.” Like a big kid who gets so excited about stuff he has to share it with everyone. He is remarkably generous. I was impressed at how casually he divides the treasure he finds equally with Englehorn and Charlie (the cook). Denham is a sadder, more subdued man now, but his showman instincts still come irrepressibly to the surface.

Helen Mack is a plucky, if underdeveloped, heroine as Hilda. She’s had a hard life, but is game for whatever comes her way and seems to know monkeys and animals well. One could imagine her doing rather well for herself if she were ever carried off by a giant ape. She would probably keep a cool head and try to establish a rapport.

The ending totally came out of the blue. There is a sudden earthquake and the island sinks. I felt bad for the natives, who have the worst luck in these films. Baby Kong rescues Denham and then drowns. It’s so abrupt, you’re left with the feeling of “Umm…okay.” Now that Denham befriended Kong’s son and Kong’s son rescues Denham, is everything squared now? At least Denham now has some money, though I’m not sure he could ever return to America.

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2015 in Movies

 

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