So, I had a realization the other day, while trying to wrap my brain around this project I’m working on. Essentially, the insight came in two steps. I was talking to my wife about creative ways to get around the fact we’re missing clips and video content that was originally mandated in the screenplay for our current film project. One of the points I made was that, since we cannot reshoot anything, it’s up to us to think creatively about how to rework the script to tell the story, while taking up the challenge of turning the missing pieces into a feature, instead of a flaw. This is something you have to do when you’re working on low-budget indie films anyway, but low-budget indie SF is especially this way.
That’s in the spirit of the original idea for the film, anyway, and, indeed, in the spirit of the original story. See the toy guys in the women’s hands? Those are in the original novella: the women have to hack children’s toys to produce weapons that effectively fight off an alien invasion. (… carried out by brainjacked ansible-using aliens from across the galaxy…)
We took a different angle, of course: our film was supposed to be a subjective presentation of the experience of the interrogation that comes after the main action of the story–the weeks later, when cleanup is mostly done, and the Galactic Federation is trying to figure out what in the bloody hell happened on Earth. Since the Federation’s representatives are many light years away (and FTL travel doesn’t exist in this universe), that means interview via brainjacked ansible uplink.
I knew that when we started shooting. I just didn’t understand the implications till we turned up short on some footage. That shortage led to a revelation.
The revelation? Trans-galactic interrogation via brainjacked ansible uplink configured for alien minds ought to be a deeply weird experience anyway. Not a little weird. Deeply weird.
This led to some interesting discussion of alien visual style, subconscious-mind-ish visual rhetoric, stuff like that. Note the emphasis on visual. Lots of cool, weird, strange ideas came up, and we were both energized by that.
Then I sat down to try work on the musical soundtrack. Note the word musical. See the error of my ways?
I didn’t for a day or so: hacking and hacking at producing classic ambient-sounding stuff–stuff that sounds like stuff off The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, like this:
… except, less sample-loaded and intrusive, more background-ey, because it’s supposed to underlie narration crucial to the audience understanding the film.
Then I realized: I’m not supposed to make music.
I’m supposed to do sound design. I’m supposed to take the audio from the voiceovers, and jam it through all kinds of filters running at different rates, and phasers, and stuff–and do it subtly. I’m supposed to run a modulating, evolving drone, so there’s a sense of depth and disorientation, a meditative feeling, and mix it with other ambient noises, and distortion processes, and add static, and stuff like that. I’m supposed to simulate problems in the telecom system, too–anyone who’s had to listen to telephone music on hold via Skype knows what I mean: the compensating systems that make audio run slower, then faster, then back to normal, to make up for uneven data flow…
In short, I’m supposed to sculpt and craft the complete sound for the film, mixing in some subconscious materials bubbling up from the (interrogated) character’s mind, and so on. I’m designing a soundscape, not “making a soundtrack.” I’d lost sight of the fact that films are not made of disparate bits of media: they’re not one video track and one audio track combined, at least, not the great films. The music is timed to what’s on the screen; the harmony of music made for in black-and-white films fits the cinematography, and so on. Sure, lots of movies get by just injecting familiar songs and hoping for emotional resonance. But we can do better than that.
A great modern-day version of this is the film Sinister, which, to be honest, has a so-so plotline, but is nonetheless creepy as all hell because of its incredible, revelatory sound design. One thing that tips you off is–they use the actual music and sound design from the film in the movie. (I see that much less often than you might think.) Check it out:
The sound design in Sinister is absolutely wedded to both the visual content of the film, and to the emotional story. That’s what I need to shoot for, except even moreso: Sinister gives us access to the subjective emotional experience of its protagonist, so the music and the sounds that lock together with the images also lock together with the film’s emotional story in a way that gives it an intense, overwhelming effectiveness.
Well, our film is unusual in its departure from the conventions of visual narrative in films. It can’t go ahead and follow the conventions of film music, and work. That film would suck, because it would be fundamentally inconsistent, and not in a useful way. In our film, we’re trying to go a step deeper into the consciousness: to actually convey the experience of the ansible interrogation as the protagonist experiences it. It’s like we’re eavesdropping on direct experience inside someone else’s brain.
Which reminds me of another breakthrough insight regarding this film project, but I can’t talk about that. So… well, I should get to bed anyway.