Aug 22 2023

For Movies – Animals Don’t Sound Real Enough

What does a majestic eagle sound like, or the hoot of a spider monkey, or the roar of a bear? Unless you have an interest in movie tropes, or listen regularly to the SGU, you may have a complete misconception about the sounds these and many other animals make. Eagles, for example, do not make that cool-sounding screech that is almost always paired with a video of an eagle. That is the sound of a red-tailed hawk, which has become the standard sound movies use for any raptor. Eagles make a high-pitched chirping sound. If you have seen a bear roar in a movie, chances are the sound you heard was that of a tiger. All primates hoot like a chimp, all frogs “ribbit” like that one species whose range includes Hollywood.

The same is true of soundscapes. If there is a scene of a jungle, then you will hear a classic jungle soundscape, even if it includes animals from a different continent. If you are in a more foreboding or swampy area, you will hear a loon. Doesn’t matter where the actual location is supposed to be.

I understand why this is the case. Modern moviemaking is, in part, an agreed-upon cultural language. The writer/director/costumer/set-dresser/editor/music director are all communicating to the audience. They are trying to efficiently create a mood, or convey a situation, or signal to the audience something about a location or a character. There are ways to do this using a pre-existing movie language. If someone just came back from grocery shopping, the paper bags they are carrying will have a baguette sticking out the top, and/or carrot tops. This is not because, statistically, that is what a grocery bag is likely to contain, but rather it instantly lets the audience know what they are.

Similarly, with animals sounds, a majestic animal must sound majestic. A large predator must roar like a large predator. The problem for movie makers is that often reality does not sound real enough. It doesn’t convey the emotion or danger that a scene might require.

So – I get all this, and I’m not really complaining, just making an observation. But I do think heavy reliance on such tropes can have downsides worth discussing. One is that they can become lazy, even unnecessary. Have you noticed that every time someone steps in front of a live microphone there is a moment of feedback? Is that really necessary? Isn’t the fact of the amplified voice enough to convey to the audience that the mic is live? I get the feeling that at some point things like this are done just because they are done. It becomes a thoughtless part of the process – y0u have to add the feedback every time someone steps up to a live mic.

I was watching a show the other day when another trope slapped me in the face – the tire screech. Whenever a car pulls out to follow another car, or escape, or whatever, there’s a tire screech. That let’s us know the car is going fast, with intention, and we should feel the drama and intensity of the scene. In one sequence it was added every single time the car turned a corner, even when there was no way the car was going fast enough to produce a screech. They added the screech even when the car was on a dirt road. It was enough to take me out of the experience of watching the show.

Again, I get it, movies are art. They are not supposed to reflect reality, they are supposed to create an experience. But that doesn’t mean there is no reason for concern. The movie language becomes an unthinking part of the background. The language goes both ways – directors are communicating to the audience, but they are also creating expectations and reinforcing that language. Iconic scene by iconic scene, the language it built. If you have kids and watch cartoons you will see this in much more obvious fashion, as movie and tv tropes are often blatantly exploited, usually tongue-in-cheek, but it’s there. Children are taught the language of cinema tropes from a very young age.

Here is where the concern comes in – while I have been talking mostly about sound tracks, the same phenomenon exists when it comes to all narrative aspects of movie-making. There are some tropes that are not so benign, the reinforce implicit prejudices. While audience are learning the cinema language, they are also learning that scientists are socially awkward mavericks with preternatural mental abilities (so, not you). They are learning that black people have magical powers, that all corporate executives are automatically villains, and that the solution to every problem is to just have enough faith. Lazy tropes actually shape our culture to some extent, and can reinforce some of the worst aspects of it. They can create dangerous misconceptions – gunshot wounds can be minor, getting knocked out is no big deal, or that women always start labor with their water breaking. They reinforce stereotypes – smart kids are always nerds (and always wear glasses), jocks are always bullies, pretty girls are always mean. Movies have glamorized smoking, and romanticized war. They can reinforce conspiracy thinking – that crazy guy with the outlandish conspiracy theory always seems to turn out to be correct.

I also think that lazy tropes can insult the intelligence of the audience. Do we really need to hear fake animal sounds to get a scene? Would it challenge us too much to hear an animal sound we don’t expect, or for a character to break a common mold. Some good movies do this – they deliberately break expectations and tropes. Some classic movies are also timeless partly because they don’t fall into lazy tropes. Perhaps I have just been watching movies for too long, but I would not mind if most of these silly movie tropes went away, and were replaced with actual creativity.

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