Now that awards season is over I feel freer to say some things about the sound of specific films. About the sound of this particular film I first want to say that I admire its bravery, and I have huge respect for everyone involved. For one thing, to have so little music in a mass market film these days is a daring thing to do, and I applaud Cuaron for that decision. Lest you think I’m a sound-design-centric music hater, I think many films, certainly many scenes within films, should feature music more than they do, and feature sound effects less than they do. Generally I dislike it when sound design and music are competing for my attention, as they do in far too many American films.
I do have an aesthetic bone to pick with Roma, though. I’m singling it out because I think it’s an important film in many ways, certainly in terms of its sound design. My problem with the Roma track may be partially a factor of my age, and that I do sometimes get stuck in my ways, having been doing this movie sound stuff for so long. Here’s my issue… I found some of the use of surrounds in Roma to be distracting. It tended to take me out of the film, reminded me that I was watching a film, which is usually considered a no-no in moviemaking technique.
Shouldn’t there almost always be a solidly story-motivated reason to put a transient, attention-getting sound in the surround speakers? Otherwise as you sit in the audience you are likely to wonder whether the sound is being made by something in the theater rather than something in the movie, and as you are wondering about that you are removing yourself from the “dream” of the film.
I assume that Cuaron was going for a certain kind of “immersive realism” by using this aggressive approach to surrounds, but for me it sometimes backfires, and actually makes scenes less “immersive” by yanking the listener out of the water every few minutes so that an unseen and unmotivated cat can yeowl, car horn can honk, or a dialog line can come from the surrounds. If your response to this criticism is something like “Couldn’t those sounds have happened in that place?” my answer is: of course. But for me the question is not “Could they happen?” It’s “Should they happen in the movie?”
But here is the main question this brings up for me: Is a new aesthetic being born here? Am I simply an old codger who is conservative about the use of surrounds, and am I unnecessarily resistant to the idea that a different aesthetic could be equally valid? One in which unmotivated but plausible and attention-getting sounds might as well be placed all over the listening environment. At this point I have to say that I doubt it, and I can sum up the reason in a single word: focus. I’m talking about sound focus specifically. The usefulness of sound focus, orchestrating sounds so that it is pretty clear from moment to moment what the audience is supposed to be paying attention to, seems to me to be so intrinsic to film storytelling, media storytelling, that I can’t imagine that a new imperative for attention-getting sounds in the surrounds could possibly compete with it as a guiding principle. Maybe the dialog line in the surrounds was exactly what Cuaron wanted me to focus on at that moment. I wonder.
Did the relatively aggressive use of surrounds in Roma ruin it for me? No, it didn’t. Do I think Roma deserved all the sound award nominations it received? Yes, I do. But it does make me wonder where we’re going with the use of surrounds in general, and it isn’t necessarily a pleasant kind of wondering.