Sound in film

Films –Apocalypse Now – directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Restrepo – directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastion Junger

As an exercise in comparing documentary war film with narrative war film, we took a look at Restrepo a documentary filmed on location in Afghanistan, and the classic fictional war film Apocalypse Now set in the Vietnam during the war.

With regard to sound, the approaches are obviously very different. There are limitations in recording sound for documentary film- the filmmaker is often producer, director, sound recordist, editor etc. and has to rely on the gear he/she can carry. It becomes especially difficult on a film like Restrepo -the filmmaker is embedded with a group of soldiers who are traversing through very rough terrain in extreme circumstances and need to remain mobile. Sound effects and narration can of course be added later but the most important thing is to capture the voices of the characters in action. Sometimes lapel mikes can be used but often the only recording device is the on-board microphone on the camera. For the one-on-one interviews in Restrepo, the filmmaker conducts the interviews in a quiet tent where the soldiers can devote their time and attention to telling their stories.
Sound dynamics are used to good effect, where the quiet contemplative silences are contrasted against the sudden violence of explosions and shelling. A good example of this is early in the film when the military vehicle comes in contact with an IUD. Other handy tools available for the purposes of storytelling are simple sound effects to set the scene and quickly make the viewer aware of things like time of day- crickets for dusk and night-time, roosters to signify dawn. Simply hearing a characters breath can heighten the sense of silence and anticipation.

On a major production such as Apocalypse Now on the other hand, the options for sound are almost unlimited and sometimes months are spent getting the sound right- in this case it was over 9 months. In most modern narrative films, the actors are called back into the studio to re-record all the dialog and make sure everything is as audible. This film was one of the early examples of this as large amounts of dialog were inaudible due to the sound of the helicopters.

In both Restrepo and Apocalypse Now a powerful technique to set the scene and location is to use local music. Afghan music is used in Restrepo, especially in the early stages of the film to introduce the viewer to the environment. But more powerful, is Copalla’s use of 60’s rock music in Apocalypse Now. Bands such as the Doors, Rolling stones and Jimi Hendrix are synonymously linked with the Vietnam war and the director exploits this link throughout the soundtrack, most famously with his use of This is the end by the Doors in the intro scene. Coupled with the upside-down vision of Willard, it reinforces the themes of chaos, confusion and surrealism and creates anticipation for what is to come.

While both films have used sound very effectively for the purpose of storytelling, in Restrepo, sound takes a backseat and is mostly anonymous. In Apocalypse now, on the other hand, the soundtrack is used dramatically to heighten the senses and is as important as any character in the film.


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