Wednesday, October 08, 2008



Just now, as I sat down to type this, I turned off the TV.


Well, I needed to concentrate. To THINK. And it's very hard to do that when the TV is on. Actually, let me back up just a bit....

There's really a hierarchy to it. I find if there's music playing, assuming it's instrumental or nothing too intense (like punk rock or death metal or something) I can concentrate just fine (I have iTunes playing now). But I've noticed (and this becomes eminently clear when you're trying to WRITE) - that when someone starts talking, the concentration goes down a notch or two. I probably would never have noticed, until the COMMERCIALS came on!!! Geeze Louise!!!! ANNOUNCERS WITH CRAZY LOUD VOICES SHOUTING INCESSANTLY TO BUY BUY BUY!!!!!

Stops the pen dead in its tracks.

Which led me to realize that we automatically tune in to the human voice... especially when it's in a language we know, and ESPECIALLY if there's any great urgency or tension in it! Don't believe me? Try it.... open a notebook, or maybe your text edit software, and start writing something. I don't mean "Mary had a little lamb" or anything you know by rote... I mean something that requires THINKING. Try telling the story of the scariest thing that ever happened to you. And do it with the radio on pretty loud. You'll do pretty good I'll bet, until those CRAZY LOUD ANNOUNCERS INVADE YOUR HEAD!!!! I believe it's similar to what I've heard about vision and the human face.... we're all hardwired to scan for familiar faces, even in a huge crowd. Some function that runs in the backchannel, we're not consciously aware of it. Probably a survival mechanism from way back.

So, what does this mean to us as filmmakers?

I think it means that talking in a movie doesn't allow the viewer to THINK. It leads them.... corrals them. I don't believe it completely BRAINWASHES them.... though for some viewers it might. Most are able to pick up on SUBTEXT (that's when people don't say exactly what they mean) - but I suspect that's about it. They either believe what they're being told, or they pick up on the clues and realize they're being lied to (another old survival skill, I have no doubt). And I'll even go one better.... I think as viewers we can solve simple puzzles presented in dialogue or narration too.... put together clues in a detective flick, or whatever. But still, we're being led into what we're supposed to think. These are all levels of varying complexity put there by the writer for us to decode. But I still maintain that, WHILE CHARACTERS OR NARRATORS ARE TALKING, we have no choice but to think about what they're saying. Decide whether we believe it or don't.

Another illustration of the power of the human voice - I remember sleeping once with the radio on - this was in the 70's. Remember those Oxy-10 commercials? They had this voiceover by an actor with a really commanding, authoritarian voice. I was in mid dream when he came on, and suddenly my subconscious was forced to invent a character to match this loud voice that came from nowhere. It did one of the sudden, unmotivated switcheroos - I had been climbing among the rigging over a theater where a performance was going on (with some group of dangerous spies and assassins infiltrated into the audience and the performers, and only I was aware of their presence). Suddenly with a shock I found myself standing in an office, being spoken to very loudly by this administrator-type with (you guessed it) a deep, commanding voice. For some reason he spoke in code... he seemed to be babbling inanities about skin pores and cleansing, but I knew it all had hidden meaning (something along the lines of spy cells and murder), and the very continued existence of life on earth depended on my decoding it. The dream kept going in the way dreams do, sudden jump cuts to scenes already in progress etc, but throughout my head was filled by this booming oration - see, even as I made my escape the secret leader of the spy/assassin group was using his telepathic powers to project his commanding powers of persuasion into my mind.

So, obviously the human voice has a great deal of power over us. This fact might explain why silent movies are harder to watch than 'talkies'. The constant stream of verbiage rivets the viewer's attention, even if there's nothing of any great interest happening in the film. But without it, viewers have to force themselves to continue paying attention.

Draw your own conclusions. The voice is a powerful tool.... much more so than we normally realize (barkers and infomercial hawkers excepted). Use it like an instrument. Orchestrate it.

One of the benchmarks of the more poetic films I like is long periods of silence punctuated by voice, often used as an instrument. And please.... don't be droll enough to say what you mean and mean what you say! So trite.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that summary, now I'm not feeling alone any longer. I always thought, it's just a problem I have with surrounding sounds. I could work best if it's totally calm around me.

Your article here remembers me of the Samual Becket Play video you posted some time ago, they're using the actor's voices to archive exactly that disorientation. (By the way, it made me read "Theatre of the absurd"...) And I think that's way so many people like La Antena, which is one of my most favourite films of the last year. If there's nobody to tell you what to think, you have to do it on your own... And that's like sports, if you're not used to it... ;)

So, people, plug off your ear phones and start thinking! :D

UbaTuber said...

Excellent observations, mate! I've even found that playing the same music while animating has helped me, that putting on the same playlist every time helps me to get into the groove easier, almost like physical memory...then once I've been animating for an hour or so, I'll switch it up, but I usually end up going back to the same few playlists...

UbaTuber said...

I almost always go instrumental too, film scores or Rachmaninoff or the like....lots of Sky Cries Mary, they have two singers, one male one female, who come fairly close to "voice as instrument"...a huge ensemble group, excellent mellow tunes....

Edwound Wisent said...

(^ write right rite.
(^ so compare this bit:

(^ with this one.

Darkness (11/11)

(^ both about the same thing, really,
(^ empathosEsthetics for the devil.

(^ but the approach is as different as darkness is from speed and formulaic ` equasions `

(^ kNOW: close yer eyes and paint while listening to THIS!

Interference patterns - Van Der Graaf Generator


-Cat's Eye - Yellow Fever


(^ this is for me , perfect to sculpt large pieces and do set construction flat painting.
(^ fast. less preclusional obsession
(^ and far more laying groundwork.
(^ gestural. emphatic emotion.

THEN calm down.. and wander into wondering.

. (^ THEN get lost in the details.


(^ oh look. an instrumental!
(^ time to animate.

(^:: flips off to other duties:

Anonymous said...

Once again an astute observation and a way to apply it to film, all of which I've never thought of before...A similar thing I don't know if it's related but when I look at something I've made, could be from years ago, I can remember the song I was listening to when I made it...Now I go on wounded ed's trip...weeee

Anonymous said...

So, as I read this Mike, first I was thinking, you're saying voice is too powerful a tool to ignore, so use it in your films. (Which I didn't wanna hear!) But then it seemed to say that by not using the spoken word we leave more room for the viewer to find their own interpratation, be less passive and invest more of their own thoughts in the work - which I agree with completely.
Then you get to what is probably the real reason I avoid dialog - I can write instructions and explanations well enough, but never quite got the knack of having characters say one thing, while coveying something entirely different in the subtext. No Royale with cheese in my scripts! I appreciate it when I see it, but can't seem to help saying what I mean and meaning what I say - terminally droll.
For those of us born well into the last century (before the post-literate era), the written or printed word is almost as compelling. As my eyes pass over a billboard the block letters saying Buy Buy Buy cut through almost as much as that commanding voice, whether I want it read it or not. Not sure what this means for my filmmaking.

So where is this going for your filmmaking Mike? Sparse oblique dialogue?

Anonymous said...

Ok I'm back and that blew my little mind...I may not be smart enough to understand the point your making but now I am defiantly a fan of Van Der Graaf Generator! (And Bedazzled, which can be seen in it's entirety at!

Shelley Noble said...

I am so glad you are out there somewhere in the dark, Mike. Using your noodle to sort these matters out. That was a brilliant observation, well said.

Darkmatters said...

I love this part, after the initial post when the comments come rolling in and the real clarification of ideas begins.

Depending on the delicacy or unfamiliarity of the ideas I'm dealing with, I find sometimes I need to completely switch off all distractions.... when setting out to write something difficult or that requires sensitive finagling I need club silencio, then once I have the basics figured I can go to low level non-distracting music. Then at times I want the pure energy so I crank some metal or classic rock (though that's not when writing or animating).

As for its use in films....

I find the movies I enjoy the most use dialogue sparingly, though for my own animated ventures it's likely to be voiceover instead. Something about lip sync pulls the puppets too much into cartoonland and makes them imitate real people too much... they lose that otherness that I love so much.

In "real world" filmmaking, they tend to not even think about the power of the voice.... it's too familiar and too ordinary, they just use it indiscreetly. Most TV shows are just talking heads, everything is carried by dialogue. The power of Joss Whedon is that, while his dialogue is fascinating and funny, people assume it leads or drives his shows (Buffy, Angel, Firefly etc). But it masks the visuals and in fact often overpowers them so people don't notice they're being told stories visually. People love their Buffyspeak so much, and imitate it ceaselessly, they don't even look beneath it. But on the commentary track for the silent episode Hush, he explains his tricks. When the monsters steal the power of speech from the entire town, suddenly everyone finds they can actually communicate much more clearly. At the beginning and end of the episode, their words are confusing and meaningless. Power of subtext made explicit.

Tarantino hammers subtext into the ground, makes almost a joke of it. Still effective though. All it really takes is someone saying something in a more singsong way, or bringing attention to the voicing or inflection that makes people think about what's being said rather than making it blend seamlessly into the illusion of normalcy that passes for filmmaking in Hollywood.

M. E. (interesting initials) I often find there's some teasing hint at the root of Edwound's postings that I sometimes can't grasp. I think the more familiar we get with him, the more these will come to light. Though I can always get some vague feel of what he's getting at at least. I still need to respond to his excellent links in the last post. (And I have yet to follow his trail for this one)

Saw Bonny and Clyde last night... it's another American version of the French New Wave style that was so powerful in the 60's, though not as good a movie as The Graduate or French Connection. But it makes great use of long silent passages punctuated by sudden violence

Darkmatters said...

Oh, and Jessica, I have La Antenna here (your posting about it caught my interest), but haven't finished watching it yet. A very strong Mulholland Drive influence, in fact based mainly on the Club Silencio sequence.

Darkmatters said...

A couple more things to respond to that I missed....

Nick, my real point (as I know you understood) is to THINK about how you use the voice. Don't just slide into complacency like 99% of Hollywood productions do.

Melvyn, I also remember the songs that were on when I made something, or the movies that were running in the background.

Damn.... I KNOW there was more I wanted to say.... x(

Darkmatters said...

Funny thing... this post is something I actually wrote a few months ago and stored in a folder on my hard drive.... it was after reading Film As a Subversive Art, and was largely a response to it. I think I was posting a lot at the time and didn't want to oversaturate. I have one more that I think Ill post in a few days... good meaty stuff that's a lot more visceral and fun than all the pure theory of my recent posts.

All that Theatre of the Absurd stuff, as important as it is to me, is purely mental. Ideas. Not the stuff of good movies if you ask me, though I'm glad to have absorbed it into my growing gestalt... the ideas are important to have drifting in your mind when conceiving films. But trying to force ideas into your films is very fake.... it's difficult to do and tedious for the audience, like forcing political or religious beliefs into them. Movies are about movement and composition, about action and a little bit about ideas and stories. Well, story fits better, though it's been overdone to death and formulized to finality. And foregrounding story pushes the more powerful and natural elements of film to the backchannel.

Sven Bonnichsen said...

Well said, Mike. I'm all agreement on this one.

With writing, I've tried actually wearing earplugs -- and it makes a HUGE difference. That little internal voice that you need to listen to in order to get words onto the page is right there with you, rather than in the distance. Even the background noise of a silent room is somewhat distracting, I've discovered.

Seriously -- using earplugs sounds like a gimmick, but I've written a page or more for 280 out of 282 days so far this year with the help of this trick.


I can't help but think of that passage in "The Animator's Survival Kit" where Richard Williams asks Milt Kahl, "Milt, do you ever listen to classical music while you're working?"

And Milt says: "Of all the stupid goddamned questions I ever heard! I never heard such a stupid question! I'm not SMART enough to think of more than one thing at a time!"


Switching over to the printed word... I also can't help but think of this brilliant TV ad I once saw.

A bunch of text scrolls up the screen, which says:

"Want to know
how hard it is
to stop taking drugs?

Stop reading now.


It's that hard."


So, yeah -- sound and audible language and written language are all powerful concentration-breakers.

But I do also use music strategically when I need energy for a marathon of work... When I'd go crazy if trapped in my own thoughts and need the company of a singer -- and music's power to put me in a quasi-hypnotic state.


With regards to using sound and speech with intent in filmmaking... Yeah -- that's the way to create art that's *dynamic!*

In the realm of dance, one of my pet peeves is choreography that just sort of flows on at the same pace endlessly. Give me some violent motion! Give me some stillness! Mix it up!

As Martha Graham famously said, "Don't just do something! --*Stand there!*"

The same principle of dynamism can be applied to all areas of art: motion, sound, dialogue, color, form... Mix it up! Make things dramatic via contrast!

Darkmatters said...

Yeah, that Williams/Kahl quote has always stayed with me.

I wonder how we could use the power of the written word in films?

Maybe it helps explain why I was so bugged that I couldn't quite read the full text messages in Pram's latest? There were several areas of text... I flashed to one first, got it read, then just had time to look at another area but couldn't read it before the whole thing was gone... felt like I needed to go back and finish it. My only complaint about Ether B actually (and a minor one really, especially since with video you generally CAN go back to re-read if you want to).

Darkmatters said...

Also, the Martha Graham quote explains what's so lame about that Vincent remake Pram just posted about recently.... endless sameness of movement.

Anonymous said...

"But trying to force ideas into your films is very fake.... it's difficult to do and tedious for the audience, like forcing political or religious beliefs into them. Movies are about movement and composition, about action and a little bit about ideas and stories. Well, story fits better, though it's been overdone to death and formulized to finality. And foregrounding story pushes the more powerful and natural elements of film to the backchannel."

I just thought this part should be repeated...

Anonymous said...

Hey, I already read it twice anyway!
But sometimes the film actually springs from that idea, is inherently about that idea, (perhaps with the story grafted on) which is a different thing.

Thanks for your responses Mike.
And Sven - love the Milt Kahl quote, and that Stop Reading Now! Absolutely, couldn't say it better myself! Well, I didn't, did I?

I can't have spoken word or music with lyrics on while I'm reading a book, but oddly I can animate and listen to a World Music program or intelligent speech on ABC radio, it's like they occupy totally different boxes in my head. But I animated all of L'Animateur in a studio with no radio, in silence, and had plenty to occupy me. I think the animation process got me into that quasi-hypnotic state, with no need for music to fill the spaces.

Edwound Wisent said...

(^ yep.l8nITerr PROstirEYEswore cummin..
(^ ready?

(^kNOw words on levers from StopmoNick >

(^ got it? wandered off
(^ into all the otherABChills?
(^ ThRead all the txt replies?
(^ followEDwind 2 all the
"rel8ed lINKs and checkered into subscibing to stopmonick to see bunches?
(^ yummy that.

(^ nEXit :
(^ EUREKA ..WITHwyrds

(^ and what's that to do with vander graaf generator?

(^ still like this one better:

(^ but: for pure learning? gimme

Introduction to the Van der Graff

(^ i found one earlier I've lost: showed REALLY how to use and comb this thingy,

9^ this is all to Xplain why I slipped off into a band I used to love.
(^ to generate accidental learning.

(^less words: more demos
Van de Graaff Generator Demo

(^true magic: altering the altar.
(^ tear it up! brings tears to mine eyes
(^.. and a crack in my pi-wHOle

(^ USe yOUR eWEs!
(^ pull the wool OFF yer eyes and use it to generate electricity!

Edwound Wisent said...

(^ silly me..
(^ knOW! found one who's links are better: and the woords said relate to animation frame rates.

Van De Graaff Generator Not Tesla Coil

Homer's Vandegraph Generator

(^ note. let the missed mixed spelling GIVE a little!

(^ so now for those pesky questions on whether words fit in animation: try this one: old new wave:

(^ you got it: eWe gottit

Emily said...

I really enjoyed reading this one Mike - I'm beginning a new animation, and it's really helping formalize my approach.
I'm jealous of those of you who can work in silence - I usually have the radio, tv, and computer on while I work (just radio while filming) and find it's the only way I can work - otherwise the silence becomes so distracting I never get anything done.

Edwound Wisent said...

(^ ok, Emme: note this one. really gets to the grind of the power of CARTOONS

Fox News Worried Its Viewers Can't Tell a Cartoon from News?

Darkmatters said...

Oh hey, I'm the same way most of the time!!! Got the major appliances multitasking, all competing for my attention so I can ignore them all. I only need the silence when I need to really think or if I'm trying to write something really deep. Like when I write these kind of posts. Hmm... something weird and ironic about that.... a self-perpetuating cycle of sorts. If I didn't shut them off, I couldn't write these posts, then I wouldn't NEED the silence....

Ok, brain starting to hurt now....

Darkmatters said...


>> Average Fox News viewer: "Daddy.... why is the commentator yellow?"