Accented Synch Points and Temporal Elasticity in Film Sound

Having attended the first ‘Sound in film’ workshop today,  I had the opportunity to discuss sound production in relation to a key scene in one of my all time favourite films. It is somewhat  ironic that a completely unrelated attempt at researching sound in film, has led me tonight, straight back to Martin Scorsese’s oscar winning Raging Bull.

Raging Bull

The following blog analyses the sound production, sound theory and  sound design conventions that are present in the final fight scene of the film in which Jake Lamota fights Sugar Ray Robinson for a second time.

The sound design provided an incredible punch to match the on screen visual aggression.  The most noticeable change in the tone of the scene occurs as tired Lamotta rocks against the ropes and taunts Sugar Ray into delivering a barrage of blows. The footage is testament to just how sound effects can provide the illusion of something happening when in fact, it did not.

Repetative sounds of camera flash bulbs seem to explode as fists appear to make contact, and the audience gasp in horror as Lamotto is repeatedly pounded.  The foley production including panes of glass braking fruit being pulverised and gunfire mask the sonic-overload of fighting in a complex series of sound production that spanned over two months. After production concluded, it was rumoured that sound man Frank Warner burned all of the recorded elements from the movie to ensure no other films could use the Raging Bull sound elements.

Watch the final Raging Bull fight scene closely with the speed slowed down and you will see that actually, the boxers are seldom, if at all, seen to connect any blows. So how is this possible?

French composer and writer, Michel Chion highlighted a valid perception when he wrote that such a minimal sound is easier to be marked, into a persons conscience and actually, that if the sound itself is removed, then it is easier to notice that  there wasn’t really any physical contact at all. It’s relative to the theory that sight actually registers slower into the brain slower than hearing.

Physical contact is the benchmark for the strongest synchronisation where sonic meets visual and the overriding principles are linked to Gestalt,  a psychology term of “unified whole”. It refers to theories of visual perception developed by German psychologists in the 1920’s describing how people tend to organise visual elements into groups or unified wholes when certain principles are applied, but that’s a different blog completely.

In his book, Audio-Vison, Chion, delivers arguments and overviews of the evolution and functions of sound in television and film. Raging Bull is specifically mentioned in relation to the fight scenes with a concise explanation of how accented synch points and temporal elasticity have radically impacted on the mood and perception of the film.

Accented Synch Points and Temporal Elasticity

This structure is already present in much non animation cinema, notably in all martial arts and fight films. But Japanese animated films I can see on French television add something more: an analysis of movement (as in Muybridge and Marey’s famous photos, which lie at cinema’s origins), the use of slow motion and radical stylisation of time. These diverse techniques get their inspiration from the slow-motion and still-frames of sports 62 • • • The Audiovisual Contract replays, but also directly from Japanese comic books, or Mangas.
In these rudimentary animated adventures the point of synchronization constituted by the punch, this point of hooking auditory continuity to visual continuity, is what allows the time around it to swell, fold, puff up, tighten, stretch or, on the contrary, to gape or hang loosely like fabric. On either side of a characteristic synch point such as a punch the capacity for temporal elasticity can become almost infinite. During an episode of the series Dragon Ball the battling characters constantly freeze in mid-motion, stop
in mid-air (for they make incredible leaps), and converse interminably, slowing down, speeding up and changing poses like a series of discontinuous slides, before launching flurries of swift punches and kicks to one another. In short, the punch with sound effects is to audiovisual language as the chord is to music, mobilising the vertical dimension. In the brutal and exhausting boxing scenes in Raging Bull Scorsese used punches to bestow a maximum degree of temporal elasticity on the fighting scenes; thus he could use slow motion, repeated images, and so forth. The paradox is that in the beginning, temporal elasticity was an inherent characteristic of the silent cinema. Since the silents did not have to be dubbed point by point and second by second with synchronous sound, they could easily dilate and contract time.

Sound Infuses the Image

It can be said that sound’s greatest influence on film is manifested at the heart of the image itself. The clearer treble you hear, the faster your perception of sound and the keener your sensation of presentness. The better-defined film sound became in the high frequency range, the more it induced a rapid perception of what was onscreen (for vision relies heavily on hearing). This evolution consequently favored a cinematic rhythm composed of multiple fleeting sensations, of collisions and spasmodic events, instead of a continuous and homogenous flow of events. Therefore we owe the hypertense rhythm and speed of much current cinema to the influence of sound that, we daresay, has seeped its way into the heart of modern-day film construction. Further, the standardization of Dolby has introduced a sudden leap in an older and more gradual process that paved the way for it. There is perhaps as much difference between the sound of a Renoir of the early thirties and that of $. fifties Bresson film as there is between the fifties Bresson and a Scorsese in eighties Dolby, whose sound vibrates, gushes, trembles, and cracks (think of the crackling of flashbulbs in Raging Bull.)