I Am Sitting in a Room, Listening to Mank
Some of the decisions taken in the creation of the soundtrack for Mank (David Fincher, 2020) raise interesting questions about the reception of film sound in the domestic viewing/listening space. This research in particular focuses on the re-recording of the film’s soundtrack on the Skywalker Scoring Stage and the impact this ‘spatialisation’ of the soundtrack has on our listening experience.
How is home media reception shaped by the manipulation of the sonic space of Mank’s soundtrack?
Might the re-recording process used on Mank’s soundtrack suggest a method by which films released into the domestic market could retain the reverberant sonic signature of cinematic exhibition?
My research intersects with the broad base of existing theoretical work concerning the film soundtrack. The spatialisation of recorded sound and the attendant reverb characteristics of the recording have been noted across the body of sound research, not just in relation to film. From Bela Balázs in 1970 “A sound recorded in a cellar remains a cellar sound even if it is played back in a picture theatre” (p.214) to Andy Birtwistle in 2017 “The quality of reverberation that contributes to the temporal profile of a sound is also inextricably linked with the physical space in which a sound event takes place” (p.16) there is a clarity concerning the manner in which the sonic characteristics of a space can inform a sound reproduced (and possibly recorded) in that space.
In terms of the multi-channel soundtrack, Michel Chion coined the term “superfield” which is “…the space created, in multitrack films, by ambient natural sounds, city noises, music, and all sorts of rustlings that surround the visual space…” (1994, p.150) and Mark Kerins has subsequently developed this into the Ultrafield, “… the three-dimensional sonic environment of the diegetic world…” (2010, p.92).
Whilst considerations of the reverberant nature of sounds (and spaces) is key in the exploration of Mank’s soundtrack, it is also apparent that the approach taken by the filmmakers in spatialising Mank’s soundtrack is somewhat anomalous within recognised soundtrack production practise. Both the superfield and ultrafield are distinct in their contention that the multi-channel soundtrack is an evocation of the film’s diegesis, but in this case the entirety of the films soundtrack (music, sound effects, dialogue and Foley) has been mixed in such a way as to carry the reverberant characteristics of a non-diegetic space.
The closest analogue to the process adopted here is “worldization”, a concept attributed to Walter Murch and employed by him notably on THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971). In a guest post for the website Designing Sound I defined worldization as “…a technique Walter Murch developed early in his career where he would take a piece of music, dialogue or FX, reproduce it in a real space using a portable tape machine and speaker, and then re-record it on another machine in an attempt to inform the original sound with some of the acoustic properties of the space” (Donnelly, 2012). As Murch employed it, the process is used as a means of adding the sound of a particular space (its characteristic reverberation) to a ‘dry’ sound which would then be mixed into the final film soundtrack. Where the Mank soundtrack deviates from the recognised process of worldization is in the global nature of its application to the film soundtrack, and also in how carefully it has been mixed “…to taste…” (Tonebenders, 2020). The process is somewhat similar, but the end result needs to be considered in a different context.
The work of Alvin Lucier itself, and ‘I Am Sitting in a Room’ (1969) in particular, suggests a method that we might use to interrogate the spatialisation of Mank’s soundtrack. Rather than consider it as a piece of soundtrack production which has been created for maximum compatibility and translatability in our domestic listening environment, we might perhaps better understand it as a recording of a one off installation performance (Davis, 2003). Just as the recording of Lucier’s composition that I use in this essay can be placed very specifically in space and time, so can Mank’s soundtrack. Though it might be composed of many disparate elements of sound, voice, and music, recorded across many different times and places, they are all homogenised through the ‘performance’ and re-recording of the soundtrack on the Skywalker Scoring Stage. The spatialised soundtrack then acts as a perceptual bridge of sorts, between the time and space in which we might choose to watch Mank, and the specific corresponding instant of the film’s playback on the Skywalker Scoring Stage.
The question of soundtrack reception I raise in the body of the video essay is framed around the research of Johan-Magnus Elvemo and Mark Kerins. Kerins suggests the goal of the digital surround soundtrack is to place the audience “…in the middle of the diegetic environment and action,” whilst Elvemo expands on this, suggesting that the surround soundtrack also impacts on our spatial perception of the room we are watching and listening to the film in. I make the point here that these discussions must now also consider the domestic viewing/listening space as well as the cinematic, particularly in light of recent global events and the shifting fortunes of theatrical film releases. Again, the particularities of the creation of the soundtrack for Mank place it in something of a category of its own in terms of reception. The careful mixing of the soundtrack, and the fact that the spatialisation effect is the only element mixed in the surround speakers of the multi-channel soundtrack, places the soundtrack somewhere in the hinterland of ‘space perception’ as noted in work by Neofytos Kaplanis et.al. (2014). Where Elvemo’s research considers the two representational spaces we encounter when listening to a film (the cinematic and the receptive) Mank introduces a third space which I suggest serves to mediate between the other 2, redefining the space in which we listen to the film and potentially unifying the receptive and the cinematic.
The research by Elvemo, which I refer to in my video essay, is underpinned by elements of gestalt theory and phenomenology which inform the discussion of the cinematic and domestic viewing/listening space (2013). Here I have also considered how the perception of space might be impacted in relation to Mank’s soundtrack (Kaplanis et.al. 2014). This theoretical consideration intersects with certain practicalities of soundtrack post-production which, in this specific case, are described by Ren Klyce in his interview with Jennifer Walden (2020) and which are more generally explored in works such as Tomlinson Holman’s ‘Surround Sound: Up and Running’ (2007).
I chose to use the video essay form to present this research as it offers distinct advantages to the investigation of the film soundtrack. To attempt to render this research solely using the written word would require a translation into language which would struggle to convey the nuance and subtlety of the sonic elements under discussion. The video essay not only permits a foregrounding of “…the poetic force of the source materials…” (Keathley & MIttell, 2019), it also promotes careful consideration of the time and perceptual space that are given to the sonic materials contained within. In this video essay the sound, rather than the image content, dictated the final form of the piece, and also informed the manner in which the research was narrated and conveyed.
Using Alvin Lucier’s composition ‘I Am Sitting in a Room’ as a framing device for the research suggested to me that the sound and texture of my own voice recording needed careful consideration. As such I recorded my voice in a naturally reverberant space which I hope helps the listener situate me as an acoustically grounded voice, rather than an amorphous voiceover.
The short sequence of crowd sourced recordings included in this essay is by no means exhaustive. It is not included here to suggest any empirical findings from this research, but rather to illustrate the impact of the spatialised soundtrack in domestic listening environments, and perhaps to suggest that it appears to imbue a certain sonic ‘commonality’ to these different spaces.
In the production of the video essay I have taken care to create a soundtrack which is representative of my research intentions. To this end I have mixed the soundtrack elements from Mank to mirror as closely as possible the spatial position of the original 5.1 mix using Sennheiser’s AMBEO Oribit plugin. And with both Alvin Lucier and Ren Klyce in mind, I have suggested that the video essay be played back on speakers (where possible) to encourage a further engagement between the sound of the film, the video essay, and the room that it is being listened to in.
This video essay highlights a particular post-production decision in the creation of the soundtrack for Mank and suggests how, in its deviation from the modern norms of soundtrack production, it raises questions about the reception of film sound in the domestic space and also how those spaces react to sound.
This research also considers the potential value that this re-recording process could add to films which receive simultaneous, or near simultaneous release to streaming platforms (Barnes & Sperling, 2020; Rubin & Donnelly, 2020). The addition of the reverberant sonic signature of cinematic exhibition to original film soundtracks could provide a valuable perceptual link between the domestic viewing/listening space and the ‘big screen’ experience.
On a more fundamental level I hope to continue to explore the value of the video essay format for the investigation of the film soundtrack, both in terms of its production and reception.
This submission is the first dissemination of this particular piece of research. It does exist as part of the larger body of research I am currently engaged in for my PhD and I have published some of this work in NECSUS (Donnelly, 2020).
This research will inform my conference presentation ‘Monochromasonics – the Sound of Black and White’ which I will be delivering at Futureworks, Manchester in June 2021.
Balázs, B. (1970) Theory of the Film; Character and Growth of a New Art. New York: Dover Publications.
Birtwistle, A. (2017) Cinesonica: sounding film and video. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Chion, M. (1994) Audio-vision: sound on screen. New York: Columbia University Press.
Davis, R. (2003) ‘… and what they do as they’re going…: sounding space in the work of Alvin Lucier. Organised Sound, 8(2), pp.205-212.
Donnelly, C. (2012) ‘Analog Worldization’. Designing Sound [online]. Available from https://designingsound.org/2012/12/31/analog-worldization/ [accessed 26 March 2021]
Donnelly, C. (2020) ‘Sonic Chronicle, Post Sound’. NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies [online]. Available from https://necsus-ejms.org/sonic-chronicle-post-sound/ [accessed 31 March 2021]
Elvemo, J.M. (2013) ‘Spatial perception and diegesis in multi-channel surround cinema’. The New Soundtrack. 3(1), pp.31-44.
Galibert-Laîné, C. (2018) ‘Watching The Pain of Others’ [online]. Available from https://vimeo.com/298425068
Holman, T. (2014) Surround sound: up and running. New York: Focal Press.
Kaplanis, N., Bech, S., Jensen, S.H. and van Waterschoot, T. (2014) ‘Perception of reverberation in small rooms: a literature study’. In Audio engineering society conference: 55th international conference: Spatial audio. Audio Engineering Society.
Keathley, C. and Mittell, J. (2019) ‘Scholarship in Sound & Image: A Pedagogical Essay’. The Videographic Essay: Practice and Pedagogy [online]. Available from http://videographicessay.org/works/videographic-essay/scholarship-in-sound–image?path=contents
Kerins, M. (2010) Beyond Dolby (stereo): cinema in the digital sound age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Rodgers, T. (2018) Approaching Sound. In The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities (pp. 233-242). Routledge.
Sennheiser (2020) AMBEO Orbit [software]: https://en-us.sennheiser.com/ambeo-orbit
Tonebenders. (2021) Ren Klyce on Mank. Tonebenders [Podcast]. [Accessed 7 September 2021]. Available from: https://tonebenderspodcast.com/156-ren-klyce-on-mank/.
I Am Sitting in a Room (Alvin Lucier, 1969, USA)
Mank (David Fincher, 2020, USA)
Se7en (David Fincher, 1995, USA)
THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971, USA)