reality check

Sonic storytelling

Why filmmakers are tuning into experiences that we might otherwise ignore
October 16, 2014

In August, when documentary filmmakers Pacho Velez and Dan Claridge began shooting a film about a drag-racing track in upstate in New York, they were divided about what story they wanted to tell. While Claridge kept his camera on his uncles, twins who run a dry cleaner by day, and drag-race cars by night, Velez placed microphones around the edge of the track, collecting the sounds of screaming engines, skidding tires, a neighboring river, and birdsong.

When it was time to edit, the filmmakers decided the story about the uncles didn’t add up. But the sounds that Velez had recorded did. “The sound reveals what’s under the hood,” said Velez, who in 2013 co-directed the award-winning film, Manakamana. “You can hear if someone has a super-charger, or if someone’s using nitris, or just how big an engine it is. You can hear the different sizes of the air intakes. The way that these people express themselves is kind of through their engine.”

In addition to revealing something about the culture of a drag race, these sounds were also central to its drama: They were loud and confrontational, or humming with expectation. And because Velez had arranged his microphones to mimic the arrangement of speakers inside a theater, the recordings he got were especially immersive, and seemed as powerful, if not more so, than the shots of people smoking their tires, or explaining why they came. The challenge was to give these recordings a shape that resembled a narrative. Using the working title, “Quarterhorse,” (the film is expected to come out next year), the filmmakers are creating a story about people watching and listening to the spectacle of a drag race. The cars themselves will barely appear.

In setting out to tell a story about a drag race by exploring how it sounds, Velez and Claridge are pushing back on one of the central conventions of documentary filmmaking, namely using dialogue and voice-over to tell a narrative story. “For a long time documentary was caught up in this idea of telling a story,” Velez said. “But one of the unexamined premises of that kind of filmmaking is that you’re following a person around, what they’re saying is going to be primarily the source of the meaning in the film that you end up making. I’m looking for a deeper, more descriptive way of working.”

Velez and Claridge are not the only documentary filmmakers who are knocking language off its pedestal and exploring the wealth of sounds outside the human voice. By taking a sonic approach to telling stories, these filmmakers are tuning into experiences that we might otherwise ignore and using the genre to call attention to how much of the “truth” it conveys comes from how it’s made.

Some of the best sonic documentaries in recent years have come out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, a kind of incubator for films that merge ethnography and aesthetics (both Velez and Claridge studied there). In Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s 2012 film Leviathan, the filmmakers explored commercial fishing by attaching multiple GoPro cameras embedded with microphones to the hull of a trawler as it sloshed and groaned through the frigid North Atlantic.

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Manakamana was shot inside a metal funicular as it ferried Nepalese pilgrims through the sky, across the Himalaya. During post-production of the film, which features very little dialogue, sound designer Ernst Karel (he also mixed the sound for Leviathan) noticed that the funicular was resonating with certain frequencies, like a seashell does when pressed against a human ear. Under Karel’s direction, Velez and Spray amplified these frequencies, giving the pilgrim’s journey a “sci-fi-like” ambience.

The most recent project to be produced by a member of the SEL debuted earlier this month, when J.P Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry was screened at the New York Film Festival. The film begins with a blank screen and the sounds of train brakes squealing in the distance, then, after several minutes, deposits the viewer inside a train as it speeds across China.

“Unlike a lot of train movies, there’s almost no view out of the window of the passing scenery; it’s entirely within the car,” says Karel, who mixed the sound for this film, too. “So the sound at the beginning sort of eases you into that world. It might free your associations.”

Yet Karel says it would be a fallacy to think that recorded sound is somehow more “real” than an image. Speaking of Forest of Bliss, the 1986 documentary that remains a touchstone for many filmmakers, Karel says that the sounds of plucking marigold petals and creaking oars create a heightened version of reality, not an accurate one–a distinction director Robert Gardner, who passed away earlier this year, was upfront about. And as lifelike as Steven Feld’s influential Rain Forest Soundwalks recordings may sound, they are still mediated by microphones and the decisions that Feld made while he was in the field.

Karel addresses the artificiality of recorded media and how to interpret it in a class he teaches at Harvard, called Sonic Ethnography. “It’s similar to the way when film was new, and certain kinds of cuts would be made that audiences didn’t know how to interpret,” Karel says. “Today we read shot-countershot immediately because we’ve developed those techniques over several generations of watching recorded media. The kinds of skills that are involved in listening to recorded media are equally unnatural.”

Some filmmakers use this unnaturalness to construct a character’s inner world, all but erasing the boundaries of fact and fiction, like the 2012 documentary White Black Boy, about an albino boy in Tanzania who had to rely increasingly on his ears as his eyesight diminished. Hoping to tell his story by “putting a microphone inside his brain,” Danish sound designer Peter Albrechtsen and sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard used a specialized accelerometer to record the vibrations of sounds–the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of footsteps, the phumph-phumph-phumph of a bird’s beating heart–to express the boy’s experience of the world around him.

According to Rachael Rakes, a programmer at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, such highly-stylized films represent a departure from the kind of documentary that emerged very strongly in the 1990s, whose focus was on getting as close to the “truth” as possible. “What we’re seeing now is a merging of documentary and experimental traditions,” says Rakes, who co-programmed a series about emerging nonfiction film, called “Art of the Real,” at Lincoln Center last spring. “Although the documentary market seems to be as huge as ever, there’s this parallel trend of hybrid filmmakers who are having their subjects act in a documentary, or making sound-focused work. They are intentionally blurring the line between documentary and fiction.”

Velez and Claridge are blurring a similar boundary. One of their characters will be the race track emcee, who never actually appears on camera because he’s announcing the race from a tower. “I was drawn to his patter,” Velez says. “He becomes a proxy for all the other viewers in the stand. What he’s broadcasting is really just his interior monologue.” The emcee’s disembodied narrative is more spontaneous and poetic than that of a more conventional filmed observer who is guiding viewers through the action.

The film also explores the relationship between a father and son, whom the filmmakers met by chance. “The son is mentally handicapped and he and his dad come to the race track because the son loves the roar of the car. For him, sound is a kind of excitement that’s very physical. He feels in a physical way the power of these cars, and so this is an activity that they do together. They come for the noise.” Velez and Claridge are hoping audiences will, too.

Damaris Colhoun is CJR’s digital correspondent covering the media business. A reporter at large in New York, Colhoun has also written for The Believer, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Atlas Obscura. Find her on Twitter @damarisdeere.