How sound skews the Academy Awards
How sound skews the Academy Awards
Posted Mar 06, 2010
The Academy Awards! The bling and the hoopla! The stars uncurling out of limousines-look at that dress, what was Björk thinking?
It's all good fun, but in recent years I have felt detached from the Oscars ceremony because, as a Dad, the only movies I tend to see in theaters are kids' stuff: Harry Potter, Shrek, The Incredibles. And kids' movies rarely get top honors.
This year, though, will be different: this year I have actually seen two of the films most likely to win Best Picture.
I suspect one reason Avatar and Hurt Locker are such strong contenders has to do with the fact that both are full of loud explosions. In Hurt Locker Jeremy Renner plays an army bomb squad sergeant in Iraq who enjoys a co-dependent relationship with massive bangs. In Avatar, a 3-D interstellar Western, the climactic scenes involve the supermechanized death-machine fleet of the Evil Mining Conglomerate (read railroad company) blowing sky-high the home turf of the tree-hugging Na'vi (read Sioux, or Nez Percé).
I remember sitting in the theater wearing silly glasses as the massive explosions swept from the sound system, so deep and loud that they shook my body, slightly but literally. Those poor sweet Na'vi, I thought then. Those multinational mining bastards, I raged inside.
Likely I was the only person wearing silly glasses in the Harvard Square Loews that day to suspect both the high volume and low frequency of those explosions were geared to jack up our emotional response to the film.
Sources I cannot name, because they work in the Industry, have told me that producers and big sound outfits like Dolby know well that very loud, low-frequency sounds trigger an out of proportion fear response in viewers.
Those same sources claim sound engineers deliberately include loud noises well below the lowest frequencies that can be detected by our hearing system (20 Hertz) because, although we cannot hear such sounds directly, our body actually feels them. Studios apparently insist that theaters playing big-bang films be equipped with Dolby-type sub-woofers that can generate frequencies well below 20 Hz.
This type of sound is called "infrasound," and the weight of evidence suggests that humans instinctively react to major infrasound with feelings of awe, discomfort, even panic. Precisely what I'm supposed to feel as despite Jeremy Renner's heroic efforts, the suicide bomber is blown to kingdom come.
Why do we react this way to low-frequency noise? Well, consider the natural sources of infrasound: they include lightning, avalanches, earthquakes, stampeding buffalo, tsunamis, tornadoes. Over two million years of evolution those primates who could detect, and flee from, such dangers had an evolutionary edge over those who couldn't. Since artillery and bombs are another source of infrasound, it may be that humans who react quickly to low frequency will be even more favored in the future.
Other animals are more sensitive to infrasound than we are; the first hint many people in Thailand had that the 2004 tsunami was on its way was their dogs and cats high-tailing it for high ground. The apocryphal story of rats quitting doomed ships might have a glint of truth, in that animals would be more sensitive to infrasound noise generated by a hull's structural defects.
Chronic low-frequency noise is known to be harmful over the long term-in the long run, fear and discomfort produce stress, which corrodes our health. In a movie theater, however, we are not exposed long enough to suffer physical harm. Watching a film, we want to experience powerful, even unpleasant emotions, the better to empathize with the characters; the better to escape our daily grind. So infrasound, to my mind, is a legitimate tool to use.
We might also want to remember, however, as James Cameron or Kathryn Bigelow thank the academy (and their fashion advisers and grade-school teachers), that part of the package that brought them to the podium was most likely crafted by sound engineers to trigger some of the most primal, unconscious reflexes known to man.