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This essay will be an exploration of ideas on how sound help direct the narrative of film, with reference to its evolution from early cinema to its progression into modern day cinema. The importance of sound in the stages of film making will be examined, as well as an investigation into sound in animation with a focus on non-diegetic sound as opposed to either both diegetic and non-diegetic or diegetic sound alone, which will be examined in the exploration of cinemas evolution. In addition, there will be insight on my final film and how my practice with sound directs the narrative. Throughout the essay there aims to be a recurring idea that expresses how sound directs narrative.

Generally, the film industry looks into music very early on into the development of their films at the pre-production stage, with “bigger-budget films [having] entire teams of sound crews … sound designers are also brought on very early in the planning stages of a film” (Whittington, 2009). Although it is inevitable that sound design occurs in the post-production stage to include added affects such as Foley effects, over the course of the film making process sound design should happen throughout all the phases of production. More so in low-budgeted films some of the musical aspects such as the capturing of sound may sometimes get forgotten from the pre-production, being seen as a less important part of the film making process, though “[c]ompromising the audio at the start means that the audio will also be compromised at the end.” (Woodhall, 2010) The reason the audio may be seen as less important as the visuals is because “[v]isuals … have an objective status, whereas sound is more subliminal, and its importance often unacknowledged.” (Moy, 2013) so it is considered the ““ignored child” of media production” (Roberts-Breslin, 2012)

Because there are different views on audio’s importance, there has been an age old discussion on whether visuals are more important than the audio or whether audio has more importance than the visuals, with people arguing both cases. In an interview with Eric Lamontagne, the interviewer expresses that “[s]ome professional video producers will confess that good sound is MORE important”. Lamontagne reacts, stating that “[s]aying sound is more important is quite a statement! Many storytellers would argue that moving picture started silent and that audiences were entertained.” (Lamontagne, 2011) Lamontagne provides his opinion, but opts for a neutral point of view on the argument, as he says “I do understand the need for sound that supports the image but sound must only carry the story naturally.” (Lamontagne, 2011)

Diegetic sound refers to “[s]ound that originates from within the world of the film, either from the characters or from the setting” (Lewis, 2014) whilst non-diegetic sound refers to sound that “does not have a source in the world of film.” (Lewis, 2014) Examples of non-diegetic sound include: narrators, overlaying music, as well as added sound effects. Non-diegetic sounds will be the basis to support the answer to the question of how sound directs the narrative.

Although animation has no natural diegetic sounds, for the purpose of this discussion ‘diegetic sound’ is assumed to be the dialogue of characters or any sounds that appear to be caused in the environment of the animation. In terms of animation, there are many short films that do not incorporate dialogue or any other diegetic sound into the animation, with a preference being non-diegetic sounds in order to drive the narrative for the audience. An example of an animator that chooses not to include diegetic sound is Michaël Dudok de Wit, who solely uses music as a way to drive the narrative. Some films made by Michaël Dudok de Wit include: “Tom Sweep” (1992), “The Monk and the Fish” (Le Moine et le poisson) (1994), and “Father and Daughter” (2000), which all use music to drive the narrative, without the use of dialogue.

In the short films: “Tom Sweep” (1992) and “Father and Daughter” (2000), the instrument used to direct the narrative is an accordion, although other instruments are adopted in the latter short film, whilst “The Monk and the Fish” (Le Moine et le Poisson) (1994) opts for a more orchestral arrangement. By examining the film: “Father and Daughter” (2000) and how the instruments are used as well as how they vary during the duration of the film, it will be able to show how sound directs the narrative in films.


(Dudok De Wit, 2000)

For the film: “Father and Daughter” (2000), there are a variety of instruments used, including the accordion, piano, and guitar, which are pieced together in order to direct the narrative. The original music for the short was created by Normand Roger, who collaborated with Denis Chartrand. Although they created the music for the short, it is an interpretation of Iosif Ivanovici’s: “Waves of the Danube” (1880), which in the film “The Jolson Story” (1946), “its distinctive main theme gained renewed familiarity when adapted by Al Jolson and Saul Chaplin as the ‘Anniversary Song’ (“Oh, how we danced on the night we were wed”)” (Naxos, n.d.)

In the film, Michaël Dudok de Wit depicts an emotional tale of two people where the father sets sail on his rowboat, leaving his daughter behind after previously cycling together. The daughter frequently returns back to the point which he left her with each occasion marking a new time, as she develops from a girl to a young adult, a young adult into a woman, and then finally into an old lady. The “Waves of the Danube” (1880) interpretation fits beautifully into the animation, which is echoed by many, with reviews saying: There are not any remarkable happenings but this movie is very touching. The music and sounds makes it so (fbcandy, 2014), “without music I couldn’t feel painfulness.” (Point, 2013), and “the background music is splendidly [sic]. … it is a work of imaginative narrativity.” (Bell_09, 2013)

Claudia Gorbman writes: “the music that plays while a film’s credits unroll … can reveal beforehand a great deal about the style and subject of narrative to come … music in a film refers to the film – that is, it bears specific formal relationships to coexistent elements in film.” (Gorbman, 1980, p. 185) The film, “Father and Daughter” (2000) used multiple instruments throughout the film which helps direct the narrative and aids the audience emotions to what they should be feeling. This is reiterated by Gorbman when writing about changing the music on the soundtrack, as she writes that change could be made through the instruments, such as a solo violin, a solo tuba and a large orchestra, creating the feeling of sadness, humour, and romance, respectively. The idea that instruments change emotion with a direct intention on the narrative of the story is also reiterated through a research paper by Teun Lucassen on the Emotions of Musical Instruments, with his concluding paragraph stating:

“The experiment has roughly brought the results that I expected. The piano turned out to be an emotionally neutral musical instrument. The marimba was very joyful, where the cello invoked strong sad emotions. The alt saxophone did provoke negative and positive emotions, labeled by me as a consolation effect.” (Lucassen, 2006)

This not only confirms the assertion that instruments change emotion, but is the reason that interpretation of the music: “Waves of the Danube” (1880) is used, so that the music directs the narrative of the story.

Speaking about a segment in the film ‘Jules and Jim’ (1962), where Catherine, Jules, and Jim are on bikes, Gorbman writes: “[t]he regularity of the musical repetition emphasizes the regularity of the characters’ pedaling motions.” (Gorbman, 1980, p. 191) and then subsequently mentions that “[i]t is important to note that the rhythms are not one and the same: if each musical downbeat coincided exactly with each turn of the pedal by each character, we would be affected strangely indeed” (Gorbman, 1980, p. 191) This is otherwise known as “Mickey Mousing”, hinting that using this effect may direct the narrative in a different way.

“Mickey Mousing” is the act of synchronising music to the actions that appear on screen, such the music beating for each step a character takes. Kathryn Kalinak states that “Mickey Mousing was a well-established practice by the mid-thirties, and it is particularly prominent in the scores of Max Steiner.” (Kalinak, 1992). Though we may or may not notice “Mickey Mousing” happening, it is mostly associated with cartoons, although there are cases in live action films where it has been applied, as “many Hollywood maestros frequently make use of the technique: Danny Elfman (Beetlejuice, The Simpsons), Hans Zimmer (Spirit, Pirates of the Caribbean) and the late Jerry Goldsmith (Gremlins, Total Recall).” (Gelderblom, 2007) Although Max Steiner seemed to be one of the pioneers for this technique, he was said to have been “criticised at times for occasionally “Mickey Mousing” the film” (mfiles, n.d.)

Often in comedy films, using sound to follow the actions on screen may not completely direct the narrative in film, as it is apparent that to do this technique the sound would not have been thought about until after the production had finished, as the sound mimics the on screen visuals rather than the visuals mimicking the audio. Nonetheless, Mickey Mousing is used more to emphasise the narrative, rather than direct it.

Synonymous with silent films and comedies, actors such as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, as well as Charlie Chaplin, had the use of music being composed after the film was shot, often live in front of the audience, which “allows its audience to directly experience the origins of the sounds and so complements the cinematic events, giving them a specific form of authenticity or immediacy which is not cinematically possible” (Claus & Anna, 2014). Because music had to be played live in front of audiences due to it being early cinema and there not being many technological advances in the field, it is safe to assume that comedic films and also comedic elements had the essence of Mickey Mousing within it in order to promote what was happening on screen. Not only applied to the comedy genre in silent films but silent films as a whole, Paul Cote writes that “[m]usic serves not as some omniscient insight into character secrets, but rather as an enhancement for the emotions that the audience is already feeling.” (Cote, n.d.) This highlights that music may not have directed the narrative as a whole, due to cinema being in its early stages, but rather complemented the narrative instead.

As technology advanced, films were able to incorporate synchronised instrumentals and sound effects; the first feature length film with synchronised sound was “Don Juan” (1926). “Don Juan” (1926) was not able to use dialogue in the film, so “synchronized sound was only used in film for the background music and effects.” (Stephens & Wanamaker, 2010, p. 25) Although not being able to use dialogue in the film, “it paved the way for Hollywood’s talkie breakthrough, The Jazz Singer (1927)” (Stephens & Wanamaker, 2010, p. 25). “Talkies”, a description for films that included dialogue, started to prevail over silent films, as the premiere of “The Jazz Singer” (1927) on October 6th, “marked a tectonic shift in the history of the world’s filmed entertainment” (Stephens & Wanamaker, 2010, p. 27) causing “Talkies” to “ascend to the Hollywood throne.” (Stephens & Wanamaker, 2010, p. 27) It wasn’t until two years later when Warner Bros. the first ever all talking, all colour feature length film, which was a musical, named “On with the Show!” (1929).


(Warner Bros., 1926)

With a new technological advancement for film makers to use, dialogue in film would be a great addition in helping direct the film’s narratives. As Hollywood’s latest prevalent form of film, “Talkies” were able to open up the world encased in film as dialogue created new possibilities for film makers to explore. Film narrative was now able to be expressed more clearly as the film could now communicate with the audience through a variety of ways.


(Warner Bros., 1927)

Dialogue was able to capture the audience attention and help in the narrative of film, and although it was a new practice, it offered many more benefits than drawbacks over the standard silent film. Through communication, the actors were able to interact with each other which in-turn helped build up a more complete character profile for the audience, as silent films were not able to show the audiences the characters personalities fully. Dialogue is also able to narrate the story in itself as the communication between characters would be able to tell the audience their motives and what was about to happen next with the addition of the five W’s: who, what, when, where, and why. This helped engage the audience, showing the leap from silent films and proving its dominance in the film industry. Also in terms of comedy and comedy elements in film, dialogue was able to reduce the amount of slapstick elements involved, as “[d]uring the silent film era, slapstick comedy … proved, arguably, the single most popular and socially succinct movie genre.” (Sultanik, 2012, p. 39) The diminishment of slapstick element would allow films and dialogue to use more wit, such as jokes and puns.

For my Major Project, I came up with a concept using the rags to riches story as a template. The story involves the protagonist, a man that is living on the streets, that uses his ukulele to busk for money in order to survive. The story follows his journey as he performs daily, saving the money that he gets in order to try and lead a better life. By saving money he is able to get his life back on track which enables him to perform in front of paying audiences at shows. Turning down the money, the protagonist returns to the street to where he first busked to play for the passer-by’s in the street.

As this is the narrative for the film, I would need to portray this through the visuals and the audio. For the visuals I will be rotoscoping footage using a technique known as ‘Low Poly Art’, where each image is broken down using triangles. The triangle is filled with the average colour of the selected area and is then repeated so that one side connects with another, finally revealing a full picture made of triangles. Whilst there are two dimensional and three dimensional sides to the low poly technique, they both incorporate the same idea. In an interview, Timothy Reynolds is asked what the aesthetic appeal is to low poly, which he states: “Sharp edges and colourful lighting is [his] favourite part of the look.” (Reynolds, 2013) Whilst an aesthetically pleasing art style, in terms of film, it will not drive the narrative. This means that the audio becomes much more significant in directing the narrative and it would need to be one of the most imperative aspects in the early stages of making the film.

When looking to find the right audio for the final film two questions arose: What instrument would the protagonist need to use so that it would seem plausible to be able to gain fame, as well as what instrument would be best suited to invoke feelings from the audience and drive the narrative forward? In order to drive the narrative, a mixture of both would be needed. Commonly, the guitar is the most preferred type of instrument when busking, often in combination with vocals, although people may busk with other instruments. As a common instrument for people to busk, using a guitar for the sound to drive the narrative was one option that I knew I would be able to use.

I was able to contact a friend about doing some sample sounds for my film, as I knew that he played the guitar. After contacting him and explaining what I wanted for my film, he sent over two samples after watching my animatic. I pieced together the samples to my animatic and compared them both. I decided that the overall feeling and the direction it was taking the film was more pessimistic than I had anticipated them to be. In order to try and amend this, I requested that he tried to create a piece that sounded a bit lighter compared to the low pitch of the first two samples but still tried to keep the feeling of sadness. After sending over a revised sample of the song and fitting it to the animatic, I felt that it worked much better in driving the narrative for the audience. Although the modified song still had a glum quality to it the use of the higher tone also gave a feeling of positivity, which suggested that the narrative would be uplifting. As the samples were developing I felt that it could have been improved with the connection to the story as the latest sample provided a rags to riches atmosphere overall, which was what was wanted to convey in the story, but did not fit in time with the animatic. I brought this point up when discussing the samples to which an amended version was sent. This version directed the narrative in the way I had wanted, with the uplifting character of the song being retained, but fit the story in terms of timing much better as there was a certain point where the music stopped but started again strongly, fitting the turning point of the protagonist to where he starts to build up his profile from being homeless to an artist performing at shows.

Having listened to some test pieces of the guitar and getting the desired result, I decided to try another instrument. Keeping to the plucked string family, I contacted a different friend who played the ukulele, who agreed to send through a sample. There is a general consensus that the ukulele is a jolly instrument, reiterated by Barry Maz, who says that “as you start to explore the world of the ukulele, online and off, you will almost certainly come across comments such as… “the ukulele is such a happy instrument” … When I started playing I said them myself.” (Maz, 2014) Being a stereotypically happy instrument, I thought that the ukulele could provide the direction for the film in an also elevating light. The main argument from the post is that the ukulele is not a happy instrument, rather it being “no different from any other instrument” (Maz, 2014) , with one statement being:

“You may say that music is intended to make people happy … but lots of music is written to make people sad too. And to make people think, and to make people a whole range of other emotions, sometimes all at once. The point is, music is intended to MOVE you, to generate a reaction, a feeling or a response. ‘Happy’ is only part of what it can do.” (Maz, 2014)

As an instrument that is generally seen as jolly but can offer the range of emotions, I felt that the contrast of the expectations compared to what it may offer would be something different in directing the narrative. I managed to acquire a test sample of the ukulele playing which fit the narrative well. I felt that overall; the ukulele is the better instrument to go forward with as there is a contrast of a stereotypical happy instrument to direct the narrative of a sad story.

To conclude, it is apparent that sound is a very important part within film. Though there is still a dispute which may never be resolved due to different opinions, sound is something that should not be forgotten about, rather something that should be a predominant feature when creating any type of film in order to coincide with the visuals and help drive the narrative. Sound has been an integral part of film since cinema began. During the era of silent films and early cinema narrative was driven through the live performances and the use of the Mickey Mousing also provided direction in film although it is seen as a comedic practice used mainly in cartoons, but it has also been used in live action films. The introduction of synchronised sound from “Don Juan(1926), to “The Jazz Singer” (1927) and finally to the all talking, all colour film “On with the Show!” (1929) provided new ways to incorporate sound into film, allowing sound to direct the narrative in different and new ways. Whilst incorporating dialogue and other diegetic aspects into films can provide direction in film, it is also worth to note that non-diegetic sounds can also supply direction, as the use of different instruments and how the use of instruments are arranged can evoke different reactions from the audience, ranging from intense highs to extreme lows, such as the marimba providing joyous feelings and the cello offering the opposite side of the spectrum, as it promoted a morose feeling within the audience.

For my personal project, my final film has been affected by most of these points. As an animation that does not have dialogue included I have to be sure that the music I use is correct in order to direct the story. The visuals unaccompanied with music will not be enough to stimulate the audience’s senses alone, so the music is of great importance and is something that I have thought about heavily during my current pre-production phase of my film. From testing different instruments, I was able to see which type of instruments and sounds sounded more fitting in order to drive the narrative. Although the guitar sounded good and fit the narrative, I feel that the ukulele drove the narrative better from what it was able to offer. Typically, the ukulele is a cheerful instrument, but for the purpose of the films narrative, it is switched to add a sad tone to it. I believe that the contrast of this better narrates the story of a rags to riches person, who busks for a living.


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