Reading: Seeing with your ears – Spielberg and sound design

There are three ways you can build up tension in a scene – camerawork, pace, music.

Films have two ways into your brain: eyes and ears. When you are watching a film, these two senses are interconnected.

The visual side of the film gets the most attention because it is in front of you. But the visuals are in many ways the ‘face of the operation’. The sound ‘is actually the puppet master, the one that really holds the power.’

Sound affects what you see and from what perspective you see it.

As soon as the audio starts, you should be placed within a perspective. The sound design picks specific sounds out to tell the story within the scene.

In film, you see with your ears. The power of sound design is its invisibility behind the image. If dialogue sounds close, then the viewer is close to the person that is speaking, wherever they are.


Example: Munich (2005) dir. Stephen Spielberg

The Assassins arrive outside an apartment building to detonate a hidden bomb.

The 4′ 50″ scene is without music and almost entirely without dialogue. How is the tension built within the scene?

By building a bed of constant, noisy, city ambiance, and singling out and stringing together like beads on a wire, key noises that the tell the story.

The background that Eric Bannagh and his team are going to assassinate a man in his home by getting him to answer a phone they have secretly installed a bomb in.

The string of isolated plot sounds

  • the car with the assassins arrives
  • the dialogue of the targets wife and young daughter, and their car going away
  • the coins and rotary phone that make the call
  • the priming of the detonator
  • the truck passing by

The first moment of trouble in the scene comes in sound. Up until this point in the scene, isolated noises represent the steps of the plan going smoothly. The truck passing by represents a break in that chain and a hitch in the plan. At this point the ambience outside starts to take on some strange qualities. There’s a high pitched whine, like a train stopping, on top of everything. Just like the moving truck blocks the assassins view, the movers talking keeps them from hearing the daughter’s car returning back to the apartment. We hear her footsteps, not her voice this time, which continue indoors. In the apartment the ambience is quiet. The incredible thing about this scene is that Spielberg builds the tension, not by working towards a great crescendo of noise, but by gradually subtracting elements. While the daughter is in the apartment, the danger is signalled by a single sound effect, the rotary dial of the telephone. The climax to the scene is silence. It’s a silence that works so well because it anticipates the noise of an explosion to come. At this point, the ambience has become really impressionistic. When it comes back in, it has echo that reverbs the hurried footsteps and an anxious siren. The whole sound universe corresponds in a way to the assassins, to their feelings and their nerves.

This scene is made with no dialogue, no music, just camera work and sound design.


Key points for me

When making a film always ask myself ‘what do my ears see?’ Because sound affects what the viewer sees and the perception from which they see it, I should build scenes using camera work and pace, and a sound design that carefully picks out key sounds to tell the story.


Nerdwriter (2018) Aeon At: (Accessed on 14 October 2018)

Reading: Sound in the Cinema

Sound offers a plenitude of possibilities – ‘the filmmaker judges which ones to pursue based on how they suit the film’s overall form and how they shape the viewer’s experience of the film’ (Bordwell, p.263).

We tend to think of sound as an accompaniment to the moving image – this lets sound engineers create a world without the viewer noticing.

Sound is a powerful film technique – ‘it engages a distinct sense mode’ (p.264).

Eisenstein – “synchronisation of senses” – ‘making a single rhythm or expressive quality bind together image and sound’ (p.264).

‘If a sound and image occur at the same moment, they tend to be perceived as one event’ (p.265)

Sound can ‘actively shape how we understand image’ (p.265).

The viewer will construe the image depending on the sound.

‘Sound summons up an unseen space’ (p.265).

Sound guides our eye and mind.

Three examples:

Letter from Siberia (1957) dir. Chris Marker

  • Demonstrates the power of sound to alter our understanding of what is on screen.
  • Marker shows the same footage three times, each time the footage is accompanied by a different sound track – first affirmative, second critical, third a mix of praise and criticism.
  • The viewer will construe the same images differently, depending on the voice-over commentary.
  • Shows how sound ‘can steer our attention within the image’ (p.265).

Blow-Out (1981) dir. Brian de Palma

  • ‘exploits the guiding function of sound’ (p.265).
  • Sound reveals a clue – Jack studies his DIY film made from magazine photos; synchronises his sound tape with the image track; when the two play together, the blowout sound matches a flash from the bushes near a fence post.
  • The flash was visible in the replayed footage, but it needed the sound track to make Jack and the viewer notice it.

Babel (2006) dir. Alejandro Inarritu

  • When the deaf teenager enters the disco, the club music is about to climax.
  • Instead of subjective sound, we get subjective silence.
  • This sharply dramatises the teenager’s isolation from what is happening around her.

‘Sound gives a new value to sound’ (p.265).

‘A quiet passage can create almost unbearable tension, while an abrupt silence in a noisy passage can jolt us’ (p.265).


Bordwell, D. (2017) Film Art: An Introduction 11th edition New York: McGraw Hill

Reading: Interview with cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine

Notes from article ‘The Light We Live In’ by Manu Yanez Murillo

  • Jose Luis Alcaine has over 100 film credits – including ‘El Sur’ (1983) dir. Victor Erice, and ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (1989) dir. Pedro Almodovar.
  • Regarding Asghar Farhadi’s vision of Spain in ‘Everybody Knows’ (2018) – he was ‘focused on doing justice to the narrative complexity and the choral structure of the film through the image, something that is not very common in contemporary cinema’ (Murillo, 2018).
  • He says many film directors today ‘come from the advertising or television worlds, and when they shoot, they are thinking in small-screen terms. They tend to employ only open diaphragms that drive the viewer’s attention toward one character, leaving everything out of focus.’ – although this can be beautiful and impressionistic, he thinks it is ‘stealing something from the viewer.’
  • He believes ‘cinema should invite the audience to embark on an active experience’ – too many films today are over simplified and spoon-feed the viewer.
  • In ‘Everybody Knows’ there are many shots of an entire family sitting at a table or at a party, ‘with all the characters in focus, so the viewer can choose who and what sub-plot to focus on.’
  • In the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock claims he has the entire movie visualised in his head before shooting the film.
  • Alcaine believes ‘that presupposes that the movie has no life of its own’ – he thinks ‘when dealing with emotions, some movies…find their form along the way thanks to the collaboration between the director, the actors, the DP, and the rest of the crew. That’s the life of a film.’
  • Alcaine says ‘people associate the quality of a film’s photography with the number of beautiful sunsets. Those sunsets have no narrative value.’
  • He believes that it’s important to ‘avoid indulging in landscape vistas’ and focus on ‘capturing the expressions of the actors.’
  • ‘When lighting a face, the goal is simple: to make visible the emotions of the actor or actress is trying to convey.’
  • ‘In theatre, acting starts with the power of the voice and the body, but in cinema the main source of expression is the transparency and subtlety of the actor’s gaze.’
  • Before starting work on a film, he asks the director the exact time at which each scene in the script occurs – ‘This should translate to the screen the feeling of a story that unfolds through time, of lives lived.’


Key points for me

A film has a life of its own. Rather than being over prescriptive and forcing predefined, rigid ideas upon a film, it’s important to collaborate with the team, to be open to ideas as and when they happen during the filming process. One of my aims is to work towards making films that show a story unfolding through time and in which we see lives being lived.

Watching a film is a very personal experience. Although we may be surrounded by many people in a cinema, it is on a one-to-one basis that a film communicates. Often the films I have enjoyed the most are those in which I feel as though I have actively experienced the story. I don’t like being spoon-fed. Photography plays a major role in how the viewer experiences a film. As our attention is mainly on the characters and how they respond to each other, lighting the actor’s face and capturing the subtlety of their gaze is crucial to good filmmaking.


List of references

Murillo, M. (2018) ‘The Light We Live In’ In: Film Comment 54 (4) pp.16-17.


Reading: Colour & story

Following on from my earlier research on colour in Part Two, I have discovered an article by Kate Torgovnick May (2017) in which she identifies four ways a filmmaker uses colour to deepen the narrative of their films:

  1. Colour simplifies complex stories
  2. Colour makes the audience feel
  3. Colour shows a character’s journey
  4. Colour communicates a film’s ideas

Colour simplifies complex stories

  • Using different tones can help the viewer follow stories that jump between characters and locations.
  • Different tones can signal different time periods in films with multiple story-lines.

Colour makes the audience feel

In discussing the impact colour can have upon the way in which an audience feels when watching a film, Torgovnick May refers to the work of Danielle Feinberg, a director of photography at Pixar. Some of the key points that I found interesting are:

  • Lighting and colour are the backbone of emotion.
  • Colour can be used to hint at a character’s emotion (e.g. dull and grey to convey depression).
  • For each film, Pixar creates a ‘colour script’ that maps out the colour hues for each scene, so they fit together in the overall story arc. The aim being to make key moments feel appropriately vibrant or sombre.
  • Colour amplifies important moments within a film.

Colour shows a character’s journey

  • Colour can be used to show the evolution of a character. If the story is broken up into distinct parts, a different colour can be used for each part to indicate the way in which the character is changing at key moments within the film (e.g. childhood, teenage years, adult).

Colour communicate’s a film’s ideas

  • Colour reveals a film’s meaning.
  • For example, the repetition of a specific colour is often associated with an idea. When the colour changes, the concept has changed.

I found these I ideas very helpful, because it shows that the use of colour within a film plays a vital role in the filmmaker’s storytelling. It can be manipulated to highlight a character’s emotions, amplify key moments within a film, or reveal the ideas within a film.

I like the idea of using the repetition of a specific colour to communicate a particular idea.

I also like the idea of creating a ‘colour script’ for mapping out the hues for each scene.


Torgovnik May, K. 2017 ‘How color helps a movie tell its story’ In: Ted At: [Accessed on 31 May 2018]

Reading: The one-act film

The Hollywood ‘model’, the tried and tested template for writing screenplays, builds its stories around a series of major turning-points leading up to an inevitable all-or-nothing climax.

To me, this seems a contrived a way of writing a screenplay. So, I was delighted to stumble across a recent article by Robert McKee on the rising trend of one-act films, in which he notices ‘a drift toward minimalism and a focus on inner conflict’ (McKee, 2018).

McKee refers to a number of recent films, two of which I have already seen: Lady Bird (2017) and Paterson (2016). In both cases, I was totally blown away by the storytelling. He also mentions a few films I have not heard about: A Fantastic Woman (2017), The Florida Project (2017) and Columbus (2017).

McKee asks: ‘if a writer wants to tell a full-length work in only one-act, the first problem is how to hook and hold interest for up to two hours while the film paints a portrait of silent inner conflict?’ He argues that stories of inner conflict, like those found in one-act films, ‘build around a life dilemma and end on the protagonist’s choice to change her mind in one direction or the other’ (McKee, 2018).

When watching these films, he suggests substituting the idea of ‘suspense’ with one of ‘discovery’. When I read this, it made perfect sense. Where the three-act structure builds up the suspense within a story through a series of jeopardies and the raising of stakes, all of which lead to a final climactic outcome, the one-act film follows a different pattern, based on ‘discoveries’.

I have always be fascinated by films that don’t follow conventional Hollywood formats; that allowed me to watch and discover, to encounter a world inhabited by people and things that are completely new to me.

McKee likens watching one-act films to picking up stones on a beach: ‘Full-length one-acts offer the pleasure of discovery, defined as the seeing, hearing, and vicarious living in a fascinating world filled with people, things, and more you’ve never known before. These fresh encounters pull the audience through the telling because each one delivers a new pleasure. Like picking up beautiful stones on a beach, we want more and more’ (McKee, 2018).

The dilemma for me is how to dramatise inner conflict and maintain the viewer’s interest in the story. The solution, McKee suggests, is in the creation of ‘fascinating, utterly original, vivid details’ (McKee, 2018).

It’s in the ‘vivid details’ that the viewer’s interest is hooked and held.

McKee’s descriptions of the details in the films shows how fundamental they are to the portraits of inner conflict rendered on screen.

A Fantastic Woman – ‘various passive/aggressive tactics used by the police and her dead lover’s family to humiliate her.’

Lady Bird – ‘the tactics she uses to give herself prestige are delightful: a new name, a phoney address, and verbal putdowns of her mother.’

Columbus – ‘the silent beauties and varieties of modernist architecture found in an unlikely place: Columbus, Indiana.’

The Florida Project – ‘the myriad ways she makes something out of nothing: the fun and adventure she creates while playing in a crumbling motel and the shrub lands that surround it.’

I’m delighted by what I’ve read in McKee’s article. There are some valuable points here that I can draw upon when I begin work on my fifth assignment.

For me, the ‘minimalist’ one-act screenplay offers a way of telling stories that are genuine and more authentic; that are so much more in keeping with my own view of the role moving images play in expressing the human condition.


McKee, R. 2018 ‘The Rise of One-Act Films’ In: McKee Seminars 25 March 2018 [Blog] At: [Accessed on 4 May 2018]