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English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.


Although we might be most immediately conscious of the visual aspects of what we see on a screen or a stage, the visual images and sound in film or television complement each other and work together to communicate meanings. A simple way of confirming this is to view a film or television sequence without sound or to view it with a different and inappropriate soundtrack.

The soundtrack should tell us something about a scene that the visual images themselves don't. Sirens wailing or dogs barking might indicate onscreen or offscreen criminal activity, danger, or death. A clock ticking may indicate the passage of time and raise suspense. The cry of a morepork may emphasise the eerie nature of the night.

Dialogue, sound effects, and music all contribute significantly to the story-telling process in film.

Dialogue is not just a matter of the words that are spoken but also of how they are said. Dialogue reveals a range of emotions and communicates the relationships among characters as well as contributing to the narrative. The Oral Language section includes a discussion of intonation and how it reflects speakers' attitudes. This information tells us that listeners are skilled at detecting shades of meaning from pitch and intonation. The skilled performer therefore ensures that dialogue is delivered so that it conveys the nuances that meet the purposes of the film.

During filming, the sound recordist records dialogue as well as natural sounds or sound effects. If a performer does not at first achieve the right emotion or emphasis in delivering the lines, the speech can be "post-synched": the performer will rerecord the lines in a sound studio while listening to the originally recorded lines on headphones. The newly recorded version is then synchronised with lip movement on the screen.

Sound effects include all onscreen and offscreen sound except dialogue and music. Such sound effects as footsteps or food being chewed may be made by the actions of onscreen characters, but they may need to be enhanced or even replaced with new prerecorded sounds. The sound heard when a baby dinosaur hatched in Jurassic Park was produced by a sound effects artist squeezing an open bottle of detergent and adding that to the soundtrack in post-production. Stroking a pineapple recreated the sound when Laura Dern petted a dinosaur in the same movie.

Atmos, as in atmospheres, refers to environmental sounds such as dogs barking, birds singing, the wind blowing, or rain falling.

Effects, known as FX, are all the other sounds not made by the characters, such as car horns blowing, tyres screeching, or aircraft engines roaring.

The function of music in a film is usually similar to the design elements of a set - not drawing attention to itself for its own sake but establishing or reinforcing the mood of the film or enhancing its meaning. Some older films use music quite obtrusively at almost all dramatic or poignant moments. This convention is now used infrequently, but it is sometimes used in deliberate parody of the genre. Music may also be integrated into the action of the film by such strategies as having a character turn on a radio or tape or play a musical instrument. The specially composed music for The Piano is one of many instances of music as an integral part of a film.

Silence can be the most powerful aspect of sound in a film. It can enhance suspense, fear, or horror. A voice, a sound effect, or music after a silence can surprise or shock the audience, either heightening or relieving their anxiety.

Summary of Terms

sound atmos music
dialogue effects (FX) silence
sound effects

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Published on: 06 May 2009