Punctuation

During the rough edit, a meaning was established, and it has been corroborated visually and aurally. The sound editor's task is to punctuate that meaning during the final stage of the editing process. The goal may be to establish without question a specific point in the scene, or it may be to emphasize the ambiguity of the scene through the addition of a particular sound. In either case, the addition of sound effects or more dialogue will help the editor accomplish that goal.

The opening sequence of Vincent Ward's The Navigator (1980) offers an excellent example of punctuation. A young boy wanders off. A subtitle suggests the period: the Dark Ages and the Bubonic Plague. The images of the boy are strongly affected by the sound Ward chose to accompany them.

A bell tolls, and liturgical music supports images of the sky. The sound of water drops gives way to a torch falling through the air. A man's voice seems confined to a cave. There is a powerful echo.

All of the sounds have a dreamlike quality unconnected to the visuals. The effect is to create a dream state around the boy. The pitch and timbre of the sounds and their separation from the visuals provide the dreamscape for the balance of the film. What Ward has done is to aurally convince us that the story we are about to experience is a dream. Perhaps it's a boy's fear of nature that provokes the dream; whatever the cause, the emphatic character of the sound sets a tone for the balance of the film. This is punctuation.

A very different but nevertheless effective example can be found in Nicolas Roeg's Performance (1970). A criminal (James Fox) carries violence too far, betraying his boss. He runs away. He rents a room from a rock performer only to find that this hiding place and its proprietor result in a blurring of his sense of self. The jagged picture edit creates an overmodulated, emotional milieu in which something must explode. In this case, it's the main character, Chas (James Fox). He is a hoodlum who does not accept his identity as a hireling.

To give the society Chas inhabits a sense of disorder, Roeg created a montage of sound. Cars, particularly cars in motion, are accompanied by loud rock and roll music. These shots are intercut with the silence of the main character during a sexual encounter. Roeg used machine sounds— computers and movie and slide projectors—to disorient us. Sound is used to emphasize the confusion of society and of the main character (this foreshadows the later blurring of his identity with the character played by Mick Jagger). Unlike the dreamlike sound in The Navigator, the sound in Performance emphasizes the confusion that is central to the character's actions and reactions in the film.

One final example of punctuation illustrates how a sound motif can be used repeatedly to create the core of an entire scene. Philip Kaufman's The White Dawn (1974) tells the story of the clash of the white culture and the Canadian Eskimo culture in the late nineteenth century. Three stranded sailors from a whaling boat are rescued by Eskimos. When they recover, they watch the chief of the village fight and kill a polar bear.

The scene is constructed in terms of three sources of sound: one is human and primarily verbal, and two are animal—the bear (who seems supernatural) and a dog pack. The dog pack provides the emotional base for the scene. The dogs growl and howl, alerting the village to the presence of danger. As the Eskimos prepare, the dogs become more aggressive. As the attack on the bear begins the dogs go wild. The bear's response when stabbed by a spear is anger, but the bear remains supernatural. As the thrusts continue, it becomes more bellicose, but it never attacks the Eskimo chief. As the bear dies, the dogs are wildly belligerent.

In this sequence, the supernatural gives way to the natural. The struggle between the supernatural (the bear) and the natural (the dogs) continues to be a theme throughout the film. It is established by the noise that the bear and the dogs make. The struggle between the supernatural and the natural is punctuated through the sound effects.

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