Michael Caine is an English actor who began his career as a stage manager in the theatre. He acted in plays, and got his first film role in 1963. He quickly became a star. His best work is probably GET CARTER, directed by Mike Hodges (UK, 1971) in which he plays a revenge-bent gangster. He has a strong London accent, but as an actor is very versatile.
We watch a clip from a TV program titled “Michael Caine on Acting for Film” recorded in 1987. If you are an actor or a director you should see the whole thing, because his observations are so interesting.
They may not all be right, or be right for every actor. Look at how the actors and the director got around the cigarette-matching problem in HUNGER. But Caine is a skillful movie actor and it’s rare to get such detailed information from someone so experienced. He also observes that he doesn’t watch rushes, and tries not to ask questions about them. He calls the camera the film actor’s best friend, and that is true. But the film actor has a second-best friend, of almost equal importance: the microphone. Behind the camera are the camera operator, and the focus puller. Behind the mike are the boom operator, and the sound recordist. Their work is sound, and sound is what we’ll talk about this week.
For what we do, there are two types of microphone: OMNIDIRECTIONAL, and CARDIOID.
Omnidirectional mikes record a wide sound perspective, and are best for musical instruments. Cardioid mikes reject sounds from behind, & the sides: they are directional, and a HYPER-CARDIOID (or rifle) mike is very directional, and best for picking up actor’s dialogue.
The LAVALEER is a tiny mike attached to the actor (collar, tie, hidden in the hair, or hat – Caine has one attached to his v-neck sweater in the acting masterclass), or to a musical instrument. It can be OMNI, or CARDIOID. Lavaleers are used in hostile environments (i.e noisy, very cramped, or otherwise difficult to record sound); they have a chesty sound; you can hear clothing rustle; so a “lav” is a last resort which will probably require work in post production to “clean it up.”
I made a road movie which was shot almost entirely in cars, and we recorded the audio with Lavaleers. It was indeed more work for the sound designer. We watch a clip from SEARCHERS 2.0 where that “chesty” sound is clearly audible.
Richard Beggs was the sound designer of that film. He’s done the sound design for most of the films I’ve directed as well as films by Francis Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Barry Levinson, and Alfonso Cuaron. Richard observes that people can’t SEE sound, so therefore they don’t THINK about it. So sound designers have a lot of leeway (remember how the audio fell away to nothing during the showdown in SANJURO, enhancing the tension of the moment via the absence of sound). At the same time, you have to be quite literal with visible things: if you see a clock, you’d better hear that clock tick.
On set, rehearsals are essential to get the best sound. The boom operator must be able to anticipate the dialogue, so as to keep the speaking actor “on mike” at all times.
When the director is scouting locations, Richard will ask him or her to consider the audio: is there an air conditioner? A freeway? Construction? An airport flight path overhead?
As with the camera department, organization (file management) is crucial in the sound department. Richard also says room tone is very important — he’ll ask for two or three minutes’ worth, not just the one minute we saw recorded in LIVING IN OBLIVION. He’ll visit the set, if possible, so as to anticipate the challenges and discuss them with the sound recordist, and also go back, on his own, to record presences and sound effects.
He or she will also have a sound effects library, built up over the years
The first people to be credited as sound designers were Walter Murch on APOCALYPSE NOW (USA 1979) and Ben Burtt on MORE AMERICAN GRAFITTI (USA 1979). Before that, though much work was done to create great soundtracks, the position officially didn’t exist.
Up until then, there was a boom operator, a recordist, a dialogue editor, a sound effects editor and crew, and a “footsteps” or Foley crew, (the crew who create background effects like footsteps, erasers on a whiteboard, and chains rattling are called the Foley crew because in Hollywood there was once a Mr. Foley who did this stuff; in Mexico Sr. Gavira was responsible, and footsteps are called “Gavira”), and a MIXER. The mixer was most important because that person established the relationships of all the different sounds — the dialogue, the music, the sound effects, the footsteps, the background presences.
In analog days, all these things came together LIVE in the mixing studio. Mixing was a heroic enterprise where all the tracks – maybe 16 or 32) rolled at once, in sync with the projector, and the mixer went for it, moving audio levers to adjust the volume, cross fading effects, equalizing the sound frequencies. It was exciting to sit at the back of the mix room, in those days, and see how far the mixer could get before an error crept in.
Doing this in real time was a massive undertaking. Often the mixer had an engineer or a second mixer, working simultaneously. It was also expensive, and so the sound crew was under a lot of pressure to get things as right as possible before the mix.
My friend Richard Beggs is a sound designer who also mixes. So for him the final mix is less of a big deal, as he premixes and puts his choices into the automation as he goes along. But not all sound designers do this. Some create a “sound design” and then hand it over to a mixer to interpret.
Either way, the work of the sound designer transforms the film, just as the work of the editor does. Like the DP and the editor, the sound designer makes the director look good and the actors wonderful.
Richard was part of the sound team on APOCALYPSE NOW. We look at some raw, roughly edited footage from the set of that film, shot in Thailand in 1979: the scene where Dennis Hopper talks to Martin Sheen (On the DVD or bluray it’s Additional Scene #9.)
Dennis’ dialogue was largely improvised, and the cut was rough. When we see the finished scene from the film, it’s obvious it’s been cut shorter, but the real difference is in the audio. Multiple tracks of insect and bird noise have been added, and skillfully manipulated by the sound designer, Walter, and the mixer, Richard. A scene which was formerly bland becomes foreboding, thanks to the sound design.
I asked Richard to recommend, for this class, the sound design of a film he hadn’t worked on. He recommended THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (USA, 2001), whose sound designer was Eugene Gearty. From this we watch the sequence which begins in the courtroom, moves via the elevator to the barbershop, and follows the barber (played by Billy Bob Thornton) home. Note the almost total absence of Foley! Instead, all the effects are “spot” effects — created by the SFX crew — such as the stuffing of the lawyer’s briefcase with papers, the judge’s gavel hitting his desk, the sound of the barber opening and closing his lighter as he walks through the crowd.
The effects you would normally expect to hear – footsteps, crowd noise, background presences – are almost all absent. Music, spot effects, and voice over carry the sequence along. Richard chose this sequence for what he calls its “strange, disturbed, internal style”. Indeed, the sound design recreates the space inside the barber’s head.
Francis Ford Coppola’s film THE CONVERSATION (USA, 1975) deals with sound and a sound recordist: a surveillance expert played by Gene Hackman. It’s a thriller in which, as Hackman’s character improves the quality of his surveillance tapes, he is drawn into a murder plot and becomes a victim of his own devices. Essential viewing, if you are interested in sound!
Our official class on “Genre” isn’t till week ten. In fact we’ve been dealing with genre all along. “Genre” is just another French word, meaning “type.” It’s applied to a number of different, but familiar, forms of narrative film. THE WIZARD OF OZ is a musical. THE MATTEI AFFAIR is a bio-pic. Today’s film is a Western. These are all genres – distinct, recognizable types of narrative dramatic film.
Documentaries and experimental films aren’t “genres” because they exist outside narrative drama. They’re types of films, but not generic types. Shorts aren’t a genre in their own right; they’re simply short films — that is, films which aren’t as long as features. Shorts can be generic, just like features can. Or they can be something else.
A film can exist outside genre — it’s hard, but certainly possible, to make a film so original that it defies generic expectations and exists entirely on its own terms. Some films bridge the gap between genres: a Western Musical; a Science Fiction Horror Film.
The film we’ll consider today is situated within a genre and a sub-genre. It’s a Western, and it’s also an Italian Western. Italian Westerns, when they first appeared in the 1960s, were very popular with audiences but despised by mainstream film critics, who called them “Spaghetti Westerns”. They were viewed as low-brow, violent, and vulgar. This may have been true, but there was also racism and a fearful exceptionalism in the argument that “Italians shouldn’t make cowboy films.”
In 1967, the Italian director Sergio Leone – fresh from great success with the “Dollars” films and THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, was determined to prove the critics wrong. So he hired a diva of the Italian cinema and several expensive American movie stars and embarked on an epic Western, shot mostly in Spain and Italy, but also in Monument Valley, Arizona, where John Ford’s Westerns had been made.
The result is ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (Italy/Spain 1968) – a film full of references to other movies: not just to American Westerns, but also to the Italian cinema, including Fellini’s 8 1/2. To complicate matters, it was funded by an American studio, which hated it and cut it to ribbons on its first release in 1968. Today it’s recognized as a great Western, a great Italian Western, and probably Leone’s masterpiece.
We’ll observe it heret for two reasons, both of them sound-related. First, consider the opening sequence. Usually – especially in Westerns – the credit sequence is an opportunity for stirring music, setting the tone for an exciting film. Here, Leone plays things very differently. There is no music. There is almost no dialogue. Instead, there are effects, Foley, and presences. This is sound design.
Secondly, consider the music. When it comes, it certainly makes its presence felt. The composer was Ennio Morricone, a school-mate of Sergio Leone, whose work with Leone made him perhaps the most influential composer of the modern cinema. As you watch the film, think how the music works. Is it just exciting music, to pump up an action picture, Monoform-style? Or does it work in a more complex manner? Does the music change, when different characters appear?
Does music follow a character? Do any characters share a particular tune, or musical theme?
In the wake of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, I’d like to talk about film music. That’s a subject which could occupy a semester, or a lifetime. We have an hour and a quarter, so let’s begin.
Music was a part of cinema before the talking pictures came in. Silent films often had a piano or other musical accompaniment. The first “talkie” – THE JAZZ SINGER (USA 1927) was a Musical.
Early sound films took two approaches to how music should accompany films. There was the “wall to wall” approach where music literally played throughout, sometimes quietly in the background, sometimes emphatically, up front. This approach to film and television scoring continues to this day.
The alternative musical approach in early sound cinema was what academia calls “diagetic” and what film people call “source” music. It means that the musical instrument (or the radio, or the phonograph) appears in the scene. As an example, let’s watch W.C. Fields with his dulcimer, in THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER (USA 1933):
Fields’ song is source, or diagetic, music. The same year as that film was made, the composer Max Steiner broke the mould with what is considered to be the first modern film score, for the first of the Giant Monsters Fighting genre, KING KONG (USA 1933). After the opening credits music, for the first third of the film there is no music at all. Then, as the second act approaches, the music begins.
It’s score, not source music. But it isn’t wall-to-wall. Steiner uses music to build tension, to enhance action, to create humour, and sympathy – then drops the music entirely, for an especially dramatic scene. His first musical sequence is, in total, more than 35 minutes long. It begins as underscore, emphasizing tension as the ship approaches Skull Island. It builds as the film crew land on the island, and interact with the native population. It becomes briefly diagetic, as the “love theme” gives way to the sound of the islanders’ drums. The music introduces us to Kong, who kidnaps the heroine, and underscores the film crew’s pursuit of Kong and interaction with two dinosaurs. It creates a comic moment, when the first mate stabs Kong’s hand, and Kong wonders how he’s cut his finger. Finally, it builds to the arrival of the Allosaurus —
At which point the music ends. Talking picture audiences had never seen a giant monster battle of this kind before, and either the composer or the director realized – brilliantly – that sound effects alone would carry the scene. No musical emphasis was needed, though Steiner’s score returns once Kong has killed the Allosaur.
In addition to paralleling and emphasizing the story points, Steiner used musical LEITMOTIFS for the two main characters, King Kong and Ann Darrow.
What is a “leitmotif?” The word is of German origin, and it means a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation. The presence (or absence) of animals, and the question of what it is to be human, are literary leitmotifs in Philip K Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – a copy of which I hope adorns your bedside table.
The main musical leitmotifs in KING KONG are Kong’s theme – three descending chromatic notes – and variations on a Viennese waltz, for Ann.
The idea of leitmotifs in film scoring quickly caught on. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (USA 1935) features specific musical themes for the monster, and his bride. This is a film not to be missed — for its score, its acting, its production design, and its remarkable mise-en-scene. The composer of BRIDE was Franz Waxman, a 29-year-old refugee who had fled Nazi Germany only two years before.
Not all film scores were created after the film was shot and edited. Sometimes the score was written and recorded first. An example is the work of the Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev, who wrote the score for ALEXANDER NEVSKY (Russia, 1938) before shooting began. In one way this makes the director’s work much easier, since Sergei Eisenstein knew how long his shots needed to be, and cut them to hit the beats.
NEVSKY is also an interesting example of context — which in this case was impending war between the Soviet Union and Germany. Anticipating the war, the Russian state film body commissioned Eisenstein to make a film depicting a historic invasion of Russia by Germany, and the Germans’ defeat.
Another very influential film composer was Bernard Hermann, a radio composer brought to Hollywood by Orson Welles, to write the score for CITIZEN KANE (USA 1940). Unlike other composers, Hermann didn’t always rely on a full orchestra; nor was his music wall-to-wall. Instead he relied on short musical cues to help scene changes and transitions, and sometimes used music in a way that worked against the image, or added to it, rather than emphasizing what was already on screen.
Film music continued to develop. 1952 saw the first film with a score based on a ballad: the Western HIGH NOON featured numerous variations on the theme song, “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling.”
FORBIDDEN PLANET (USA 1956) featured the first entirely electronic score. The director William Friedkin made two features with notable electronic soundtracks, SORCERER (USA 1977) and TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA (USA 1985). Today, electronic scores are commonplace as a result of readily-available software, and not always recognizable as such.
The last great innovator in film music began his career in the 1960s, and changed soundtracks in multiple ways. Ennio Morricone, schoolmate of the director Sergio Leone, was asked by Leone to come up with original scores for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (Italy, 1964), and its sequel, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. At first, Morricone treated his soundtracks as free-standing, 3-4 minute instrumental pop songs, with electric guitars, Jew’s harps, vocal choruses, whistling, birdsong, gunshots, grunts and screams. His main theme for THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY (Italy/Spain 1966) became an international pop music hit.
Two years later, Morricone scored ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, and departed from his previous format, creating a leitmotif for each of the principal characters: Jill, Morton, Cheyenne, Harmonica and Frank. Harmonica’s and Frank’s leitmotifs combine at the end of the film, for the final showdown music and the flashback which explains who these men are.
Morricone became a very popular and busy composer; his later scores tended to be variations on one main theme. Still alive, he composes, and conducts orchestras. In IL GRANDE SILENZIO / THE GREAT SILENCE (Italy 1967) he, like Hermann, contradicted the images: composing a melodic, dreamlike score to accompany violent and sadistic images.
I’ll briefly mention appropriated music, which I despise. In the days of Hong Kong action cinema, producers would just grab Morricone music off Morricone soundtrack albums and include it in their films. This was not fair use, since such theft was not transformative. The modern equivalent of this lazy rip-off approach to film scoring is Quentin Tarantino, whose deep-pockets producers buy him scores from pre-existing films. So the tune in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (USA, 2009) which accompanies Christopher Waltz as he approaches an isolated farm house to murder a family is ripped off the score of THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, where Lee Van Cleef approaches an isolated farm house to murder a family. This lame approach to scoring films is bad in three ways: 1) it is lazy and unoriginal, 2) it makes the filmmaker dependent on a big-daddy financier to buy him his music (as simply appropriating tunes would be breach of copyright), and 3) it denies a composer and musicians the chance to create new work. Licensing is expensive and appropriating tunes or songs for the same purpose in a new film is not fair use.
The “classical music” score has existed since Fritz Lang incorporated fragments of Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King in M (Germany 1931). It’s most famous in the films of Stanley Kubrick, 2001 (UK/US, 1968) – where Kubrick threw out an original score commissioned from the composer Alex North, and repurposed Also Spracht Zarathustra, The Blue Danube, and music by Ligetti – A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (UK, 1971), BARRY LYNDON (Ireland, UK 1975)
And there is also the popular music-based score, used to great effect by Dennis Hopper in EASY RIDER (USA, 1969). This was the first rock’n’roll score, and contains no specifically-composed soundtrack music. As a concept it was highly influential (my own film REPO MAN incorporates existing LA punk songs as musical elements) but Dennis didn’t revisit it: his police vs. homeboys picture COLORS (USA ,1988) had a tremendous hip-hop soundtrack album, but only a few of those songs are heard in the film, which relies on a more traditional movie score by Herbie Hancock.