Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What's the Matter With Hollywood, Part 10: Technical Innovation Doesn’t Require New Technology

After reading my last four entries, you may be thinking “Gee why are you so opposed to technical innovation? Do you think that movies should be stuck in the silent era? Did you sign the Dogme 95 manifesto? Not at all--I love technical innovation. Unfortunately, most innovations that strive to make movies more believable end up having the opposite effect: the resulting movies only seem more artificial. But there are those rare leaps forward that genuinely improve the movie-going experience.I, too, hate to watch old movies with “day for night” shooting, and I’m ecstatic that we now have better ways to create that effect. Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia were considered technologically cutting-edge movies in their day, but the long day-for-night sequences in each are painful to watch. Thankfully, those scenes could have been done better today with digital-sky-replacement and other tools.

But moviemakers over-rely on new tools and end up trying to fix things that were never broken. Instead, if they really want to better emulate the real world, it would be more effective to simply find clever new ways to utilize pre-existing technology.

In Wallace Terry’s classic oral history of black Vietnam veterans, Bloods, one veteran complains about the unrealistic portrayal of war in the movies, which had not prepared him for the terrible reality of battle. He points out one thing that movies always get wrong is the sound of being shot at. When you fire a gun, you hear a rapidly-decreasing doppler effect: the classic “pew-pew” of imaginary schoolyard gunfights. This is the sound of the bullet speeding away from you.

But when you’re being shot at, you actually hear the opposite sound. A rapidly-increasing doppler effect: “vvvip-vvvip!” Instinctively, that’s a lot scarier sound to hear. It is literally the sound of tension being ratcheted up. Unfortunately, since most sound effects men had never been shot at, they tended to use the same sound effect whether the hero was on the giving or the receiving end of the bullets.

A few years after I read that, I smiled when I realized I wasn’t the only one who had heard this complaint. Everyone was astounded by the terrifying realism and immediacy of the first reel of Saving Private Ryan. Sure, they used Surround Sound, and digital processing, but the sound mixer also used some smarts: this was the first movie in which we heard the sounds of approaching bullets accurately, and I’m convinced that this had a lot to do with the unprecedented visceral impact that this sequence had on its audience.

Visual and sound effect designers have always felt a responsibility to find new ways to more faithfully re-create reality onscreen. Rather than over-rely on new technology, I wish that they would simply open their eyes and ears more to those differences between reality and cinematic convention that could be eliminated with the tools at hand.

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