Journalist/critic Virginia Heffernan wrote a thoughtful summary essay in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine about the 2010 Academy Award nominees for best sound-design.

Sound-design is, of course, one of those categories for which the award is presented long before George Clooney ever steps out of his limo. Awards for technical production are a funny contrast to the glitz that comes later in the night – most sound designers, however talented, won’t be mistaken for having personal trainers. But I suppose it’s only apt that an award for sound isn’t the most telegenic moment at the Oscars.

Nevertheless, the convincing consensus – and of course our position here – is that a movie’s aurality has a great deal to do with how audiences receive and understand it, as we’ve explored in the past. These days, sound design is attached to every second of a film. Only a fragment of what the viewer hears was recorded while the scene was being acted out – most were added after the fact, in the studio, from crowds murmuring to doors slamming, from feet shuffling to guns firing. But the aim of the sound designer is higher than realism. Characters are tagged with “sonic signatures” to deepen their personalities. Weapons are made fearsome, encounters tense, exotic locations present, fictional things real, and drama obvious. Sound is crucial to making us feel.

Ms. Heffernan generously agreed to an interview with Weird Vibrations, in which she elaborates on her article, and fleshes out her thoughts on sound and violence – this year’s crop of nominees, as it happens, are almost all war pictures. Excerpts from the five nominated films are interwoven.

Weird Vibrations: How did you do the research for this article?

Virginia Heffernan: All I did was watch and listen to the films, very slowing and haltingly, with lots of pausing. (With the exception of Avatar, which I saw in the theater; I don’t envy movie critics who attend screenings and can’t pause!) I also read the articles and watched the videos in which the sound editors discussed each film. I did not speak to any of the nominated sound editors until after the piece ran, and then only because one emailed me. I always want to be entirely audience-side, a reader who doesn’t know or speak to authors, though I realize that by pausing and making notes I corrupt the experience somewhat, and I may miss the forest for the trees sometimes. In some cases (Inglourious Basterds and The Hurt Locker) I listened again straight through, to get the full effect.

WV: Sound designers often claim that their work operates at something like a subconscious level – at least compared to cinematography, screen-writing, etc. Why don’t viewers notice sound? Is this quasi-hidden status a burden or an opportunity for sound-design?

VH: It may be that the critical vocabulary for sound is just displaced. Good acting, for example, seems to me to be largely tonality of voice. So people talk about “acting” instead of talking about tone and pitch and sound design. There’s an ethical dimension, too, especially where violence is concerned. NFL Films mikes uniforms to make these robot-looking players seem “human” and raise the stakes. UFC fighting doesn’t use body mikes to downplay, I think, the scary squish of soft tissue and crack of bones in half-dressed men who look all-too-human as they fight hand-to-hand. A person watching might conclude that X pro football player is “a good guy” meaning he makes human sounds, while X mixed-martial arts fighter is “a machine” because he doesn’t. They think they’re reflecting on personality and goodness and effectiveness; in fact, they’re reflecting on sound.

The fact that viewers don’t notice sound qua sound–that they call it “performance,” say–makes life more interesting for critics, who like to disaggregate these things. It may be a burden for sound designers who have a rock-star side, and an opportunity for sound designers who have a stealth/spy side.

WV: Does the ethical dimension of sound in sports coverage also extend to fiction? There are longstanding debates over the ethics of visual depiction (violence, sex, smoking – these seem to be the basis of film ratings). Beyond curse words, should we be thinking about sonic rights and wrongs as well? Can the treatment of sound in fiction make us numb to injustice or violence?

VH: I don’t really know about those things. As a viewer, listener, reader, user, I tend to want more art, and not think about the consequences. I also don’t draw much distinction between fiction and other kinds of spectacles–sports, documentary, etc.

Put it this way: I do think that UFC fighting might be unwatchable if the fighters were miked. Very interestingly, to my mind, a contestant on a VH1 reality show called “Tough Love” recently went on a date with a big, burly MMA fighter to a sparring match. The fighter was put in a choke hold and briefly passed out in front of her. To me, the fighter-suitor seemed pretty cool and attractive the whole way through–at least as cool as the men in pay-per-view UFC fighting. But to her, after he passed out, he became horrifying and actual hateful. Having been hugely attracted to him, she decided he was “passive” and could hardly look at him. I wonder if she might have heard, live in the cage, a whimper or choking sound that I couldn’t hear at home, and that made him seem the opposite of heroic. Probably if we heard the vulnerability in fighters’ bodies, we’d find them unbearable. Maybe we’d move to outlaw UFC fighting, and maybe that would be a good thing.

Should we hear the crackle and singe of cigarette smoke on lung tissue, to remind us that smoking causes cancer? I can imagine, in a fiction film, that that could deepen characterization and ambiance in a fascinating way–you could hear a character killing himself, you could tune in to his vulnerability and deathwish. But does fiction have a public-health *obligation* to play up this effect? That’s not the role of fiction.

WV: It’s interesting to consider that four of the five sound-design nominees are war films. Meanwhile, the management of sound also plays an enormous role in real warfare today. iPods and noise-canceling headphones, to name just a couple of technologies, are ubiquitous on the battlefield – for communication, mood-enhancement, personal space, nostalgia, safety, you name it. The military is invested, for all intents and purposes, in sound-design for its soldiers. What are your thoughts about a theater of war in which real fighting has become something of a cinematic experience?

VH: Public consciousness of sound design seems to have been exponentially heightened with Braveheart, don’t you think? Maybe war sound is the only sound we now routinely call “sound.”

Possibly the reason I keep turning to sports, fighting and war in thinking about sound is not just because martial arenas have sound attached to them (Star Trek keeps up a marching-band volume, I think I wrote; the sort of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” major-chords/anthem/trudge sound) but because you can do broader characterizations with sound–as in the Nazi “click”–when there’s an us-and-them context. Since WWII, in movies, and now in semi-satire like Tarantino, bad people often click, snap, rap and are brisk. The feminist-earth-heroes of Avatar make that wing-flap-whoosh sound. Giovanni Ribisi had some wonderfully unctuous/officious sounds associated with him in Avatar too; I think I call that his “performance.” ;) But I’ll have to see those scenes again to see if there were effects apart from his voice. What I mean is that Hollywood movies with good and bad guys (reality TV works this way too) gives good opportunities for playful and even sophisticated sound design (the right “click,” the deconstructed “click”), even though the ethical universe of a Hollywood film or a reality show may be childish and even stupid. I love it when the sound (or palette, etc) is smarter than the movie, or the script, or even serves to undermine it. . .You can get fascinating, if sometimes bewildering, effects.

Clearly Kathryn Bigelow was interested in “embedded” as a vantage on war. She also was interested in the cameraphone and the possibility of YouTube uploaders (who take crude sound, even; one character mentions YouTube in the film) as witnesses to war. These figures obviously watch and listen from a different place than did the consumers and producers of newsreels, whose aesthetic probably determined the look and feel of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” etc. And I have no doubt–though I should admit it’s merely an article of faith with me–that these representations, and ways of producing and consuming war, affect how wars are actually fought.

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