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The Crucial Use of Sound in Documentary Film

Updated on March 30, 2015

The Crucial Use of Sound in Documentary

In 1893, a new invention would change the future of art and media forever. The Lumiere Brothers of France and Thomas Edison of the United States Had invented the Cinematograph and the Vitascope (respectively), which were some of the earliest versions of motion pictures devices. This evolution of art into cinema created a whole new spectrum and medium of media for artists to work in. Seeing this new development in the art world, many people around the world began to experiment and improve the use of these devices to the point where it became a world-known and respected medium. Accompanying this visionary art, musicians would compose pieces to add to these silent films. Using the two senses was an important portion of the entertainment for the audiences during the early times of cinema.

While this early, non-diegetic sound created a beautiful atmosphere for these early films, there was still more improvement for the cinema art. In 1927, Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer was the first form that utilized synchronized sound through a dialogue sequence. With this invention, film became a medium to entertain, be respected as art, and to tell a story through a narrative or a documentary. In any case, sound has always carried a significant importance in the medium. In documentary films, it is important because it moves the film from segment to segment and helps the viewer follow the story and discussion being provided. Without sound, and especially music, documentary films would lose an integral part of what carries the narrative throughout the film, what adds emphasis to important scenes, and what tells us about certain locations or characters. We will examine these qualities in the following outstanding films: Orlando Von Einsiedel’s 2014 film Virunga, Alan Hicks’ 2014 film Keep On Keepin’ On, and Matt Katsolis’ 2013 film Fading West.

3:32 Overview of Congo Scenery (2nd of montage scene)
3:32 Overview of Congo Scenery (2nd of montage scene)
3:13 Shot of Congo Scenery (1st of montage scene)
3:13 Shot of Congo Scenery (1st of montage scene)
3:00 Opening Scene of Andre’s Early Life as part of the Military
3:00 Opening Scene of Andre’s Early Life as part of the Military
4:43 Gorilla (2nd Montage with Music)
4:43 Gorilla (2nd Montage with Music)
4:32 Scenic Shot (1st Montage with Music)
4:32 Scenic Shot (1st Montage with Music)
5:12 Shot of Friend on Beach (2nd of laid back montage)
5:12 Shot of Friend on Beach (2nd of laid back montage)
4:12 Shot of Surfing (1st of laid back montage)
4:12 Shot of Surfing (1st of laid back montage)
1:16:55 Rebels Moving in
1:16:55 Rebels Moving in
1:16:30 Tanks Moving in towards Virunga
1:16:30 Tanks Moving in towards Virunga
1:15:55 Andre Prepping for Battle
1:15:55 Andre Prepping for Battle
0:42 Justin Playing Song (2nd of background to foreground)
0:42 Justin Playing Song (2nd of background to foreground)
0:34 Showcasing Terry’s Sound (1st with background music)
0:34 Showcasing Terry’s Sound (1st with background music)

In any film, it is important to maintain the audience’s attention throughout the entire film, especially when you’re trying to get your point across or tell a story. In many films there are montages sequences of locations that help set the stage for the next scene or the film. Music is a vital portion of these scenes to help tie the sequence together. We see an example of this in the film Virunga. In these clips we are provided with an outstanding view of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The shots flow together so well mostly because of the fantastic sound design used. Greek Street Studios headed the production of this sound design and helped this film become nominated for a Grammy as a “Best Documentary Feature.”

In Keep On Keepin’ On, we get an even better vision of music helping to carry a narrative from one scene to the next. Between these two scenes, music is played via a piano. In the second scene that was transitioned to, Justin Kauflin, a young blind piano prodigy, is playing the exact song with the help of Clark Terry, who’s widely recognized as one of the best saxophone players to ever walk on the earth. Since the two scenes presented are so different, without the music to carry us from scene to scene, the viewer may get lost in the transition. It is crucial that this second sense added on to the vision of the cinema is there to provide a narration for the viewer to follow. This is one of the main reasons that sound is so important for aiding the flow of a narrative in film. This same idea for a transition is used in Fading West when transitioning from non-diegetic background music during an interview, to cutaway shots of Switchfoot surfing the waves of California, to a diegetic scene of the band performing the same song in a live concert. The seamless connection of the two scenes helps the viewer follow the narrative without an interruption. As you can see from these two movie examples, sound plays an integral part in carrying the narrative from scene to scene.

Carrying the narrative is definitely an important aspect of sound in film; however, it is not the only use of sound and music in a film. Sound and music add emphasis to scenes that would otherwise lack the weight the director desired for the viewers. As a viewer, you can only pick up so many cues from what you see on the screen. Explosions, people dying, explicit nudity, or vast landscapes are all examples of situations where the screen can provide an impact that the director is looking for; however, in each of these situations, a good sound design can drastically change the effect of the scene. In an explosion, a huge explosion sound with good speakers can make people both hear and feel the explosion in addition to seeing it. When people are being killed in a shot, it is much more effective for sound to be utilized to make a much more gruesome effect for the viewer. Almost every shot of a film can be way more emphasized.

With this in mind, we can see multiple example of sound being used effectively as an emphasis instrument in the film Virunga. As you can see, in this scene, tanks, anti-air, and hundreds of rifles are being fired. You can definitely understand what is going on if you’re just watching what is on screen, but the gunshots, explosions, and intense symphonic music raise the viewer’s awareness and get them on the edge of their seat. As a viewer, you get anxious in waiting for the outcome. It’s difficult to achieve this same kind of intensity without a fantastic sound design like we see in this scene.

The same use of sound can be found in Fading West. In this surfing shot the laughter of the band and the wave-styled reggae music provide a laid back atmosphere for the viewers to dwell in. Again, the music and sound effects are vital to the feeling given in this scene. The same effect wouldn’t be achieved without it.

Keep On Keepin’ On contains an immense amount of clips where sound is used to provide emphasis to the scene because in this particular film, the sound design is more important that what we see on screen. As referenced earlier, two main characters of this film, Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin, both suffer from a lack of vision. Sound is the thing that takes them out of their worlds of suffering and gives them meaning. Sound unites the two in one of the strongest relationships seen on film. With sound being a vital part of their livelihood, it’s easy to see that sound is more important that what is seen on the screen in this documentary. In almost every scene in the film, jazz music floods the background to give viewers a taste of these two men’s lives.

Using more than one sense is so important in film. Some historical producers such as Charlie Chaplin resisted the use of sound in unison with film because they believed it would take away form the art form. While this could carry some weight in an era where physical humor was a big part of the entertainment in their films (mainly stemming from vaudeville performances), they can’t argue against the use of music in film. In most silent films, music was either performed live or added to the film. They were rarely ever watched in actual silence. This again shows that even then they believed sound is an important element in tailoring the viewer’s view of the film in the correct way.

Narrative qualities and emphasis in certain scenes are both central uses for sound in film; but, in documentary film in particular, the most important use of sound is to tell us about certain locations or characters being displayed on the screen. Knowing where the scene is taking place or knowing how the certain character acts are important elements in a documentary. In Virunga, this type of sound use is extremely evident throughout the documentary. As this scene progresses from a montage of shots of the Congo forests, it moves into shots of gorillas and the Virunga animal reserve (Virunga | Home). During this transition and throughout the next scene, we hear the birds chirping, the gorillas grunting, the waters flowing, and the sticks breaking. Immediately, you get a sense of where we are and what is going on. When it comes to characters of a documentary, the best use of sounds to give a certain feeling to each character is background music as they speak. This was used often in WWII when persuading people to follow or be against Hitler. It was a popular type of cinema in Germany because it was so effective at getting the audience to see it in the film’s point of view. Virunga uses this same type of sound design When we are first introduced to Andre Bauma, the gorilla caretaker of Virunga, We immediately get his background story of how he was a terrible man in his past. During this clip though, we aren’t given intense music as if he is an evil person. Instead, we are given sympathetic music (Virunga | Home). This leads us into him being the main character of the documentary and the one we identify with most as a viewer. Without sound, you would need a lot of descriptive narrative to persuade the audience to get the same feeling. The music does it effortlessly in the background.

In Keep On Keepin’ On, music is an important element in defining the characters. The film constantly reminds the viewers that the masters of their instruments have their own sound, and everyone knows them by that sound. This idea is what Justin Kauflin is striving to achieve and is what Clark Terry has already achieved. Using a tailord unique sound, every time we see Clark Terry in a flashback scene, we are provided with his trademark sound. When we see Justin, we see him working hard to find his sound with the help of Clark Terry.

Without a doubt this same type of character and environment-defining use of music is utilized in Fading West. The band’s music is played constantly throughout the documentary. Know their melodic feel, heart-singing riffs, and passion for deep lyrics, you are instantly enraptured in the documentary from the first scene. This feel is emphasized throughout the entire documentary through the music but also through what we see on screen. Beaches, surfing, concerts, they are all examples of the carefree lifestyle that Switchfoot is trying to show the people around them and the viewers of this documentary.

So, what can we take from this? Without sound, and especially music, documentary films would lose an integral part of what carries the narrative throughout the film, what adds emphasis to important scenes, and what tells us about certain locations or characters. In the one-of-a-kind documentary film Virunga, It is extremely evident throughout the film that they use music and sound to adhere to these three qualities. In Keep On Keepin’ On, it is inevitable that music is used to create an environment tailor to the opinion of the producers since the film is about finding your sound as a master musician. In Fading West, it is impossible to separate the sound design from what we see on screen. The band is so involved with their music, it only makes sense that the documentary provides the same emphasis to the music that the band does. As lovers of cinema, the things we must realize is film isn’t simply about what we see. It is an experience brought together by multiple senses. Sound is just as important if not more important at establishing the feel for the audience to dwell in. Without a doubt, music and sound are something we should cherish in every film, and especially in the documentary film genre.

Works Cited

"Virunga | Home." Virunga. 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 Mar. 2015. <>.

Which of these three films do you think has the best sound design?

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