“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
September 21, 2007
This week we moved on into the sound age, the “talkies” and all the beauties and difficulties thereof. True, none of the “silent” movies were really silent. Every theatre had at least a piano or organ, and the bigger ones featured a live orchestra. But it wasn’t until 1927 that audiences could actually hear the actor’s voice coming from the screen (or speakers behind the screen). At first, studios thought this might be a passing fad. But millions flocked to see Al Jolson in the Jazz Singer and his immortal line, “Wait a minute… wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” So the rest of the studios joined in and embraced the new technology.
Download the worksheet here: music and sound handout
The answers are as follows:
As we saw in a clip from “Singin’ in the Rain,” this was a tricky transition. Performers had to huddle around microphones hidden in plant pots. Noisy cameras had to be placed behind glass in an immobile soundproofed booth. Crosscutting was all but prohibited by the difficulties of matching sound and vision. Not to mention many of the actors whose voices didn’t match their appearance. “The subtle imagery of the silent era had been replaced by illustrated radio.” (-John Naughton) You probably won’t see many more boring films that those made in 1928-29 (except the few that were still silent, like Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Check it out, y’all, it’ll blow you away.)
But by 1930 the technical hitches had largely been ironed out and the masterpieces began to flow. If you’re curious, check out Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, or Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel.
For the most part, the sound effects in these early movies were pretty straightforward. They used whatever sounds were made on set during production. But in 1933, with King Kong, sound designers started getting more creative. They used their imaginations for what a dinosaur and a giant gorilla might sound like. And not just what they might actually sound like, but what they should sound like, what sounds would add the best effect to their movie. Rather than recording a real gorilla, they used sounds of a lion for King Kong’s voice, and used another lion played backwards for the T-rex. When Kong breaks the dinosaur’s jaw, we don’t hear a real bone breaking, but more like a tree trunk cracking. Thus was born the classicist tradition of sound effects.
See, with classicism, we don’t want the actual sounds, we want heightened impact, we want what it should sound like. We don’t want to hear real punching sounds during a fistfight. You can’t hear real punches, they aren’t loud enough. We don’t want to hear real laser sounds in star wars. Real lasers don’t make any sound. We want the ideal sound for the moment. And we want the sounds recorded in a studio where there’s no airplanes or trucks or babies crying in the background to distract us.
Realists on the other hand are happy to use the sounds of real life. If you’re filming an interview in a backyard, and the neighbor is mowing their lawn, no problem, it adds to the environment. Realists want to show how it actually sounds