Sound Convention

Terry Pratchett has a running joke in his Discworld books about narrative conventions. For example, due to “narrative convention” every carriage wreck (it is a fantasy-based series) ends with a lone wheel rolling down the street. On a similar note, after the “Star Trek: Enterprise” season finale, I mentioned how much I’m sick of the currently popular narrative convention that heroes can out-run an explosion.

Many people may not realize it but film sound is full of conventions as well. And some of them drive me crazy! Anytime a wide expansive shot of the ruggedly beautiful wilderness is shown (particularly if there are distant mountains), you always hear a red-tailed hawk cry out with a distant “Screeee!” In fact speaking of animals, pretty much anytime an animal is on screen it has to be yammering away. Non-stop noises from them. I can’t necessarily speak for everyone, but my two cats are quite content to not make a peep for hours on end.

But the one thing that drives me completely up the wall is that computers in movies have to constantly be making beeps and boops. If my computers made half as much noise as movie computers make, I’d have thrown them out the window and declared myself a Luddite.

The movie term for computer sounds is “telemetry”. It sounds all slick and cool, but the fact is in terms of sound, movie computers haven’t progressed far beyond the multi-colored flashing lights and the spinning reel-to-reel tape of the sci-fi movie computers of the 1950s. I am on a mission to get rid of computer telemetry in movies. Computers can make noise—they do in real life. But it should be the whir of the fan, the purr of the CD-ROM, the chatter of the hard drive, and the tick tick tick of the keys.

So it was with great pleasure that I spent today playing around with real-world computers sounds and making “Hollywood” computer sounds with them. Take an actual close-mic recording of hard drive chatter and mix it in with a quieter reversed version of itself to get an interesting effect. Run a broadband noise reduction on various fans to greatly reduce the white noise and to expose the unusual metallic tones of spinning motors. Things like that. Hopefully some producer or studio executive farther up the chain of command won’t say, “Hey! Where are the beeps?”

This is something you all can help out with. Next time you’re sitting in a theater watching a movie and you hear annoying noises coming out of the movie computers, jump up, hurl your tub of popcorn at the screen, and yell “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Ok, maybe that won’t help. But it would be pretty fun to see.