TORN Conversation



The Soundscapes of Middle Earth, Part 1:  Sound motif


“What Peter articulated to us on the sound team in terms of his vision for the sound on film two was not so different from that articulated to us for film one.  Rather, it was a further deepening of certain themes and motifs that we had started on film one. In many ways, this whole three-film project feels like a voyage of discovery that the whole sound team is engaged in together with Peter.”
-Ethan Van der Ryn

A sound motif is a sound effect or combination of sound effects that are associated with a particular character, setting, situation or idea through the film.  The use of sound motifs can help shape a story that requires many characters and many locations and help unify the film and sustain its narrative and thematic development.  The sound motifs condition the audience emotionally for the intervention, arrival, or actions of a particular character. The sound motifs can provide a sound association for those characters as we move through the story.

Note that sound effects are very distinct from either dialogue or music, and that confusing them with each other could get you in very big trouble with touchy sound professionals.

The pioneer in cinema Sound Design is George Lucas.  One year before shooting Lucas and physicist Ben Burtt began discussing what would be the sound motifs of Star Wars: 

"In my first discussion with George Lucas about the film, he - and I concurred with him –said that he wanted an 'organic', as opposed to the electronic and artificial soundtrack. Since we were going to design a visual world that had rust and dents and dirt, we wanted a sound which had squeaks and motors that may not be the smooth-sounding or quite. Therefore we wanted to draw upon raw material from the real world: real motors, real squeaky door, real insects; this sort of thing. The basic thing in all films is to create something that sounds believable to everyone, because it's composed of familiar things that you can not quite recognize immediately."

Interestingly, the editors of the new Star Trek movies also used natural sounds -- birdsong, human voices, wind noises -- all processed and mixed into the backgrounds.  So Star Wars goes for gritty sounds, which is why those movies sound like our world, and Star Trek also sounds like ours, only a better, higher quality one.

The other recognized innovator in sound design is Walter Murch, famous for his work on Apocalypse Now:

“It was something that came up long before the film ever got made -- back when George [Lucas] was going to direct it. There was a lot of discussion between George and me, and between us and John Milius, who was writing the script, that what made Vietnam different and unique was that it was the helicopter war. Helicopters occupied the same place in this war that the cavalry used to. The last time the cavalry was used was in World War I, which demonstrated that it didn't work anymore. In World War II there was no cavalry. Then we got the cavalry back, with helicopters, to a certain extent in the Korean War, and really got it back in the Vietnam War. The helicopters were the horses of the sky -- the whole "Valkyrie" idea came out of that discussion. And, of course, we thought of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The cavalry-horsemen-Apocalypse thing was bred in the bones of the project.

"One more wonderful thing about the way a helicopter sounds is that it has a different articulation as it passes by. You'll hear five or six different things going on when you get into different spatial relationships to it -- sometimes you'll hear just the rotor, then you'll hear just the turbine, then you'll hear just the tail rotor, then you'll hear some clanking piece of machinery, then you'll hear low thuds. The helicopter provides you with the sound equivalent of shining a white light through a prism -- you get the hidden colors of the rainbow."
-Walter Murch

Now back to TTT:

“Peter's notes tended to be really clear and direct: ‘I want this scene to start really quiet and subtle and then build. I want it to have this structure to it — we're going somewhere with it.  For instance, there's a scene where the Uruk-hai are marching on Helm's Deep, this fortress built up against a huge rock cliff, and they're marching from afar, but there are so many of them that they set up this incredible rhythmic pulse as they're marching. There were certain desires on the editorial team to have that really be big and be felt and have this huge pulsing mass coming at you. And [Peter] came back and said, ‘No, this needs to be subtle — so subtle that you feel the pulse, but you also hear the breath of the warriors waiting for this oncoming army.’ It was a really poetic way to take it, and also, since that scene progresses into absolute chaos and mayhem, it was a great way to start because you've got something to build with.

"Being the lead mixer and the effects mixer, I have to take responsibility for how loud the film gets. For me, Film One was a little bit loud and I was determined to not let [The Two Towers] be quite that loud, and I hope that I succeeded. It's a tough position to be in-You're faced with a film where every reel is as a big as the biggest reel of a typical film, so it's an amazing challenge. You can't please everybody, but at the end of the day there are two people you have to please-the director and the audience. You don't want to exhaust the audience."
-Chris Boyes

What are the sound themes and motifs of The Two Towers?

Are these themes and motifs the same as in the other two films of the trilogy?

Is FOTR louder than TTT?

What about ROTK? 

Does the sound in any of the films exhaust the audience?

Is this a good thing?

Is there an acoustic rainbow in TTT?



Movie Sounds, 101..


You always offer such interesting classes, Darkstone. You should teach a course on movies....

My attempts at answers:

1. What are the sound themes and motifs of The Two Towers?

Well, let's see.  What I think of are moments of silence, then scenes where there is no music, just natural sound, and then a slowing building musical score. 

I think there's a contrast between natural, nature sounds and metal, artificial sounds. Everything sounds "softer" in the Ent scenes, and there's all that metal-on-metal clanking with the orcs. A lot of machine-like noises. There's also a lot of soft and hard contrast sounds between the scenes of the women and kids in the cave and the men and boys and elves arming themselves and fighting in the build-up to Helm's Deep.

The Black Gate scene has all kinds of sound in it, I know -- I remember that it was the one they used on the Oscar awards, as they read off the nominees for sound-editing. There's the creak of the gate, the clank of the chains on the trolls, that orc horn, the physical sound of the trolls exerting that effort, orcs in armor walking around, etc.  It made you realize how much the sounds added to the realism of the scene, and why the TTT sound guys deserved to win.

2. Are these themes and motifs the same as in the other two films of the trilogy?

I'd say no. The contrast between nature and machine is such a strong theme of TTT that I think this film has a more clear dichotomy of sound than the others. Each film "feels" very different to me, and now you are making me think that the sounds have a lot to do with that. 

3. Is FOTR louder than TTT?

Not to me.  I had to see TTT several times in the theater before I could really absorb everything from the point of the Helm's Deep battle to the end. It was too much information coming at me, perhaps.  Where FOTR had blasts of sound overload, which I can manage easier, TTT seems just relentless in comparison to me.

4. What about ROTK? 

ROTK is more like a dance or opera to me.  Sound seems secondary to the score to me, really.  TTT seems the most "sound-oriented" of the films, in terms of how often I can think of scenes in which the sound stands out for me, as opposed to the visuals or the score.

5. Does the sound in any of the films exhaust the audience?

All of the ending of TTT exhausts me, as I said above. The sound contributes to that, more than I had thought before this Darkstone film class.

6. Is this a good thing?

I'm not sure if my reaction was universal -- I don't see a lot of films, so my threshold for that kind of bombardment may be lower than a lot of folks.  I have a hard time in any film, really, where too much is coming at me.  But people seem to like films like that, so it must be more exciting than problematic in the movie-making world.

7. Is there an acoustic rainbow in TTT?

Well...the film has a rhythm to it, I think, which I had primarily attributed to the musical score, not the sounds.  It certainly starts out and ends slowly, though the tone is far more ominous at the end than the beginning.  Along the way there seems to be a consistent pattern of slow, quiet scenes that turn build into clashes -- Gollum's arrival, the Black Gate, the quiet coney scene is overtaken by the Ithilien battle, the build-up to Helm's Deep, the slow rousing of the Ents, etc.  There are a lot of layers to TTT -- it's the most complicated of the three films in its construction, I think -- and the sound mirrors that. There are layers on layers of sound, in that Black Gate scene I mentioned for example, and in the film as a whole. And the film does sort of build up to a peak and then quiet down again at the end. So yep, the acoustic rainbow image works for me.



I've never thought


about any of this before. Trying to pull back and actually become aware of the sounds of the movies seems like an interesting thing to try to do.

Off the top of my head, I think the sounds of wind and rain must be a motif of TTT, starting with the sound of the wind on top of the Redhorn as the movie opens. There's wind blowing around Frodo and Sam on the Emyn Muil, I think (followed by rain). I know there are quiet moments when the sound of the wind is all there is, but having never paid conscious attention, I can't remember where they are! Meduseld is very windy, and Helm's Deep is rainy (the sound of the rain hitting the armour is one I do notice and appreciate!)

Anyway, I hope you'll come back to this thread, Darkstone, and tell us what the sound themes of TTT actually are!



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