Cinematic Language and Aural Imaginaries

Since the end of the 1980s, exploring the aural dimension of cinematic language has opened a new field of film scholarship. One of the leading figures in this adventure is Michel Chion, a music composer and theoretician, who studies cinematic language with a focus in the auditory realm and the audio-visual relationships. Although sometimes Chion relies in generalizations and assumptions about certain film and sound practices, his writing is rich in innovative concepts and metaphors that are useful for studying and imagining the complexity of film sound (music, voice, and sound effects).

In the first three chapters of his latest book, Film, A Sound Art, Chion approaches to the Silent Era (1895-1927) and the early Sound Film (1930s) from a historical perspective. This approach, however, is porous to Chion´s own interest in audio-visual aesthetics and poetics. His brief history of film is refreshing due to the introduction of concepts such as “deaf cinema,” “suggestion of sound,” “rendering,” “real time,” “fundamental noise,” “synchresis,” and “acousmatic imaginary.”

I agree with Chion in that it is more accurate to use the expression “Deaf Cinema” to refer to the films from 1895-1927. As he demonstrates, there was no silence, neither in the theater (the “fundamental noise” of the projector was always there), nor in the moving pictures (the “suggestion of sound” was present in some of the images shown on screen). By highlighting the evocation of sounds through images, text, and intertitles, Chion recognizes the power of the spectator’s imagination and the synesthesic effect of cinematic language. By doing so, he also brings attention to reconsider the notion of silence on the screen. It is possible to render silence using the cinematic language?

Chion narrates the transition to Sound Film in the second and third chapters. In the second he focuses in Chaplin’s own steps towards sound film. In the third, he looks at some of the technologies and practices that surrounded the early live action sound films and the animated sound cartoons. He highlights the film industry obsession with audio-visual synchronization and introduces the concepts of “synchresis” and “acousmatic imaginary.”

It is not surprising that Chion refers to early theatrical animated sound cartoons to talk about “synchresis” and “acousmatic imaginary.” On the one hand, it was in animation where a sophisticated synchronization of music/sound effects and images was first achieved –Disney’s Steam Boat Willy (1928) delighted the audiences with its “magic” and demonstrated the power of synchresis to “spark life”. On the other hand, the liberty of animation to break physical laws and realism allowed the exploration of the “acousmatic imagery” in ways that were never made before on screen (for instance, transforming animals, trees, and almost everything into musical instruments, music players and singers).

However, although Chion successes in pointing out the advantages of animation for exploring and applying these concepts and practices, he makes a blatant generalization when he says that in the early 1930s “every image was explicitly drawn to correspond to a prerecorded sound.” (38) As Carl Stalling, one of the most prolific cartoon music composers, has stated*, the music for early sound cartoons was sometimes created after the images were already drawn (Steam Boat Willie 1928, Gallopin’ Gaucho 1928, and Plane Crazy 1928). As a matter of fact, Steam Boat Willie was the first sound animated short to feature a fully post-produced soundtrack composed by Wilfred Jackson and Bert Lewis. Let’s have a look of it:

Other times, music was composed before or in parallel to the drawing of the cartoons. The images followed the action of the music and the artists had more freedom to explore the power fo synchresis and the freedom of the animation medium. This is the case of the Disney’s series Silly Symphonies were Stalling was a pioneer. The Skeleton Dance was Stalling first symphony.

References
* Stalling interview with Michael Barrier, Milton Gray, and Bill Spicer can be accessed at http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Funnyworld/Stalling/Stalling.htm

Chion, Michel. Film: A Sound Art. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

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