NZ film sound: The success in not being noticed

By John Mckay*

Opinion – The screen dominates our perception of film. Cinema goers critique the latest blockbuster for its visual effects or its acting, but never how accurate the falling piano sounded.

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Photo: 123RF

Many don’t realise the immense craftwork that goes into the sound of a film, but a group of 200 New Zealanders do – they make a living out of designing film sound and have earned international acclaim for it.

In 2021 alone, New Zealand-made screen sound and music received three Golden Reels, one BAFTA, one Emmy, two APRA Silver Scrolls and two NZ TV Awards for work on film and gaming.

But not only do they not mind going unnoticed – they strive for it – and it comes down to basic psychology.

Screen music aims to delicately enrich the emotions we feel watching a film, so composers align their music frame-by-frame to compliment the screen rather than dominating it. Emotions are by nature largely unconscious, which means viewers don’t explicitly notice the music – they feel it.

Base sound is a little different. We don’t notice sound like we do materials because our brains use what we see to explain what we hear. Psychology calls these ‘auditory objects’. Upon hearing a sound, our brains translate the sensation of soundwaves to refer to the item that caused it. We mirror this thinking in our language when we describe sound by its source, such as the sound of chalk on a blackboard.

This is why a great sound editor will strive to have their sounds go ‘unnoticed’ by the viewer. As we watch a film, our brains explain sounds as objects – like they do in day-to-day life. Even when a car is off-screen, the sound of a motor tells us of a vehicle’s presence.

New Zealand film sound editors have long been internationally regarded for their talent in this endeavour. Our sound expertise was first recognised with six Oscars awarded to NZ sound engineers Michael Hedges and Hammond Peek and sound editor Mike Hopkins, for their work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong.

The careful use of known and natural sounds is what makes fantasy movies like the Lord of the Rings immersive and real. Steel clashing, horses snorting, the rustle of dewy grass – all meticulously recorded and crafted by sound designers to mimic real world sonic experiences.

Our sound designers often attribute their success to the preserved intimacy of New Zealand geographics. With forests, towns, rocks, and rivers only ever a short drive away, workers have unmatched access to record a vast array of nature’s sounds and deliver them to an audience.

But there are real concerns this art form won’t be passed on to a new generation of New Zealanders. Because excellent sound has, by its nature, a low profile, it often doesn’t capture the attention of aspiring film makers. Coupled with sparse vocational awareness and training options, screen students are opting for the more traditionally understood roles of cinematographer, editor or director.

The Screen Music & Sound Guild aims to change this by facilitating an increased industry presence in screen training courses, giving more students an appreciation of the fundamental and meaningful impact sound has on a finished product. Through the Screen Industry Workers Bill and beyond, the Guild will support changes to wages and work environments to make sound a more appealing and sustainable career option.

To continue New Zealand’s film sound success, the current generation of audio professionals are looking for young sound and music makers to invest themselves in the rewarding craft of making noise.

The next time you watch a film, close your eyes for a second and listen to the intricacies in the sound. It could really be the bustle of Lambton Quay you’re listening to, or the gentle swish of pohutukawa leaves. Then, open your eyes and forget. That’s what the sound editor wants.

*John Mckay is a NZ Screen Music and Sound Guild committee member and chief executive of POW Studios

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