I am Sitting in a Room, Listening to Mank
Author: Cormac Donnelly
Format: Video Essay
Published: October 2021
Some of the decisions taken in the creation of the soundtrack for Mank (David Fincher, 2020) raise interesting questions about the reception of film sound in the domestic viewing/listening space. This research in particular focuses on the re-recording of the film’s soundtrack on the Skywalker Scoring Stage and the impact this ‘spatialisation’ of the soundtrack has on our listening experience.
How is home media reception shaped by the manipulation of the sonic space of Mank’s soundtrack?
Might the re-recording process used on Mank’s soundtrack suggest a method by which films released into the domestic market could retain the reverberant sonic signature of cinematic exhibition?
My research intersects with the broad base of existing theoretical work concerning the film soundtrack. The spatialisation of recorded sound and the attendant reverb characteristics of the recording have been noted across the body of sound research, not just in relation to film. From Bela Balázs in 1970 “A sound recorded in a cellar remains a cellar sound even if it is played back in a picture theatre” (p.214) to Andy Birtwistle in 2017 “The quality of reverberation that contributes to the temporal profile of a sound is also inextricably linked with the physical space in which a sound event takes place” (p.16) there is a clarity concerning the manner in which the sonic characteristics of a space can inform a sound reproduced (and possibly recorded) in that space.
In terms of the multi-channel soundtrack, Michel Chion coined the term “superfield” which is “…the space created, in multitrack films, by ambient natural sounds, city noises, music, and all sorts of rustlings that surround the visual space…” (1994, p.150) and Mark Kerins has subsequently developed this into the Ultrafield, “… the three-dimensional sonic environment of the diegetic world…” (2010, p.92).
Whilst considerations of the reverberant nature of sounds (and spaces) is key in the exploration of Mank’s soundtrack, it is also apparent that the approach taken by the filmmakers in spatialising Mank’s soundtrack is somewhat anomalous within recognised soundtrack production practise. Both the superfield and ultrafield are distinct in their contention that the multi-channel soundtrack is an evocation of the film’s diegesis, but in this case the entirety of the films soundtrack (music, sound effects, dialogue and Foley) has been mixed in such a way as to carry the reverberant characteristics of a non-diegetic space.
The closest analogue to the process adopted here is “worldization”, a concept attributed to Walter Murch and employed by him notably on THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971). In a guest post for the website Designing Sound I defined worldization as “…a technique Walter Murch developed early in his career where he would take a piece of music, dialogue or FX, reproduce it in a real space using a portable tape machine and speaker, and then re-record it on another machine in an attempt to inform the original sound with some of the acoustic properties of the space” (Donnelly, 2012). As Murch employed it, the process is used as a means of adding the sound of a particular space (its characteristic reverberation) to a ‘dry’ sound which would then be mixed into the final film soundtrack. Where the Mank soundtrack deviates from the recognised process of worldization is in the global nature of its application to the film soundtrack, and also in how carefully it has been mixed “…to taste…” (Tonebenders, 2020). The process is somewhat similar, but the end result needs to be considered in a different context.
The work of Alvin Lucier itself, and ‘I Am Sitting in a Room’ (1969) in particular, suggests a method that we might use to interrogate the spatialisation of Mank’s soundtrack. Rather than consider it as a piece of soundtrack production which has been created for maximum compatibility and translatability in our domestic listening environment, we might perhaps better understand it as a recording of a one off installation performance (Davis, 2003). Just as the recording of Lucier’s composition that I use in this essay can be placed very specifically in space and time, so can Mank’s soundtrack. Though it might be composed of many disparate elements of sound, voice, and music, recorded across many different times and places, they are all homogenised through the ‘performance’ and re-recording of the soundtrack on the Skywalker Scoring Stage. The spatialised soundtrack then acts as a perceptual bridge of sorts, between the time and space in which we might choose to watch Mank, and the specific corresponding instant of the film’s playback on the Skywalker Scoring Stage.
The question of soundtrack reception I raise in the body of the video essay is framed around the research of Johan-Magnus Elvemo and Mark Kerins. Kerins suggests the goal of the digital surround soundtrack is to place the audience “…in the middle of the diegetic environment and action,” whilst Elvemo expands on this, suggesting that the surround soundtrack also impacts on our spatial perception of the room we are watching and listening to the film in. I make the point here that these discussions must now also consider the domestic viewing/listening space as well as the cinematic, particularly in light of recent global events and the shifting fortunes of theatrical film releases. Again, the particularities of the creation of the soundtrack for Mank place it in something of a category of its own in terms of reception. The careful mixing of the soundtrack, and the fact that the spatialisation effect is the only element mixed in the surround speakers of the multi-channel soundtrack, places the soundtrack somewhere in the hinterland of ‘space perception’ as noted in work by Neofytos Kaplanis et.al. (2014). Where Elvemo’s research considers the two representational spaces we encounter when listening to a film (the cinematic and the receptive) Mank introduces a third space which I suggest serves to mediate between the other 2, redefining the space in which we listen to the film and potentially unifying the receptive and the cinematic.
The research by Elvemo, which I refer to in my video essay, is underpinned by elements of gestalt theory and phenomenology which inform the discussion of the cinematic and domestic viewing/listening space (2013). Here I have also considered how the perception of space might be impacted in relation to Mank’s soundtrack (Kaplanis et.al. 2014). This theoretical consideration intersects with certain practicalities of soundtrack post-production which, in this specific case, are described by Ren Klyce in his interview with Jennifer Walden (2020) and which are more generally explored in works such as Tomlinson Holman’s ‘Surround Sound: Up and Running’ (2007).
I chose to use the video essay form to present this research as it offers distinct advantages to the investigation of the film soundtrack. To attempt to render this research solely using the written word would require a translation into language which would struggle to convey the nuance and subtlety of the sonic elements under discussion. The video essay not only permits a foregrounding of “…the poetic force of the source materials…” (Keathley & MIttell, 2019), it also promotes careful consideration of the time and perceptual space that are given to the sonic materials contained within. In this video essay the sound, rather than the image content, dictated the final form of the piece, and also informed the manner in which the research was narrated and conveyed.
Using Alvin Lucier’s composition ‘I Am Sitting in a Room’ as a framing device for the research suggested to me that the sound and texture of my own voice recording needed careful consideration. As such I recorded my voice in a naturally reverberant space which I hope helps the listener situate me as an acoustically grounded voice, rather than an amorphous voiceover.
The short sequence of crowd sourced recordings included in this essay is by no means exhaustive. It is not included here to suggest any empirical findings from this research, but rather to illustrate the impact of the spatialised soundtrack in domestic listening environments, and perhaps to suggest that it appears to imbue a certain sonic ‘commonality’ to these different spaces.
In the production of the video essay I have taken care to create a soundtrack which is representative of my research intentions. To this end I have mixed the soundtrack elements from Mank to mirror as closely as possible the spatial position of the original 5.1 mix using Sennheiser’s AMBEO Oribit plugin. And with both Alvin Lucier and Ren Klyce in mind, I have suggested that the video essay be played back on speakers (where possible) to encourage a further engagement between the sound of the film, the video essay, and the room that it is being listened to in.
This video essay highlights a particular post-production decision in the creation of the soundtrack for Mank and suggests how, in its deviation from the modern norms of soundtrack production, it raises questions about the reception of film sound in the domestic space and also how those spaces react to sound.
This research also considers the potential value that this re-recording process could add to films which receive simultaneous, or near simultaneous release to streaming platforms (Barnes & Sperling, 2020; Rubin & Donnelly, 2020). The addition of the reverberant sonic signature of cinematic exhibition to original film soundtracks could provide a valuable perceptual link between the domestic viewing/listening space and the ‘big screen’ experience.
On a more fundamental level I hope to continue to explore the value of the video essay format for the investigation of the film soundtrack, both in terms of its production and reception.
This submission is the first dissemination of this particular piece of research. It does exist as part of the larger body of research I am currently engaged in for my PhD and I have published some of this work in NECSUS (Donnelly, 2020).
This research will inform my conference presentation ‘Monochromasonics – the Sound of Black and White’ which I will be delivering at Futureworks, Manchester in June 2021.
Balázs, B. (1970) Theory of the Film; Character and Growth of a New Art. New York: Dover Publications.
Birtwistle, A. (2017) Cinesonica: sounding film and video. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Chion, M. (1994) Audio-vision: sound on screen. New York: Columbia University Press.
Davis, R. (2003) ‘… and what they do as they’re going…: sounding space in the work of Alvin Lucier. Organised Sound, 8(2), pp.205-212.
Donnelly, C. (2012) ‘Analog Worldization’. Designing Sound [online]. Available from https://designingsound.org/2012/12/31/analog-worldization/ [accessed 26 March 2021]
Donnelly, C. (2020) ‘Sonic Chronicle, Post Sound’. NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies [online]. Available from https://necsus-ejms.org/sonic-chronicle-post-sound/ [accessed 31 March 2021]
Elvemo, J.M. (2013) ‘Spatial perception and diegesis in multi-channel surround cinema’. The New Soundtrack. 3(1), pp.31-44.
Galibert-Laîné, C. (2018) ‘Watching The Pain of Others’ [online]. Available from https://vimeo.com/298425068
Holman, T. (2014) Surround sound: up and running. New York: Focal Press.
Kaplanis, N., Bech, S., Jensen, S.H. and van Waterschoot, T. (2014) ‘Perception of reverberation in small rooms: a literature study’. In Audio engineering society conference: 55th international conference: Spatial audio. Audio Engineering Society.
Keathley, C. and Mittell, J. (2019) ‘Scholarship in Sound & Image: A Pedagogical Essay’. The Videographic Essay: Practice and Pedagogy [online]. Available from http://videographicessay.org/works/videographic-essay/scholarship-in-sound–image?path=contents
Kerins, M. (2010) Beyond Dolby (stereo): cinema in the digital sound age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Rodgers, T. (2018) Approaching Sound. In The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities (pp. 233-242). Routledge.
Sennheiser (2020) AMBEO Orbit [software]: https://en-us.sennheiser.com/ambeo-orbit
Tonebenders. (2021) Ren Klyce on Mank. Tonebenders [Podcast]. [Accessed 7 September 2021]. Available from: https://tonebenderspodcast.com/156-ren-klyce-on-mank/.
I Am Sitting in a Room (Alvin Lucier, 1969, USA)
Mank (David Fincher, 2020, USA)
Se7en (David Fincher, 1995, USA)
THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971, USA)
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission for publication with no amendments.
This audiovisual essay offers a timely and original investigation of the “cinematic” sound mixing of films destined to be viewed in domestic spaces. The choice to use Mank as the case study is an elegant one, given its status as a film about cinema that plays out, predominantly, in domestic spaces. Its idiosyncratic audio post-production history (explained in the video and the accompanying written statement) is explored astutely, in order to expand our understanding of what it might mean to talk of a “home cinema” viewing (and, of course, listening) experience.
There is a seamless, stripped-down quality to the audiovisual aesthetic of the essay that works to its benefit. Consistently, still images and diagrams are used, along with lengthy scenes from Mank that are allowed to play out, visually, without interference. The lack of visual busyness encourages the audio-viewer to pay attention, instead, to the “movement” being felt in the soundtrack, which is clearly the intention.
The accompanying statement is effective in expanding on some of the issues explored in the audiovisual essay, though not to the extent that it exceeds the terms of debate established through the video. This is not a criticism, but rather an acknowledgement that the audiovisual element works in a primarily explanatory mode, whilst, crucially, taking advantage of the affordances of the medium to do so.
Review 2: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement
What are the main claims and purposes of the work?
The video interrogates the significance and effect of the re-recording of the Mank soundtrack on a sound stage with a view to considering whether the ‘echo’ effect of this re-recording might be a means through which domestic viewing — or rather, listening — could mimic the experience of hearing a film in a theatre.
Does it seem to make a genuine new contribution to knowledge or understanding of practice-research?
This is very strong, original and striking work, attempting to communicate in the videographic form and to access effects and experiences that might otherwise elude precise description, if not analysis.
Is there any important relevant work that the submission does not acknowledge?
I’m not an expert in sound studies so can’t speak authoritatively to this, but my impression is that both standard and less familiar texts are deployed with insight and verve. The creator is obviously very familiar with current videographic practice and is using techniques developed by others (eg Chloé Galibert-Laîné) as well as innovating their own.
How strong is the research and theoretical context of the accompanying written statement?
I found the work to be situated very effectively.
Are there particular changes that you would deem either necessary or helpful for the work to be published?
My suggestions are all concerned with the audiovisual setting out of the account in the video essay. Overall, a very intelligent effort is made to communicate using bespoke audiovisual means, but some effects might be further honed, as follows.
The opening desktop documentary sequence felt clunky to me. The creator draws on the model of Galibert-Laîné, though her work uses a ‘looser’ desktop format (including her own ‘live’ image) plus voiceover to construct her investigative persona. (The creator here avoids the construction of a persona, at least until the voiceover later.) the chief problem, though, seemed to be one of pacing: it seems too slow, and this seemed to be exacerbated by the static split screen and lack of voice. I don’t have a specific suggestion to ‘improve’ it — I think the creator needs to work on it experimentally, testing effects with others — but maybe adding typing sound effects and text highlights would help.
When Mank is first shown (small) on the TV screen within the screen, I found it hard to focus on the informational text. I understand that the diagrammatic image of the surround sound speakers is needed, but I wanted the text to be superimposed on a bigger Mank frame so that I could take in both. That said, when the frame is enlarged at 7:34, I still found there to be too much text for me to take in. And overall, I found my attention was being drawn to the images (because of faces, movement and lush cinematography as well as dialogue) to the detriment of the informational text, to the extent that having watched the video essay several times, I still can’t say that I’ve taken in all the text. Again, I think the maker needs to experiment further, but I wondered if there could be less material used from Mank, but the soundtrack could be played over a black screen, or potentially twice: once with images, once without (+ info text).
It took me a while to grasp that the section with different interiors was illustrating different sound experiences. I think this is to do with screen design, and again competition from the Mank image. Perhaps experiment with screen layout, and also, perhaps, with some degree of stylisation of the ‘real’ interiors?
Finally, I was confused about the use of the term ‘echo’, which I think refers to the quality given by re-recording, but was ambiguous in context (because it can be understood to refer to echo in the diegetic sound world). Perhaps clarify this.
How well organised and written is the accompanying statement?
Overall, very well. The one thing I’d mention is that the written piece repeats much of the information and account in the video — this redundancy might be deemed necessary in the cautious Screenworks/UK (REF) context, but it tends to render the video illustrative rather than exploratory and process-oriented (in the sense of setting out an investigative or thought process).
Are there particular changes that you would recommend to its presentation?