Light and Sound

As any film fan will tell you, light and sound make up so much of the enjoyment of a film. Just think of a film-maker like David Lean, and his films ‘Great Expectations’, and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Or Carol Reed’s use of light and soundtrack in the superb ‘The Third Man’. You get the idea. Some films have been made by their use of lighting, and become legendary for the cinematography that resulted. ‘Cat People’ (1942) is an example of how simple lighting techniques, and use of shadows, turned what could have been an average film into an acknowledged classic.

Then things began to change. I first noticed this when I went to see the film ‘Heaven’s Gate’ (1980) at the cinema. Michael Cimino had made an expensive and ultimately flawed film that ran so far over budget, it almost bankrupted the film company behind it. It also divided the critics, and audiences stayed away. I actually thought it was a very good film, but for one thing. Cimino had decided to use ‘natural sound’. This was very apparent when characters were speaking in front of a noisy steam train, or trying to make themselves heard during a raucous party scene. As a result, those conversations were inaudible to the audience, and any plot developments resulting from the scenes had to be guessed at.

Not long after, films started to get darker, and I don’t mean their themes. ‘Natural lighting’ became the thing. If the characters were outside at night, then it was pitch black, and we had absolutely no idea what was happening, unless the script explained it. I sat in cinemas peering into the gloom, or straining to hear what was being said. And this was at a time when Dolby stereo was being rolled out, and picture quality had reached a new peak of perfection too.

I see the argument. If somewhere is dark, like a cellar or cave, or outside in a forest at night, then it is going to be dark. That’s realistic, yes I get that. But if the audience is then left to simply imagine what might be happening, and who is doing what to who, then there is no point bothering to go and watch the film in the first place. People whisper, I understand that too. If they don’t want to wake the kids, or wish to conceal a plot secret from a character in the next room, they talk quietly. That’s also realistic, I know. But if we can’t hear what they are saying, then why are we bothering to follow the story?

This has nothing to do with my age. Despite wearing glasses to read any print, I have no issues with watching films, or looking at TV shows. My eyesight is good enough for almost everything, but not ‘natural darkness’. And I am not remotely deaf. I only have my TV volume set at 17 out of a possible 30, and can hear all normal conversation, even spoken quietly. But if I can’t hear something on screen that is not meant to be heard by other characters, so delivered in a hushed whisper inaudible to normal people, I have to question why I am continuing to bother.

More recently, this has migrated to TV drama. Made worse by flat-screen LED televisions that rarely have ‘true black’, night scenes in dramas now favour ‘natural darkness’ too. As a result, us viewers are left literally in the dark about what is happening, so that the director can claim to be ‘on trend’ with his vision of the adaptation. This reached a peak when the BBC serialised ‘Jamaica Inn’. They hired a great cast, an equally good writer to adapt the story, then filmed most of it in pitch darkness, with whispered conversations. So many people wrote in to complain, we can only hope such vanity will not be repeated in future.

My tip to those film-makers and TV directors is to look back at great films and TV series of the past. We want to see the drama, not imagine it. If a room is historically candle-lit, then by all means throw in some candles. But also light the scene, so we know what is happening.

Artistic credibility is one thing, but presenting something impossible to watch is just pointless.

29 thoughts on “Light and Sound

  1. Great post ๐Ÿ™‚ A lot of the films you cited for me rank as perfect examples in terms of the use of lighting and sound believe it or not. Though I am pretty sure that by now you were quite aware that I was also a huge fan of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate ๐Ÿ™‚ Anyway, keep up the great work as always ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I chose those three examples as some of the best uses of light and sound, John. As much as I think ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is flawed by the sound, I still love the scope of that film, and the obvious attention to period detail.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll waive my own commentary to quote something Rob Zombie said on the subject: “The art of moviemaking seems to get thrown away. The cinematography is gone, and the look of everything becomes of little importance. You lose the memorable images; everything looks like it’s been shot at night with a security camera.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If it’s so dark we can’t see the action, then it becomes ‘dark for dark’s sake’. We know it is supposed to be dark, so overlook the fact that the scene might be cleverly lit, as they used to be.
      Cheers, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This was such an interesting read, and I absolutely agree with it. There are sometimes movies/television series that are so dark that Iโ€™m wondering if something has gone wrong with my television. Sure sometimes itโ€™s done on purpose and it acts to create some tension. But there are also times when itโ€™s not necessary to film something in pitch black darkness, and it pretty much takes away from your enjoyment of seeing it.
    So yeah…Iโ€™m with you Pete ๐Ÿ˜Š

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Pete, great points – the fact is, new technology has allowed “filmmaking” to be done with your personal cellphone – so the assumption is that’s all you need: in my business, the “one man band” for filming nonfiction TV is prevalent, but that means one person has the responsibility for filming, audio AND lighting, without any added time for those elements to be planned or executed…the lack of respect for those INDIVIDUAL specialties has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the quality of lighting and audio…and this carries over to the “natural” style of fiction TV and film as well…people watching this entertainment don’t realize it because they’ve been trained to accept this as the new “standard” – it takes watching one of those classic films you mention to really understand – wow, you really got me going on this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I suspect my preference for older films is they compensated for the limits on natural sound and light. Perhaps overcompensated, but still, I can hear what is said and see what is happening in the older films.
    Excellent post, Pete,
    Warmest regards, Theo

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a huge pet peeve of my husband, not as much for me although filmmakers can take it too far. For me it depends on what type of film it is. I’m a big fan of the use of lighting and sound–hence my love of film noir. But, if the film is done in, especially, an ultra realistic style, then I want natural light and sound. If the film is more stylistic–bring on the light and sound. My two cents, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair enough, Pam. Using film noir as an example, I cannot think of a good one where we didn’t see the action, or hear the characters. That ‘ultra realistic’ style is probably what I am addressing. ๐Ÿ™‚
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. When I think color, I think of films like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” When I think of B&W, I think of films like “The Third Man”โ€”or even “Young Frankenstein.” In general, I prefer to see bright colors on screen, or sharp contrasts of black and white, with at least 50 shades of gray in-between to create an artistic effect. Some horror films do profit from dark scenes, but only when the darkness itself is a “character,” and it heightens the suspense. As for sound, it’s not just the “natural sound” of some modern films these days that bugs me, it’s also the mumbling of lines. Yes, people mumble sometimes, and it’s probably more natural. But I prefer the sharply uttered dialogue of the old films, e.g., “Adam’s Rib” with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. … Cinema as an art form. So if we hear a loud and distinct conversation between two characters who are walking on a distant hillside well out of “natural hearing” range, it works. And if a conversation between two main characters in a crowded party or dance club scene is not drowned out by dozens of other voices or by loud music, we don’t question it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I agree, Pete. I especially hate it on TV dramas when the conversation is drowned out by background sounds which aren’t actually background but foreground! Another thing which irritates me is when a text message is shown, so briefly I don’t have time to read it. I have to pause and rewind which pulls me out of the drama.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I agree.

    I usually use headphones to listen to the TV. Itโ€™s actually much better in many ways. Thereโ€™s a lot of sound that you just donโ€™t hear through loudspeakers, like the creaking of leather etc. It also means I can hear and understand the quietest mumble and heaviest accent in speech, too.

    Liked by 1 person

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