A filmmaker’s guide to freaking out your audience – Part 1: sound design

During research, I randomly found out theories concerned with creating a sense of disquiet in the viewer of moving image.

At Cambridge Film Festival, I saw the film Cuckoo about a young woman, Polly, suffering from auditory hallucinations (or not ?) in her flat, a film which reminded me a lot of Polanski’s Repulsion. The director commented on how the sound design was made to cause the viewer to physically experience the same hallucinations as Polly, and share the ensuing distress. The key to that was to disconnect the sound from the visual, so as to cause sensory and space confusion in the viewer. In traditional film sound design, foley effects are made to match what is being shown on the images. The two sources of information (visual and auditory) are coherent and support each other, so that the viewer can feel confident about understanding the information. One could almost say that the information is “surdetermined” since the same concept is presented in several ways (i.e. the image of somebody putting a glass on a table and the sound the glass makes when it touches the surface). If you drop the surdetermination, the viewer starts to be confused, feels unable to trust their senses and starts experimenting anxiety. The Cuckoo team did that in different ways. Polly hears sounds that are coming from out of the image field and not easily identifiable, for example because they are muffled or intermittent. Although they come from outside her flat, these sounds are quite loud so as to suggest an invisible presence in her flat. Comparatively, the sounds from her flat seem low, which cause a feeling of space distortion: one does not know anymore what is far or near, foreign or familiar. These sounds have no obvious directionality, so Polly feels lost. Some of the sounds from her flat are also too loud, for example a dripping tap. The director explained that the idea came from a real life experience of his wife, who started hearing specific sounds much louder when she was pregnant. Some of these sounds were imperceptible to other people.

I thought of it and it reminded me of a family dinner scene in “Las Meninas” (Ihor Podolchak, 2008) where the sound of a fork on a plate gets more and more intrusive as the family atmosphere gets more and more oppressing. In Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky also extensively used the disconnection between sound and images in order to blur the line between reality and illusion. The sound could be either completely disconnected to the images (one hears things without ever seeing the visual equivalent, like in Polly’s hallucinations) or, more perversely, the sound could be related to the images but wrongly synchronised in time (a very slow visual transition accompanied by a harsh sound transition). This last technique gives the illusion of time-space distortion, which may or may not be due to the mysterious events that created the Zone.