Throwing out the rulebook: fidelity, sound and meowing dogs

In the marriage between vision and sound in cinema, sound is constantly burdened with the expectation of fidelity. The fidelity of  visuals is rarely analysed. In contrast, the critical question of fidelity and sound repeatedly boils to the surface. Scahffer (1977, p. 9)  discusses the fidelity of ‘earwitnesses’. For instance All Quiet on The Western Front’s soundscape is ‘convincing because the author was  here. And we trust him when he describes other unusual sound events – for instance, the sounds made by dead bodies’ (1977, p.  9). On a creative level, the sound designer Frank Serafine (1985, p. 363) consciously considers matching the fidelity of a sound ‘pitch  to camera angle’. In his study on sound space, Rick Altman (1992, p. 59) writes ‘we find here once again the familiar opposition of intelligibility to naturalness (or acoustic fidelity)…’.

What does Rick Altman mean by ‘acoustic fidelity’? For David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson (1985, pp. 190 – 191), this sonic buzzword fidelity:

‘refers to the extent to which the sound is faithful to the source as we, the audience conceive it. If a film shows us a barking dog and we hear a barking noise, that sound is faithful to its source; the sound maintains fidelity. But if the picture of the barking dog is accompanied by the sound of a cat meowing, there enters a disparity between sound and image – a lack of fidelity’.

Matching images with an accompanying ‘faithful’ sounds has been a filmmaking preoccupation since the 1930s. Altman noted (1992, p.49) that J.P. Maxfield, West coast chief of Electric Research Products Incorporated (ERPI), ‘insisted repeatedly that the eyes and ears of a person viewing a real scene in real life must maintain “a fixed relationship” to one another (Maxfield, 1930a)’. Adhering to this ‘fixed relationship’ understandably allows an audience to easily make sense of the represented reality on screen. In other words, an audience is more likely to quickly buy in to the reality of a cat on screen if the image of the cat is synced with a realistic accompanying cat sound.

However, here in lies the issue of fidelity and representing sonic reality. By the time the accompanying ‘real’ cat sound reaches our cinema’s speakers system, the natural location sound has been unnaturally cut up, its levels altered, its quality compressed or even entirely replaced by a different meowing sound bite. One could argue that it is impossible to maintain Maxfield’s ‘real’ fidelity from a technical perspective. Bordwell and Thompson (1985, p. 191) also concede that fidelity ‘has nothing to do with what originally made  the sound in production. A filmmaker may manipulate sound independently of image’.

If fidelity has nothing to do with maintaining screen reality by using real sounds recorded on a real location, then what is it? Bordwell and Thompson (1985, p. 191) argue that fidelity is ‘purely a matter of expectation’. Often, our sonic expectation of what sounds ‘real’ is not based on a real sound source. Furthermore, Altman stresses that

‘recordings do not reproduce sound, they represent sound” and “the notion of “fidelity” is not a measure of success in reproduction, but a way of assessing a recording’s adherence to a set of evolving conventions, like the parallel standards established for such culturally important qualities as “realism”…’.

Foley work in films offers an interesting insight into our expectations of represented realism and sonic fidelity. For example, a foley artist does not need real snow to capture the sound of footsteps on snow. Instead the foley artist simply presses his/her fingertips on  white corn powder to fulfill the expected sound for the accompanying image. Such expectations can also shape cinematic conventions of sound fidelity such as a gun shot effect. Marc Mancini (1985, p.365) notes that ‘certain old, badly recorded sounds have become the industry standard, so much so that people often fail to recognize a real gunshot simply because it doesn’t resemble a movie gunshot’.  Thus, our expectations of sound fidelity do not have to derive from real sources to be considered faithful to an image.

Michel Chion (1994, p.5) describes sound’s faithful relationship to visuals as a contract; each invaluable to the other. They are whole entities in which they individually add value to each other. Sound’s ‘added value’ is the ‘expressive and informative value with which a sound enriches a given image so as to create the definite impression, in the immediate or remembered experience’ (Chion, 1995, p.5). Sound-conscious directors have often challenged audience’s expectations of sonic fidelity to provide ‘added value’ to their filmic  narratives. In the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now (1979), there is a creative transition between sound spaces when the warping sound of a helicopter is linked to the image of a rotating fan in a hotel room in Saigon. The helicopter’s blades are not the ‘fixed’ sounds an audience would expect a hotel fan to make. By breaking this ‘fixed’ fidelity between image and sound, the audience is instead given ‘added value’: a psychological insight in to the crumbling mind of the troubled protagonist. Despite being in a comfortable safe place, the hotel room, we learn that the protagonist cannot escape the sounds of warfare. Being back in the jungle at war is at the forefront of  his mind and his inner ear: he can only hear helicopter blades slicing through the hotel room’s heavy air. By breaking the rules of fidelity, Coppola encourages the audience to become more immeresed in the protagonist’s personal perspective.

Another way of immersing an audience in a filmic soundscape is by not linking any sound to a corresponding image. In an interview with Frank Paine, Walter Murch (1985, p.359) proposes:

‘the perfect sound film has zero tracks. You try to get the audience to a point, somehow, where they can imagine the sound. They hear the sound in their minds, and it really isn’t on the track at all. That’s the ideal sound. They hear the sound in their minds, and it really isn’t on the track at all. That’s the ideal sound, the one that exists totally in the mind, because it’s the most intimate. It deals with each person’s experience, and it’s obviously of the highest fidelity imaginable, because it’s not being translated through any kind of medium’.

The dimension internal space can play in relation to fidelity is rarely discussed but it is a powerful sonic tool in immersing an audience. An apt example occurs in the TV drama Any Human Heart (2010) starring Jim Broadbent. Throughout his life story, the protagonist Logan imagines / remembers himself as a little boy on his own in a small boat at sea: a recurring visual motif. The image of the boy squinting up at the sun is devoid of any expected corresponding diegetic sound effects. It is up to the audience to pin sounds
on to this thought-provoking image. The audience’s understanding of this boy deepens as the drama unfolds its secrets. So when you return to this image sporadically throughout the narrative, your inner ear hears a myriad of different sounds and fresh knowledge each time you view the image again. One could argue this is an immersive sound experience and ‘the highest fidelity imaginable’ as each viewer will create and link their own personal soundscape to this visual motif.

Another immersive use of sound occurs when a director creates the reverse of the above example. In other words, an immersive event occurs when an audience has to provide their own imagined images to accompany a rich soundscape. La Jetee (1962) consists of a series of black-and-white still photographs, which are linked to an energetic soundtrack carried by a male voiceover as there is very little dialogue. Interestingly, an audience is challenged to perceive images in their mind that link in with the film’s post-apocalyptic sounds.

In a similar vein, the installation sound piece Audio Obscura (2011) also breaks away from the conventional fidelity between image and sound. Participants are given headphones and encouraged to wander around Kings Cross St. Pancras International station on their own. As the dark soundscape seeps into the particpants’ ears, they find themselves naturally trying to link the dialogue they are hearing to strangers’ faces that pass them by in the busy station. There is no ‘fixed’ or ‘expected’ image for each corresponding sound. Instead, this subjective vision of the sound installation allows the participants an opportunity for a more immersive experience which arguably promotes the ‘highest fidelity imaginable’ (Chion, 1995, p.5).

When discussing fidelity in sound, you cannot avoid discussing its image counterpoint. Sound and image are undeniably intertwined. For Murch (1985, p.356) ‘image and sound are linked together in a dance’. This cinematic dance has fixed rules, conventions and expectations. However, the above examples have demonstrated that a break in the rules often provides a richer representation of high fidelity in the case of an audience providing their own personal partner images, La Jetee (1962) and Audio Obscura (2011), or subjective soundcape, Any Human Heart (2010). A sound may also provide ‘added value’ and serve a rich narrative function when it is not linked to its corresponding image, Apocalypse Now (1979). So why not throw out the rulebook? In my own practice, I do not want to insult an audience’s intelligence by constantly feeding them the prescribed expectations of sound fidelity. Instead, I am keen to stretch audiences’ imaginations for a more immersive experience where they can provide their own accompanying sounds, images and perspective on the narrative. I aim to give an audience the space to tease out why a dog is meowing with their own personal images of cats, sounds of dogs and subjective psychological perspectives on why the dog is mysteriously meowing in the first place!


Altman, Rick, 1992. Four and a Half Film Fallacies. In: R. Altman, ed. 1992. Sound Theory Sound Practice. London: Routledge. Ch.1.

Altman, Rick, 1992. Sound Space. In: R. Altman, ed. 1992. Sound Theory Sound Practice. London: Routledge. Ch.2.

Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin, 1985. Fundamental Aesthetics of Sound in the Cinema. In: E. Weis and J. Belton, eds. 1985. Theory and Practice: Film Sound. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.181 – 200.

Chion, Michel, 1994. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. trans. Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mancini Marc, 1985. The Sound Designer. In: E. Weis and J. Belton, eds.
1985. Theory and Practice: Film Sound. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.361 – 368.

Paine, Frank, 1985. Sound Mixing and Apocalypse Now: An Interview with Walter Murch. In: E. Weis and J. Belton, eds. 1985. Theory and Practice: FilmSound. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.356 – 360.

Schaffer, R. Murray, 1977. Our Sonic Environment an the Soundscape: The Tuning of the World. Vermont: Destiny Books.


La Jetee, 1962. [Short Film] Directed by Chris Marker. France: Argos Films.

Apocalypse Now, 1979. [Film] Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. USA: Zoetrope Studios.

Any Human Heart, 2010. [TV drama] Directed by Michael Samuels. UK: Carnival Films and Channel Four Television.

Audio Obscura, 2011. [Audio installation] Created by Lavinia Greenlaw. UK: Art Angel and Manchester International Festival.

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