Andrew Plain: an eye on the sound

Jane Mills

Andrew Plain

Andrew Plain

Andrew Plain

Debate over the condition of Australian cinema hasn’t been so heated for many years. In this new column, Watchdog, we’ve invited a writer to pursue key Australian cinema issues over 3 consecutive editions of OnScreen. Because she’s riding a wave of debate over her new book The Money Shot (Pluto Press) in the press and on radio, we thought it’d be a good moment to catch Jane Mills’ thoughts as new Australian films find their way to the screen. Eds.

I was at the drive-in cinema in Sydney’s western suburbs with everything I desired: a Vietnamese takeaway from nearby Parramatta nicely steaming up the windows, a Hot Date sufficiently agile to negotiate the gearstick, and a double bill to snuggle down to. Having seen Moulin Rouge, I was confident that my passion for it would be returned with a truth, beauty and love, that would rub off on the Hot Date and provide me with some insight into spectatorship theory. As for Robert Lutekic’s Legally Blonde, I was interested to learn what this young Australian director had done with his Hollywood debut.

My admiration for Moulin Rouge (in particular for editor Jill Bilcock) remains unalloyed, and we both thought Legally Blonde fun, funky and feminist. A problem, however, lay in their soundscapes. They had a disconcerting effect on my libido since I found it necessary to look at the screen the whole time: I felt like Jeff (James Stewart) in Rear Window who preferred to follow the narratives being acted out through the windows of his apartment than concentrate on the lips of his girlfriend (Grace Kelly).

Yes, I know that films aren’t made to be heard on an FM radio channel. But while both films, in their own ways, are bold and inventive, visually and musically (Moulin) or narratively and comedically (Blonde), neither manifest any courage in their sound design. Film sound theorist Michel Chion noted that “we never see the same thing when we also hear; we don’t hear the same thing when we see as well.” But, in most films today what we hear is precisely what we see. This point is well made by sound designer Randy Thom (Forrest Gump, Castaway):

Many directors who like to think they appreciate sound still have a pretty narrow idea of the potential for sound in storytelling. The generally accepted view is that it’s useful to have ‘good’ sound in order to enhance the visuals and root the images in a kind of temporal reality. But that isn’t collaboration, it’s slavery. And the product it yields is bound to be less complex and interesting than it would be if sound could somehow be set free to be an active player in the process. Only when each craft influences every other craft does the movie begin to take on a life of its own.

When sound designer Andrew Plain went up on stage at the IF Awards recently, he had to ask which of his 2 films, La Spagnola or Lantana, had won. I was disappointed that his award was for La Spagnola, which has the sort of safe soundscape that many contemporary filmmakers rate highly because no-one notices it. The sound for Lantana, however, while less exciting than it could be, contributes something filmic in addition to the picture and not merely in support of it.

Plain says that like many directors, Ray Lawrence couldn’t articulate exactly what sound he wanted, but unlike other directors this was only because he lacked the vocabulary, not the concepts:

Ray had this idea of La Paglia’s character being crushed in the city. So we gave everything in the city a sound. We see him experience fear that his heart may be weak, but the sum total of the layer upon layer of the different sounds we recorded crushes him from within and reduces him to emotional inactivity.

And when he’s driving through a tunnel out of the city, we see the double white lines reflected in the windscreen. We laid heaps of sound tones for the white lines. We wanted the audience to feel rather than hear these lines. I don’t think anyone will hear it. But it gets there and delivers the feel that Ray wanted.

Plain is particularly pleased with the opening sequence that he says “initially delivers loud, over the top, cicada sounds that change into moody sounds of the other world as the camera tracks into the bushes.” It’s the sound, not the picture, that first reveals that lantana, the film’s central trope, is a noxious weed that has escaped cultivation and doesn’t belong in the bush—like the betrayal and misplaced trust that doesn’t belong in a relationship if it is to survive.

Lawrence didn’t want Plain merely to reproduce reality, but to create a scape that delivered sounds and tones relating to responses he wanted in audiences. Which is what the documentary Facing the Music, about Sydney University Music Professor Anne Boyd, does better than any other Australian film in a long time. This, too, was sound designed by Plain who says the filmmakers Robert Connolly, Robyn Anderson and Ray Thomas (editor) were persuaded to treat the soundscape as it would be on a feature film. The resulting Dolby digital 6-track format produces extraordinarily powerful feelings and moods by daring to treat actuality more creatively than most documentaries dare:

There’s a scene where she’s actually listening to music in her room on her CD player. But we treat it as if it’s off screen, then treat it so it sounds like it’s filling her room…so we hear it as she does from her CD, which doesn’t satisfy the reality of her CD player, but is designed to create in the audience the passion that it creates in her. When we cut back to her at her desk, conducting the music on her CD player, the music soars as if it’s her heart soaring. Her passion is made palpable by how we treated the music. One of the good things about non-linear editing is that there’s literally no reason why docos like Facing the Music can’t end up with a soundtrack every bit as good as for a feature film. But it’s much more costly than most doco filmmakers are prepared to pay.

Plain points out that a few years ago feature filmmakers began to think creatively of the relationship between the screen, architectural cinema space and audiences. With films like Jurassic Park and Last Action Hero, he says:

Finally you could say filmmakers realised the power of the sound environment. But it was used so boringly and conventionally. Audiences were so getting off on sound coming from everywhere; they were streets ahead of most filmmakers. Around this time, however, documentaries like Sunless (Chris Marker) and Camera Natura (Ross Gibson) used sound creatively while feature films were plodding along with mundane tracks. Then it all stopped. They weren’t prepared to spend the money. Or make the mind shift required to think of sound separate from the picture.

Few filmmakers today are prepared to remove the glue that conventionally sticks image and sound together. Plain is especially concerned for the documentary form which has been ‘gazumped’ by Reality TV:

If they’re to rise to the challenge of the popularity of these television reality programs, they’re going to have to be inventive. They’re going to have to go back and experiment with sound, just as they did in the early 1930s when sound was new.

When Plain first started in the film industry with a film studies degree, he used to pin up quotes in his office from legendary filmmaker Robert Bresson such as: “If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear. One can not be at the same time all eye and all ear. And vice versa, if the ear is entirely won, give nothing to the eye.” But he now believes he was too pedantic:

It’s more about what’s appropriate. In Cut, for example, we broke the rules because the film breaks rules. There’s this scene where the actual murderer and another character playing the role of the murderer have a Wes Craven style face-off and we gave it an outrageous sound. The point was that we shouldn’t have got away with it—but we took the risk and we did get away with it.

Clearly more Australian filmmakers need to take more risks (and spend more money) if they are to come even close to achieving what Plain cites as the soundscape that best exemplifies the change in mindset that he’s looking for:

The sound in La Haine (1996), the French film by Matthieu Kassowitz’s, is incredible, extraordinary. There’s no way that film was shot without the director knowing while he was shooting exactly what the sound would be like. It’s an exciting example of a film that demonstrates how incredibly important it is to plan sound and music before you shoot.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 16

© Jane Mills; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2001