Narrative strategies and acoustic ecologies

Bobette Buster

Northeastern professor of storytelling and prior Hollywood film and TV developer Bobette Buster led the third session of the Active Listening workshop, called “Narrative strategies and acoustic ecologies.” She discussed the use of hearing as a way to understand stories, pointing to popular films like “Star Wars” and “The Godfather” as exceptional examples of how to further a plot with sound design.

Buster is in the midst of finishing a documentary called “Making Waves” about the history of sound design and how it has helped propel film narratives. In her lecture, Buster dove into this history.

It was George Lucas, the filmmaker who created “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” who decided to reinvent filmmaking with a particular emphasis on sound design. Sound, he would say, is 50 percent of the experience. But before his time, Hollywood just saw sound as something to be manufactured in the studio, not retrieved, recorded and edited together from the real world.

Before “Star Wars,” Buster said essentially all sci-fi and fantasy movie sound effects were electronic. But Lucas wanted to create a future universe in his film through extraordinary characters and scenes. So to build a connection between these unfamiliar visuals and the audience, Lucas and sound designer Ben Burtt had to base the movie’s audio on things people could understand.

“George Lucas just simply wanted this to have the sound of reality,” Buster said. “Darth Vader’s breathing, the light sabers, they are real sounds from our universe, and that’s how you anchor the audience into the story.”

The hardest part of developing the sound for “Star Wars” was developing R2-D2’s language, Buster said. As the sound designer, Burtt spent months painstakingly developing this sound because he wanted to create an expression and tonality of sound within the beeps. As one of the few characters speaking an unearthly language without subtitles, Burtt had to make the audience believe in R2-D2’s intentionality of language.

“There comes a point where, of course it’s a wall of sound, but you start listening to the intention and tonality of another person’s language and you begin to fall into the language in a whole new way,” Buster said.

“Star Wars” launched Burtt into the spotlight as the rock star of sound design, creating an industry for the field in California and drawing filmmakers from all over the world.

Buster also detailed the importance of sound to the climactic scene of “The Godfather,” directed by Lucas’ friend and fellow film sound revolutionary, Francis Coppola.

During the scene, there are three layers of the story — the baptism of Michael Corleone’s niece and to-be goddaughter, the heads of the Five Families of New York crime going about their average Sunday mornings, and Corleone damning himself to hell as he accepts the Eucharist knowing very well he has ordered those five men’s deaths.

The organ music indicates a rising tension to say something big is about to happen, while also tying in with the religious ceremony of the baptism. The sound of a baby crying shows the sense of helplessness Michael Corleone feels. Silence falls when he speaks. The ring of a bell indicates the sound of a new destiny after the deaths of all his enemies.

“This film series is not just an action series. It’s one of the great epic stories in cinema,” Buster said. “It goes beyond what you expect of the genre. You could not carry that whole sequence if you weren’t creating a thread of sound design.”

Since directors Lucas and Coppola broke the boundaries of sound in film, many movies have used the medium in compelling ways. Buster pointed to “Life of Pi,” a movie featuring a boy, tiger, and boat on the ocean, and how the directors used different storms to convey different ideas. “Here, thunder has to sound like the voice of god, and over here it’s isolation and sorrow,” she said. “It has to have an emotional content.”

This revolution of sound also resulted in acoustic ecologies, a field invented by Bernie Krause that involves recording the most pristine environments around the world to allow people to hear the extinction we cannot easily see. The field’s creation was a result of the advanced sound technology that evolved out of Lucas and Coppola’s works — the natural sounds he could finally record and play back in high quality blew Krause away as he collected sound for “Apocalypse Now”.

“He decided to leave his career in cinema and create the very first career of soundscape ecology, achieving a Ph.D. in Bioacoustics,” Buster said. “Ever since, he has dedicated his life to record the most pristine environments around world.”

The process of creating sounds is meticulous and requires recording in very difficult conditions, using highly sophisticated portable recording equipment, mixing, remixing and sometimes playing things backward until the creator finds something that sounds interesting.

For instance, Buster talked about creating the sound of jets used in movies. Jets are very boring — if you go to the airport to record all kinds of jets in the air, they don’t produce the interesting sound viewers expect them to. So sound designers incorporate sounds of monkeys, tigers and lions to add in a screech, and layer those animal noises onto the real, immersive sound of the machinery. This re-mix actually sounds far more believable to the audiences, which demonstrating that people relate to sounds from a primal emotion point-of-view.

Buster noted the process is very subjective, and as a result it could go a lot of different ways. Event attendee Minko Dimov, the founder and creative director of impromptustudio and professor at Suffolk University, asked how engineers think to create these sounds from sources that don’t necessarily have anything to do with what they end up representing. Buster said in the creation process, sound engineers use opposites to find the right sound. The more polarizing the sounds, the more it tends to work. “There’s a lot of experimentation,” she said.

writeup by Paxtyn Merten