Music & Pictures (Part 1)
An Introduction to the Art Form
Producer/jingle composer Robin Lumley commences a new series that explores the role and function of music in the visual world.
Record producer and jingle composer Robin Lumley begins this six part series designed to take the mystery out of writing and recording music for film and television.
From the Oxford Dictionary: SYMBIOSIS n. (pl-ses) (biol.) Association of two different organisms attached to one another or one as tenant of another (used especially of associations advantageous to both organisms, as distinct from PARASITISM).
What a succinct and apt definition, and what an ideal word to describe the successful melding of music and picture in film or television! The concept of symbiosis, in other words how the music and the picture combine to give a full experience to an audience, is never far from the mind of any successful writer and performer of film music... the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and one must never overpower the other (except on certain, deliberately planned occasions which we may discuss later in this series).
But things, of course, were not always this way. There was a time when the picture carried no sound with it at all; indeed no music, let alone dialogue or sound effects. I'm referring, of course, to the days of Silent Movies, but even then, in most cinemas, a pianist would sit and literally busk his way through a film, playing live to picture in front of the audience with music he'd either dragged out of his repertoire on the spur of the moment to fit the events on screen, or improvising totally.
With the advent of the 'talkies', of course, everything changed. Not just dialogue and sound effects could be recorded on the optical film stripe, but music - specially composed and performed music - began to be included. However, the technology of recorded sound accompanying picture was slow to develop in comparison with the strides taken in cinamatography, lenses, and printing.
The optical stripe, mentioned above, was the only way of capturing sound on film for many, many years, and although we'll examine the technical side of this method in greater detail later, briefly explained, it's a strip on one edge of a piece of cinema film which looks like a continuous series of wiggly black and white lines running parallel with each film frame. On passing through a sound projector, light is transmitted through the wiggly lines and detected by a photoelectric cell, and the alternating areas of light and dark that the stripe allows through onto the cell are interpreted and converted into audio.
Remember that in the Thirties, tape as a recording medium had yet to come, and gramophone records were still 'direct to disc'. There were wire recorders, it's true, but for film use, optical stripe was the only way of ensuring synchronisation with the picture, seeing as it was firmly photographically printed on the film next to the picture, and thus could not drift. As a matter of fact, sidetracking for a moment, the piece of recorded sound next to any given frame on a film is not actually the sound that accompanies that frame, but the sound some 20-odd frames away, because the optical sound detector is situated in a different place in the film path through a projector, and thus needs picking up and reproducing either before or after (depending on the film format) the picture itself, if all is apparently to be seen and heard simultaneously.
Thus, through technical reasons, sound became, perhaps subconsciously, the poor relation in the minds of directors and film-makers. To a certain extent this attitude has persisted up until the present, with some films and commercials having lavish shooting budgets, and the music budget tagged on almost as an afterthought. So much for symbiosis, you may well be thinking, but in the early Fifties, several important events occurred that were to change things drastically.
The optical film stripe is inherently a poorer way to encode sound than tape, because it is unable either to store or reproduce the extremes of the sound frequency spectrum to the same degree of fidelity as we are used to today.
But with the advent of the microgroove record (ie. the LP, EP and single that we know at present), the initial recording process of a piece of music became very much more complex and technically advanced. The public, beginning to own record players that turned at speeds other than 78 rpm, and which delivered 'hi-fi' in their living rooms, visited cinemas, heard soundtracks with films, and wanted records of the music they'd heard to play at home. Thus we had the birth of the soundtrack album, recorded on multitrack tape and mixed, mastered, and cut to disc. So eventually, film soundtracks began to be recorded this way too, and things began to take off.
Also, with the advent of television, and especially commercial television, the need arose for much more music to be composed and performed for films. Advertisements created a demand for a new musical art form, the 'jingle', which was as immediately identifiable with the sold product as was the visual content of the film. Commercial directors soon began to treat each aspect with equal importance. And the composers found that, because of the short length of a commercial, they were forced to write in a different way, using great economy of theme and line in order to encapsulate the musical moment in just thirty seconds.
Thus grew up a better sense of sound and picture working together that spilled over into cinema films. The use of music in feature movies improved and evolved continuously to the betterment of both art forms. If you watch an old film, from the Thirties, Forties or Fifties even, you'll notice how much more music accompanied the visuals than in a modern movie. They just seemed to plaster it on from start to finish, and although the music was very carefully crafted to fit everything on the screen, it always seemed a little overdone. This is not a blanket statement, of course, but a generalisation to illustrate a point.
Nowadays, film music composers work very much more closely with the director at all stages of a film production, rather than being called in to compose music for a finished film, and adding it last. I've sometimes been asked to compose themes, and even entire music tracks for TV commercials, before a single piece of film has been shot, working only from the pictorial storyboard to produce the music. The director has then made the film, and edited it, entirely to the finished music. Quite an about-face!
For nowadays, the film soundtrack has caught up, technically, with the visual side. Most of the cinematographic strides were taken much earlier, such as colour, anamorphic lenses (that's widescreen to you) and optical special effects, whereas recorded sound has only relatively recently taken similar leaps, with 16 and 24 track recorders, audio special effects, digital recording, stereophony itself, and indeed, quad. Much of this has grown up because of the pop music industry, but it has naturally caused film-makers to want all these things to appear in soundtracks - if only to keep people visiting cinemas. With the advent of the blockbuster movie with Dolby Stereo soundtracks, plus take-home albums of the film, sound with picture has truly come of age!
Of course, all I've said so far is necessarily simplified greatly, otherwise I could end up writing a book-length introduction to the series. Visuals and sound, through both of their convoluted evolution, have had many crossover areas and influences, technically and artistically, but it's important for you to understand these roots before I can launch off into the specifics in the forthcoming episodes.
Visiting a cinema, or watching a TV programme or commercial, involves only two of our five sensory systems - the eyes and ears - whereas in life we use all five. No-one has yet successfully managed to find a way to record and reproduce the other three for entertainment purposes, so that a film-maker has only two-fifths of our sensory attention to work with to reproduce reality on a screen. It is therefore that much more important to make those two-fifths as telling as possible, and even to make up for the missing senses by carefully crafted use of the two that are available.
There we have that symbiosis again, working on us, the audience, to scare us, make us cry, laugh, or become excited - but above all, to stimulate our imaginations. That's the power of the medium, and music is an equally important factor at last.
How to set about actually doing this we'll discuss next time, when I take a look at Being A Film Music Writer.
Feature by Robin Lumley
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