Silent Films Weren't Really Silent

The Reel Corner

A new silent film, history of sound technology, and a conversation with a film sound expert SILENT FILMS WEREN'T REALLY SILENT

Jean Dujardin, BÈrÈnice Bejo, John Goodman
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius

Set in 1927, silent film star George Valentin wonders if the arrival of talking pictures will cause him to fade into oblivion. As he develops a relationship with young dancer, Peppy Miller, his views of the future become more optimistic.

Director Hazanavicius had been fantasizing about making a silent film for many years, both because many filmmakers he admired emerged in the silent era, and because of the image-driven nature of the format. He did extensive research about 1920s Hollywood, and studied silent films to find the right techniques to make the story comprehensible, without having to use too many intertitles.

Filming took place during seven weeks on location in Los Angeles. Throughout the shoot, Hazanavicius played music from classic Hollywood films while the actors performed. The cast is a mix of French and American actors.

This 2011 film pays tribute to the silent film era and has already snagged four Golden Globe nominations.
Both Coligny Theater and Park Plaza Theater have The Artist on their lineup.

A Conversation with Tommy Giordano,
Film Sound Engineer

I was privileged to meet Mr. Giordano last Thanksgiving. We had a great conversation about films, advances in sound technology, and the release of the silent film The Artist.

The REEL Corner (RC):
How did you get started in the film industry/working with sound technology?
Tommy Giordano (TG): I knew as a kid I was technically inclined, but where I was going to take that talent was not clear. I knew I wasn't going to be an actor because my mom enrolled me in acting school when I was nine, and I was terrible at it-actually, disinterested is a better description. I was more interested in lighting, sets, props, or anything that wasn't memorizing lines. I started to realize in high school the entertainment industry is where I would probably end up, but was not sure which field it would be in. It would not be until college, that I realized I really wanted to work in the industry on the technical side. I interned with a company that had a three-camera mobile video production truck. I worked on this truck to get credit for school, and I have been hooked ever since.

What are some of the films you have been associated with?
TG: I predominately work on feature films, but as a freelance sound engineer, we crew members do whatever it takes to pay the bills. I sometimes work on television and commercials, but 90 percent of my resume is from feature films. I have worked on Avatar, Horrible Bosses, Monster-In-Law, The Polar Express, 24, Spider Man 3, Men in Black III, Mr & Mrs. Smith, and Happy Feet. To see them all you can log onto IMDB at IMDB is the film industries' online resume that everyone looks at, especially producers when they are hiring crewmembers. I have worked on about 30 of the movies on my IMDB page from start to finish. I have worked on low-budget TV, all the way up to the highest budgeted feature films. I am most comfortable on feature films.

What are you working on now?
TG:  Currently I am working in Atlanta on the Robert Zemeckis film Flight starring Denzel Washington.

What do you think of the concept of the new silent film The Artist?
TG:  Considering I am a soundman for the motion picture industry, I hope this concept does not become popular...LOL!

Since 1926 sound has been part of the film process. How has sound technology changed?
TG:  I think this is a two-part answer:
1. The biggest change in production sound is wireless technology, which happened in the late 60s, early 70s. This is the ability to put a microphone on an actor without a cable attached or a boom mic overhead. This changed the way directors could film their movies. There were no longer limitations as to where the actors could deliver their lines. When talkies were first introduced, actors acted under the microphone because there was very limited mobility that the boom was able to achieve. As technology improved booms became more mobile; blocking of the scene expanded, but was still limited to being close to the mic without the mic being in the shot. As soon as wireless technology was available, it completely changed the way shots with dialog were blocked and how the dialog was captured. Long lenses with dramatic backgrounds could be filmed, and we could hear what the actors were saying. It wasn't until about 20 years ago that wireless technology became advanced, making it one of our standards in recording sound. Today, wireless equipment is state-of-the-art and reliable. However, with the advent of HD television and how sound is broadcast in HD, we are now affected by these broadcasts because we utilize the same frequencies, which reeks havoc on our systems. We are currently dealing with these issues with no clear resolution in sight.
2. The biggest change in post sound over the past 85 years is how the sound is delivered to the audience via Surround Sound in theaters and in private homes. This has revolutionized how the audience listens to a movie. Surround Sound has bridged the gap with picture and is able to compliment the picture more creatively. Today the audience is part of the movie because the room is alive from all directions via picture and sound. When a car comes from off screen, the audience can hear the car coming, and from the proper direction the script described it. This helps sell the shot and make it believable.

What are some sound technology myths?
TG: One of the main myths in movies regarding sound are how things actually sound and how they sound in movies. Because of the way a sound really sounds in life, this sometimes does not work for the movies, meaning it's not dramatic enough to sell on the big screen. For example, when a gun with a silencer fires in a movie it sounds very, well, silent. In reality this is not true, it is quite loud, quieter than without a silencer, but much louder than in the movies. Explosions are always manipulated to have a much bigger sound than they actually make. Fights between actors in movies always sound deeply devastating, which is the effect the director wants the audience to feel-and this is helped with brilliant sound editing and sound design.

RC: Do you work with dialog or dialog and musical score?
TG: My job on a movie set is to record the dialog of the actors and that is it. We work side-by-side with camera during production to hopefully get all the words in a movie, and if we do our job well, then the actors will have less time during post doing ADR (Audio dialog replacement) or looping sessions. We virtually have zero input on the post side of movie-making unless there is something specific, such as in the movie Unstoppable, directed by Tony Scott. The production sound mixer on the movie, William B. Kaplan, was requested by the director to participate in the post-process because of his intimate knowledge of how production sound tracks were recorded on location during the train sequences.

Tell me something I should know about making a film and sound technology.
TG: Traditionally, on a movie set, the visual aspect of filmmaking is the priority, as it should be. It is much harder to create the visual aspect of a movie over the sound portion. Albeit, both are integral to the overall process, the picture stimulates the senses, and if integrated well with sound technically and artistically, both mediums will complement each other and the end product will prosper. Of course, there has to be a solid script and competent filmmakers making the movie or the tools we use mean nothing.

RC: What does the future hold for sound technology in films?
TG: The art of getting sound is basically the same as it was when it started. The equipment has changed from analog to digital, which has helped this process immensely, and there are many new gadgets to achieve excellent sound, but the concepts have not changed much over the years. Case in point, I have worked on several performance-capture features such as The Polar Express, Christmas Carol, and Avatar, which use's infrared cameras to record the motion of actors. This technology is used widely in the home electronic gaming industry, i.e. Sony's Playstation, Microsoft's X-Box and Nintendo's Wii's gaming platforms. The entire process, except sound, is virtual. We, as a sound department, still practiced our tried and true on set procedures. We used the performance-capture process. This process has had its successes and failures. Avatar was incredibly successful, integrating performance-capture with live action, and Mars Needs Moms, which was solely motion capture, did not fare well in this venture. Oddly enough, I worked on both of these films.

Thanks Tommy for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience with the magazine audience. Always remember that Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and Beaufort are all great places to make films.

To learn more about the performance-capture process log onto:

Donne Paine, film enthusiast, once lived around the corner from the Orson Wells Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her strong interest in films, especially independent ones, began. She was a 12-year member of the Hilton Head Second Sunday Film Society, and frequent visitor to the Sundance Film Festival. To support her habit of frequent movie going, Donne is an executive recruiter and staff development consultant. Are you interested in joining a film club? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..