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Acoustic ambience in cinematography : an exploration of the descriptive and emotive impact of the descriptive and emotive impact of the aural environment.

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Ambience is deftned by the American Heritage Dictionary as "the special atmosphere or mood created by a particular environment" This definition reveals the ubiquitous and ambiguous identity of acoustic ambience, as "environment" is a broad collective term. Unlike music or dialogue, ambience in film is akin to peripheral vision: once focused upon it loses a collective identity. Yet, there is a means to unravelling the aural atmosphere of a particular environment The solution in defining ambient sound lies primarily in the logical process of eliminating the tangible sound components within the soundtrack of ftlrn. Metaphorically speaking the soundtrack may be seen as a glass jar. The solid rocks placed in the jar are the major components of film: voice, sound effects and music. All other sound is like coloured liquid poured around the rocks. Not only does liquid fill the jar, but also affects the appearance of the rocks. Consequendy we encounter unique practical examples that weaken terminology and provide inevitable exceptions to the rule. The lack of theoretical development in a medium borne in the late nineteen twenties is both mystifying and understandable. Sound is the underdog to visuals, and ambience is overlooked for more recognizable components such as music. Indeed, there are multitudes of books on music and sound effects (impact effects) in film. Ambience however, appears to be advanced in practical application but primitive in theoretical exploration. Exploring sound film holistically has not deterred all theorists. Michel Chion is a pioneer who devises credible terminology with an emphasis on the equality of sound and visuals. Naturally, in a medium rife with subjective interpretation, it is all but impossible to make cut and dry theoretical statements. Chion comments: Of course we must continue to refine and fill in our typology of film sound. We must add new catego~es-not claiming thereby to exhaust all possibilities, but at least to enlarge the scope, to recogmze, define, and develop new areas." [1] This statement outlines the aim of part one. I have drawn on Chion's terminology relevant or related to ambience, as well as defined new areas. The greater part of this research article contains new terminology in cases where no established theoretical identifications relevant to ambience were found. As a reference point, I have created and proposed the following new terms: Ambience as a Cultural Reflector, Ambience as a Musical Trait, Ambience of Indefinite Status, Ambience Recall, Ambient Synchronism, Dual-Perspective Location Indicator, Epic Ambience as Abstract Narrative, Illuminated Sound, Impact Effects, Lexical Ambience, Macro-Contrast and Micro-Contrast, Music as a Hindrance, Ratio of Active or Dormant Diegetic Ambience, Rhythmic Density and Idee Fixe, Source Ambience, and Source Extension. These terms will be explained in part one and illustrated in part two. The terms are significandy applicable to theoretical exploration and are not direcdy intended for a practitioner's utilisation. Unidentified sound components must be discovered in order for analytical insight to expand. This article therefore became an investigation of ambience terminology through necessity owing to the absence of established theory. Part two will demonstrate most of the tangible terms discussed in part one through examples. It seemed more practical to select films that contain at least three constituents of ambience discussed in part one. Two of the films, Blade Runner and 2001:A Space Ocfyssry are recognized as pivotal films for innovative use of sound, and rich source of inspiration for developing new terminology, "Blade Runneris arguably the most famous and influential science fiction film ever made. It has exerted a pervasive influence over all subsequent science fiction cinema, and indeed our cultural perceptions of the future."[2] 2001:A Space Ocfyssry shares similar acclaim, "2001: A Space Ocfyssry (1968) is a landmark science fiction classic-and probably the best science-fiction film of all time."[3] Panic Room and The Fellowship qfthe Ring are contemporary films that both use unique methods in sound design. Naturally, there are hundreds if not thousands of films that would provide further material for theoretical expansion. Within the length limitations of this research article, however, the selection seems equally balanced.


Thesis (M.Mus.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal,Durban, 2005.


Motion picture music--History and criticism., Motion picture music., Theses--Music.