Few Australian directors can boast such a versatile career as Phillip Noyce. Literally millions of filmgoers know his big-budget action thrillers such as Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger. Discerning film buffs admire his early work in Australia, such as Newsfront, Heatwave, and Dead Calm (which propelled Nicole Kidman to stardom), and his double-whammy in 2002: The Quiet American, which won an Oscar nomination for Michael Caine, and Rabbit-proof Fence, a poignant and compelling exposé of Australia’s policy towards the Aborigines in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
For Noyce, sound has always been a significant element in the film-making process. "The two soundtracks that had the most influence on me date back to the late 1970’s, and they stand the test of time," he recalls. "The first was Apocalypse Now, where Walter Murch revolutionized the way sound was used in films, and the second was Days of Heaven. I remember the tag-line for Terrence Malick’s film: ‘Your eyes, your ears, will be overwhelmed.’ I can remember going to the Fox cinema in Westwood in 1978 when that film came out, and just being transported by the use of sound. It was a film that was blown up from 35mm to 70mm, so it used six-track surround sound – that cumbersome, antiquated, but efficient method of sound reproduction. I don’t think Days of Heaven or Apocalypse Now have been excelled, in either their subtlety or indeed their bombast, by the advances that have been made in technology in the intervening years."
Noyce pays careful attention to the sound recording at every stage. "I don’t really make a sound storyboard, but certainly I make notes on the script, and when you’re shooting scenes, you’re always looking for opportunities to utilize sound. But most of the ‘sound script-writing’ comes in post-production. I do shoot as much wild-track on location as I possibly can – the sounds of insects, birds, winds, and so on. But, that said, it is never enough because your first concern when you’re shooting is to record the production sound, dialogue and so on, and with so many crew members inevitably gathered on a location, it’s difficult to get clean wild tracks. Usually, and inevitably again, we are obliged to manufacture many of those sounds in post-production."
"I’m always caught between two conflicting desires," reflects Noyce, "when it comes to the use of original sound, recorded on the set. Actors are mostly at their best when you use the sound that was actually shot at the time they performed the scene. But, whenever I find myself with sound that I have to replace in post-production, for whatever reason, whether it’s background noise or because of performance, I am always very happy. For two reasons. The first is that I feel often that given that you’ve shot the whole movie and now you can see the whole story, it’s always in some ways helpful to be able to re-visit the texture of the dialogue, and invest it with different colouring and accents. But also because I love to have dialogue that has no background sound, therefore is ripe to be treated with my own sounds, that my sound editors create."
Does he call his actors back to the post studio for looping? "Some directors and actors throw up their arms in despair at the thought of having to re-record dialogue. I just see it as an opportunity to further connect with the audience, because it gives you the ability to re-visit the performance, to fine tune it even further. Besides, clear, clearly recorded dialogue, pre-recorded dialogue without any extraneous background sound, allows you to invent atmospheres around the dialogue."
Is the effort worth while, however, unless a film can be projected and presented properly? Phillip Noyce is impressed by the dramatic improvements that have been made in the quality of exhibition in recent years. "Because digital is quite wide-spread even in independent cinemas around the world, you can today have more faith than previously that the sound you mix in the mixing-theatre is more than likely going to be somewhat reproduced for the audience, and the odds on that have increased – and they were once depressingly low. You sometimes felt that you were almost wasting your time in the mixing-theatre, and very few people would actually get to hear the sound you were creating. But now digital has given you more confidence. Quite often in the past you would be less extreme in your choices, because someone would always be saying, ‘Look, what if it’s not shown in a theatre equipped with X, Y, or Z. We better hedge our bets here.’ Increasingly you don’t need to hedge any bets."
In 1978, when Noyce made Newsfront, it must have been difficult to re-create the violent flood sequence that proved the highlight of that very intelligent movie. "Well, back in the seventies, we were working in mono on a much smaller post-production budget," recalls Noyce, "and it was really up to the skill and ingenuity of the individual sound editor (Greg Bell, who also constructed the marvelous mono sound for Peter Weir’s Gallipoli). When you first heard the sound, so complex was the mono track that it sounded as though it was presented in stereo. In the old days, we just had ‘louder’, ‘softer’, ‘treble’, and ‘more bass’ as our tools to manipulate with. In the case of the floods in Newsfront, we used ‘louder’ and ‘more bass’! Now, for DVD, the film has been digitally re-mastered, sound and image alike, and remixed in Dolby Digital."
Have the various technical progressions – the A type, the SR, and now Dolby Digital – allowed a greater dynamic range on the soundtrack? "They have indeed allowed a greater dynamic range," says the director. "There are two methods that I often say are the cheapest investments when seeking to make a little film look big. One, is the use of a 2.35 to 1 anamorphic frame – in other words the investment in lenses that allow you to produce a 2.35 projection print. The second is the work that you’ll do in sound. Rabbit-Proof Fence was made for 3 million dollars in cash. So much of the scope of the film is delivered through the use of the 2.35 to 1 format, and so much of the emotion and scope and impact of the story is due to the utilization of Dolby Digital surround sound, with its wide dynamic range that can shock, and arrest, and demand your attention with loudness, and then cut moments later to silence and isolation, and make the audience feel the frustration and fear of these young aboriginal kids."
Noyce’s fondness for the ‘scope format made me wonder if he gives consideration to home video screen size when framing, or when making a choice between a close-up and a wide-angle shot? "When I’m making a movie, I go in the other direction.," he declares. "I’m thinking only about the movie-theatre screen. Since Dead Calm (1989) I have shot all my films in 2.35 to 1, or the anamorphic frame (not using anamorphic lenses, but using super 35). A director today, using the video monitor to watch the shooting process, as opposed to the old method of actually looking through the camera, has to be constantly aware of the need to remember that he’s making a cinema film, and not television, and not a home video. I think the art of big-screen framing has almost been lost, and I always try to remind myself of the framing that David Lean would give to a scene, or Akira Kurosawa, as opposed to Alan Parker or Ridley Scott, both of whom have come from television. They’re magnificent film-makers, but they have contributed towards a TV style of film direction in terms of framing and shot size."
How does he perceive the distinction between viewing a movie in a theatre, and in a home entertainment environment? "The big difference," thinks Noyce, "is the group dynamics that come from watching a film with an audience. That just cannot be, and never will be replaced at home, unless you’ve got a massively large family in a large auditorium – in which case you may as well go the cinema! There’s nothing like watching a film with other filmgoers, while you’re caught up in your own individual response, and sharing that with other people. The major result of the technical revolution in sound reproduction is that it has made every consumer potentially into a film buff. That’s great. That’s the huge advance with DVD and sophisticated sound reproduction. You can more or less see revivals of movies at home like they were intended to be seen in the cinema, but you still don’t come close to reproducing the cinema experience."
Why is sound so vital to the movie industry, and to the spectator’s perception of a film? "Sound is the most efficient way of plunging an audience into your story, even more efficient than visuals – because an image has to be decoded by the brain (the meaning is not immediately apparent), whereas sound is heard by the ear and passes directly to the central nervous system – and affects you. Later, your brain will identify what just happened, but that’s after you’ve had an emotional response to the sound, and that response can be elicited by something as simple as – for example, in Rabbit-Proof Fence – just the use of sub-sonic bass notes in the beginning that give a sense of dread. Even if you could identify those sub-sonics, which is unlikely, your brain wouldn’t even be involved – it’s just a sensory experience."
Noyce believes that there’s a misconception where the argument about movies being too loud is concerned. "Some cinemas, even preview theatres here in Los Angeles, tend to emphasise the surround speakers and the bass if the cinema is in the habit of screening action and adventure films. You know, it’s the belief that the audience wants more bang for their buck! Movies are only as loud as the guy who controls the up and down switch. They may be played too loudly, but only because the volume is, literally, turned up too high by an over-zealous projectionist trying to please the audience, not because the information on the soundtrack is likely to blow the speakers."
He continues: "The appreciation of sound has improved particularly today, with better recording and reproduction methods, and because cinema owners and operators all over the world have really caught on to the sound revolution. Exhibitors realise that they’ve got to try as hard as they can to distinguish the in-theatre experience from what most of the audience have available to them at home. So I would say that sound is 60% of the experience, not 50%!"