Audio Illusions (Ardmore Sound)

lecture part of Illusions at Science Gallery, 21t Aug 2013, 6pm
“Film is one of the best examples of how audiences willingly suspend disbelief and put themselves in the hands of storytellers. Film sets out to create illusions and deceive the audience, not least with its soundtrack. Foley (the reproduction of everyday sounds which are added in post production), sound effects, music, dialogue: all of these aspects of film are in the hands of the sound department and all of them make for entertaining, even surprising, methods for achieving the illusion of a real soundtrack.” – Science Gallery website 

When Paul Moore takes to the floor to introduce himself and some of the clips we are about to watch, I secretly hope Back to the Future may be included.  Not because of any outstanding sound design merit, but because he himself does bear a slight – but striking resemblance to Dr. Emmett Lathrop ‘Doc’ Brown, Ph.D., and comes across quite as passionate about his subject as his celluloid doppelganger.

Without further ado and cued by George Lucas’ motto on the big screen, we are led on a cavalcade through some of the most iconic, sometimes forgotten and often underrated moments of sound in film from the 60s through the 90s.

The opening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) effectively illustrates spot effects within sequences.  We are treated to some excerpts from this long, dialogue-less, languid and progressively ominous opening, featuring creaking floor boards, a rhythmically swinging gate, and drops of water that convey a lot more than the sum of their parts. By the time the train storms into the station with all its power, annihilating the carefully orchestrated silence between the characters, we know the pace is changing- and not just in terms of fictional storytelling.  Reading the credits I am also reminded that this story was written jointly by Sergio Leone, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci- I doubt Italian screenwriting collaborations ever got better than that, and sigh at the thought of the state of Italian cinema today.  But that’s by the by, and we’re onto the second clip: Point Blank by John Boorman (1967).

Here Paul Moore’s enthusiasm really comes alive, as he reveals how this particular film inspired him to undertake a career sound design.  And when he plays us this particular clip, I can see why. This really needs no commentary, it’s that outstanding.


Next is the opening scene from The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola (1974), sound designed by Walter Murch, also responsible for Apocalypse Now among other classics. This scene features a long, slow shot zooming onto busy Union Square in San Francisco. People, buskers. As viewers, we are teased into looking for a visual focus, while we also realize that there are strange recurring interjections within the sound we can hear. It slowly becomes apparent that we are experiencing the scene from the point of view of a surveillance recordist. As more and more of the scene is revealed, we witness sound once again playing a central role in steering the emotional path of the audience.

Gene Hackman in The Conversation

Gene Hackman in The Conversation

As time closes in, we quickly run through some more film examples including the dark, fictional futurescapes of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) which includes some powerful subjective shots, and the sonic boom of The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983).


This film’s subject in particular seems to inspire some pretty spectacular digressions in Moore, harking as far as back as the Prometheus myth and the Mongol empire- but staying strictly with sound, we are reminded of the colossal work carried out by pioneering sound designers without the technology we are lucky to serve us today.  In particular we view some powerful examples of contrast (inside- outside the cockpit), and are treated to an intentionally comical ‘swarm’ of paparazzi.

Unfortunately time is getting tighter, so we must renounce a very promising Raging Bull clip, and the microphone is passed onto Steve Fanagan, whose role is to guide us through the practical aspects of sound design and elements of the sound mix.  Fanagan introduces his role, boiling it down to the ultimate aim of ‘providing sound in the right place at the right time’.  To serve this purpose throughout the process, he reveals that he tends to refer back to a handful of fundamental questions, such as what do we hear?  When do we hear it?  From where is it heard? And perhaps crucially- what does it do for the story?

We are shown images from Ardmore, including the Foley stage and the surround studio, and are guided through a helpful diagram indicating the various phases and roles within post, such as Dialogue Editing, ADR spotting, Effects Editing and Foley additions. I particularly enjoy the moment when we are invited to ‘listen’ to the lecture theatre we are sitting in, and think about how much (or how little) we would need to recreate in post, and why.  (I always find the process of quietly listening in public very powerful, and this is no exception.)

Like Moore, Fanagan is a confident and engaging speaker, and it is unfortunate that time is tight as this section could have been the subject of a lecture in its own right.  We close with the screening of a practical example of layering of sound elements (from the raw location recordings building up through the additions of foley, score and onto the final mix).  These are taken from Irish horror film Citadel (Ciaran Foy, 2012), that Fanagan himself worked on.  My only criticism here is of the violent content of this particular clip to an audience that contained many young children, although they were invited to leave the auditorium and some did.

We finish up on an upbeat note, with a hilarious clip from the 70s depicting Canadian foley artists at work, displaying a frankly bizarre mix of hyper physicality and machismo.  It is a suitably tongue and cheek ending to a fascinating and entertaining hour and a half.

I must admit that when I first read about and signed up for this talk, I expected it to focus primarily on the work that goes on behind the scenes at Ardmore studios on a day to day basis, but was absolutely delighted about what the subject turned out to be.  Ultimately it is always possible to visit studios or find out about them online, but time spent in the company of long standing professionals guiding you through their most inspiring moments of sound in picture is invaluable.  And, in fairness- who wouldn’t want to spend an hour in the company of Doc?

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