Where the Camera can not Take Us: Sounding the Unseeable in Game of Thrones.

Posted by Danielle Hancock on May 06, 2016 in Danielle Hancock, Uncategorized tagged with , , , , , , , ,

 

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Game of Thrones, find Season 6.

Warning: This blog-post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones, Season 6.

 

Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons are rough to the touch. The plains of Winterfell are swept with fast, sharp winds. A human skull smashes with the same wet burst as a watermelon. I learnt these things, and many more, from listening to Game of Thrones. Mostly, we tend to watch Game of Thrones, and with good reason. The show seldom shies away from graphic detail. Gouged eyes, decapitation, burning children, full frontal nudity  – in the face of all these and more the camera’s gaze never wavers. Indeed, often it peers closer, bringing us as near to the horror or titillation as a camera lense can. Yet though the show’s sights are often discussed, its sounds are seldom mentioned. Paula Fairfield, the show’s Emmy-winning sound designer, argues this to be a side-effect of good work, saying

 

the irony is that the better we do our jobs, the more invisible our work is. It’s why our jobs and contribution to every film project is so sadly underestimated … so few people really understand what it is that we do.

 

This is why I love it when the programme tackles a subject that it absolutely cannot show. It forces us to pay attention to what it can sound. This week, in Episode 2 of Season 6, would-be bastard-king Ramsay Snow’s latest atrocity fit that bill, as, after murdering his father, Ramsay unleashed a pack of vicious dogs on his stepmother and her new-born son. In doing so, Ramsay not only cemented his reputation as the show’s creepiest villain since Joffrey, but he also brought into sharp relief the show’s phenomenal acoustic prowess, and the wider potential of sound within the audiovisual horror genre. In taking a closer listen at this scene, this blog argues that in the world of audio-visual horror, the microphone often treads where the camera may never go.

Ramsay Snow, getting just a little more creepy by the day.

Ramsay Snow, getting just a little more creepy by the day.

Visually, the scene works as a clever sequence of cross-cuts – here we see a woman and baby being lead into a gloomy tunnel, the gate being swung shut and locked behind them; then enraged dogs, frantic at their cage doors; next the helpless mother and babe, realising their danger; now we see Ramsay unlocking the dog’s cages; back to a closer shot of terrified mother and babe; now the dogs running from their cages; over to Ramsay’s satisfied face. It’s a move as good and as old as the hills, immortalised by Hitchcock, and as effective now as it ever was. Yet equal, and uncharted, genius lies in the scene’s sound arrangement, which does not simply bind, support and affirm the visual sequence’s “reality”, but rather forms its own, distinct and uniquely unsettling, narrative of horror. 

An acoustic reading of the scene begins with a swinging, creaking gate, being opened and then closed, and dog barks, which get louder as the characters move into the dark, cramped tunnel where the dogs are caged. The sounds here are reflective not only of the dogs and gate, but of the space that they inhabit. Sounds alternate depending on where they are made – a baby’s cry will sound very different in a vast, arched cathedral than in a low-ceilinged basement, or on a windswept beach. Thus, sound recordings always reflect space. Discussing sound film, Bela Balazs explains that,

 

Just as our eye is identified with the camera lens, so our ear is identified with the microphone and we hear the sounds as the microphone originally heard them, irrespective of where the sound being shown and the sound reproduced. In this way, in the sound film, the fixed, immutable, permanent distance between spectator and actor is eliminated not only visually . . . but acoustically as well.

 

Through the microphone’s faithful replication of the tunnel’s sounds, then, we gain a horrific sensation of depth and space; of the terrifying nearness of the dogs, of the cloying narrowness of the floorspace, the closeness of the walls, and tapering of the ceiling, and ‘we are transferred from our seats to the space in which the events depicted on the screen are taking place ‘. More than simply reflecting the claustrophobic shape of the tunnel, for Balazs, the scene’s soundtracking takes us there.

 

Yet there is more at play than visceral thrill. The scene continues, to form an eloquent sense of acoustic foreboding through repetition and volume. We hear the tunnel’s iron gate shaking in its hinges as it swings shut, and again as it is forcibly locked, and the dogs barks begin to rise.  The camera cuts to a shot of a huge dog, slamming itself against its cage’s own iron gate, and the previous sound sequence of metal being slammed and shaken alongside heightening dog barks seemingly almost repeats. This acoustic mirroring creates a powerful suggestion of threat – just as one shaking iron door swings shut, and the barking grows closer, so another may swing open and the barking come closer still.  This threat is heightened by a swift juxtaposition of sound. The noises of the dog and its cage suddenly multiply, as all of the dogs begin to throw themselves at their cage doors, creating a cacophony of threat and confusion. Ramsay shouts the command “Down!”, and as the dogs quieten, the baby’s cry is heard for the first time, weak and thin as it strains to be heard above the dogs’ diminishing growls. Through the contrast of many, loud growls against one, tiny, meowl, and one, masterly voice, a sense not simply of the size and number of the noise-makers, but also of the baby’s vulnerability, and hopelessness, and Ramsay’s power, is conveyed. Just as the baby’s lone voice is barely audible above the dogs’ barks, Ramsay’s is that which commands and controls.

 

From this exploration of contrast, comes one of silence, and the properties of terror and emphasis that it may deliver. Silence, Balazs tells us, is not the absence of noise. Silence, rather, is defined by the audibility and proximity of noise:

 

We feel the silence when we can hear the most distant sound or the slightest rustle near us. Silence is when the buzzing of a fly on the windowpane fills the whole room with sound and the ticking of a clock smashes time into fragments with sledgehammer blows. The silence is greatest when we can hear very distant sounds in a very large space.

 

Thus in television and film, silence engenders in the listener a sense of imagined or projected physical presence. To hear a film or show’s silence, we imaginatively inhabit a space: as our ears strain to pick-up distant waves, we imaginatively understand ourselves (and the characters or spaces we watch and apply these interpretations to) to be far away from them, and any other noise. In a sequence of horror or terror, this obviously holds great potential. In a Gothic mansion, say, the creak of a far-off footstep puts us on alert, as our ears ask, “how far away, and in which direction does it now move?” Likewise, as Ramsay’s dog’s fall still, the mother and baby’s cries drop, and we hold our breath and prick our ears, waiting for whatever cue will break the tension and tell us of the oncoming threat. In the surrounding silence, as Ramsay swings open the first cage door, that horror great, the ominous creaking door, lives once more.

Ramsay opens the gates.

Ramsay opens the gates.

 

In the scene’s conclusion, our growing anxiety over the mother and baby’s fate meets a somewhat illusory catharsis.  As the dogs stand poised at their open cells, and Ramsay reveals to his stepmother his usurping of her husband, the baby’s cries rise with his mother’s pleas. On hearing that the baby is his brother, Ramsay explains that he ‘prefers being an only child’, and a rolling dog snarl begins, answered by his whistle. Hereafter, the final, terrible, crescendo is reached as the dogs ravenous howls flood the narrow space. The camera shows the dogs rushing toward the mother and baby, and her, desperately cowering over her child. The camera pans back to Ramsay and the soundtrack takes over, filling the blanks for the rest of the scene’s horrific narrative. The dogs’ howls meet the mother’s desperate screams, and the sounds of wet, tearing cloth and flesh join them, and we are reminded again of sound’s peculiar ability to make us feel things: how a camera might show a shoe, say, a knife being plunged, but that it is the sound of metal twisting amid wetness that makes us feel the blood and flesh and steel, if only for an instance. With this in mind, we must note that in this particular sequence, there is one sound missing: the baby’s. This omission, perhaps more than anything else, tells us the power of sound. That the baby’s cries would be too shocking to hear, show how effective, and disturbing, sound can be, even when we’re not paying direct attention to its role. We can not see a baby being eaten alive, and, when the sound design is this good, we may not hear it either. That audio must finally submit to the same levels of censorship and decency as its visual counterpart fills me with hope, as it suggests that despite Fairfield’s resigned anonymity, we really are listening to her work.

 

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