February 12, 2017
This Oscar is Just So Much Background Noise [ARNS]
by ELMORE TERADONOVICH, Alternate Reality News Service Film and Television Writer
Have you ever been watching a movie and been taken out of a scene because, although it is set in a Russian tattoo parlour and skeeball joint, the hum of conversation in the background was obviously recorded in a bowling alley in Schenectady, Prince Edward Island during a darts tournament? Neither have I. The differences are so small that you would have to have been a sound engineer with decades of experience to be able to tell.
"Actually, I'm a sound engineer with decades of experience, and I can't tell the difference," stated Elmer Vedonaterre, a sound engineer with - okay, you already know that about him. But, did you know that he was recently awarded a Best Achievement By a Sound Engineer with Decades of...You Know Oscar? You did? Why am I bothering to write this, then?
We'll deal with my existential crisis some other time. For now, what you need to know is: the sound of crowds used in the background of all Hollywood movies comes from three sources: a speakeasy scene in 1934's Golddiggers of Broadway in Space, a football game in The Elephant's Big Moustache (1947) and a political rally in the musical It Could Be You (But Let's Pretend It's Not), released in 1941. These are then tweaked with extreme prejudice as needed.
Suppose, for example, that you are doing the sound for a restaurant scene in a romantic comedy. You would take the football game, mute the roars of the crowd and add the tinkling of glasses. If a crowd roar happened to get through the sound editing process, you could always recommend writing into the script that the scene was happening in a sports bar on the night of the big game; the amount of reshooting you would have to do would be minimal.
Why did you think so many restaurant scenes in romantic comedies happen in sports bars?
Vedonaterre took a different approach to sound editing: what if you populated the background sound with artificial intelligences that were having real conversations? If that was the case, you could Taylor (after famed voiceover artist Elizabeth) background noises to fit any scene you had.
Suppose, for example, you were editing the sound for a scene in a romantic comedy where the rebel alliance is planning on attacking the empire's home planet. (Yes, the film has a bit of an identity crisis - that can happen when you have 37 writers work on a screenplay - but I've already complained about that so often that my computer keyboard is hoarse.) You can create an AI flight engineer who spouts nothing but incomprehensible technical jargon, an AI hotshot pilot who spouts nothing but incomprehensible flying jargon, an AI rebel leader who spouts nothing but incomprehensible political jargon, an AI robot who spouts nothing but incomprehensible tweets and whistles and...and...and, what do I look like - a screenwriter? Fill the scene with your own damn characters!
Ahem. I'm sorry you had to witness that. I...was recently in a car accident that left me in a coma.
The point is that once you have filled the scene with individual characters, you can mix them together to create a unique background soundscape appropriate for each scene of your film. And that is what Vedonaterre won his Oscar for. Nobody in the audience is likely to know, but
"Roger Ebert will know," Vedonaterre interrupted.
Okay, nobody in the audience, except Roger Ebert, will know how much work was put into the
"Germanium Angleterre will know," Vedonaterre interrupted. Again.
Who is Germanium Angleterre?
"The woman with the most acute hearing on the planet," Vedonaterre explained. "She works as a pre-bouncer at the Metropolitan Opera, identifying the one voice complaining about the tenor's bout of hiccups in the second act and pointing the person out to staff so that he can be banned for life. She would recognize the amazingness of my accomplishment!"
Okay, fine. Other than freaks and film critics - I'm not going to say that they are often the same thing - readers are mature, perceptive adults who can make that connection for themselves - nobody is ever going to notice all of the work that goes into creating these soundscapes. Is it really worth all the effort?
"Are you questioning the basis of my Oscar win?" Vedonaterre indignantly responded. "Jesus begesus, I'll bet you're the guy who tells six year-olds there's no such thing as the Easter bunny!"