Monday, March 30, 2009

Offscreen vs. Ambient Sound

When we hear a bark but do not see the dog or hear birdsong but do not see the bird, it can be difficult to decide whether to classify such sound as offscreen or ambience. This ambiguity points to a fundamental difference in narrative function, which in turn determines whether we expect the source of the sound to be shown. If the function of the sound is primarily atmospheric, if it serves primarily to establish mood and setting, then there is no reason to show the source. Indeed, showing the source might actually endow it with undue narrative significance. Think here of the atmospheric sound of a howling wolf against the image of a full moon; now think of that same sound, only this time the fog parts on a hilltop revealing an image of a wolf beneath the full moon. The presence of the wolf with synchronized sound asks for a much more direct interpretation. It asks us to make some narrative sense of the bodily presence of that wolf as opposed to the atmospheric presence of the call.

This suggests that one way of thinking about the difference between offscreen sound and ambient sound is in terms of an expectation determined by the needs of the narrative: with offscreen sound we expect the source to be shown whereas with ambient sound we do not expect the source of the sound to be shown. Sometimes, as with crickets at night or the wind howling, we understand that this sound could never be localized to a single sound source; such sound in that sense will always be ambient because, in a sense, it cannot be narrativized, cannot be turned into a character. (Crickets could, perhaps, (like locusts) manifest themselves as a swarm and the wind could become, say, a tornado—as it does in Twister. These are limit cases that show how ambience is bound to a general, rather than particular, representation of the environment or setting.) Even with bird song or a dog bark, where the sound could be much more easily synchronized and so be made particular, we do not expect the source to be revealed to the extent that we understand it as ambience.

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