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The Acoustic Environment: How Important Is It In The Moving Image?

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As the audience starts to become more immersed in a film or a game they become projected in the surroundings, making them feel like they are inside that world. The diegetic soundscape reveals information to the audience relevant to the character on screen position. For example, the sound proportions of a being inside a small confined room can sound a lot different to being outside. If the player controlling a game character hears a waterfall they can determine information such as the distance and location of the waterfall from the placement, and volume of the sound. As the character gets closer to the waterfall, the volume of the waterfall increases, indicating the waterfall is nearby. The popular shooter game Fortnite indicates treasure is nearby by playing a sound that lets the player know that if they are to explore the environment, they will be rewarded. The volume alternates depending on how far or close you are from the treasure in whatever environment the character is placed in. Encouraging the player to search by using their sense of hearing, creates a connection between the player and the game. This is known as a virtual acoustic ecology; a circumstance in which the audio propagation is artificial and the events/sources of the sound are virtual but there remains an ecological relationship between the listener, sound and environment.

Fortnite developed by Epic Games

Sotaro Tojima, sound director for Metal Gear Solid 4 [Kojima 2007] describes:

“For example, in the scenario where a bottle falls off a table, hits a metal shovel, and then rolls onto the carpet, conventional sound processing would have the bottle make the same sounds regardless the environment, or what it collides with. That same scenario on the PlayStation 3 might have the bottle make a metallic tink when it hits the shovel, and then create a muffled rolling sound as it travels across the carpet. If the room had its own sound variables, the bottle’s sound might take on some echo if in a bathroom, or get slightly quieter if in a bedroom. Then you have to factor in on-the-fly sound encoding, which would make the bottle pan from front to back, or side to side in your room depending upon the way it rolled”. [Cited in Shah 2006] (Collins 2008, Game Sound, p96) 

Tojima statement describes the relationship between sound waves hitting one object, then hitting another object, and how the acoustics of the room has an effect on these sounds. A process that is vital to that game’s world. Even though it is subtle and as a player, we might not take much notice straight away. However, It tells our subconscious mind the size and type of the room, what other objects are in that room, and the type of material on the floor. Our brains gather this information, processes it, and relates it back to the real world!

The role of the acoustic environment is to give the audience a sense of presence of a space and/or time. This could be the day/night cycle, a period in history, or even the architectural structure of a place. This is a key component in visual media as it allows the audience to position themselves as an object in a space of time relevant to the footage. It is important to note musical silence in a scene also allows for an acoustic space to be created which can create a chilling absence.

Musical silence in my opinion can create a sense of realism for the audience. A great example of this is the film ‘Cast Away’ starring Tom Hanks. Whilst the character is stranded there is no music, this portrays the emotional context of isolation the character feels. The film relies on the acoustic environment and in return this responds back to the audience creating an emotional connection of loneliness.

Cast Away – Directed by Robert Zemeckis (2000)

No matter if you are a film director, video game developer, animator, get the acoustic environment wrong do not be surprised if audience immersive levels start to drop! Understanding the space being portrayed on screen and how that environment will have an effect on the sound, will not only make your footage sound more realistic, it will also make it LOOK realistic!


Daniel Hamer


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References and for more information check out:

BURT, G. (1995) The art of film music special emphasis on Hugo Friedhofer, Alex North, David Raksin, Leonard Rosenman. United States: NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS.

Collins, K. (2008) Game sound: an introduction to the history, theory, and practice of video game music and sound design. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Chion, M. (1994) Audio-vision: sound on screen. Edited by C. Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press.

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