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VYTIS PURONAS

Sonic hyperrealism:
Illusions of a non-existent
aural reality
ABSTRACT
If the practical definition of the process of painting can be reduced to the
liberating action of freely applying colour to a surface a process that is not a
manipulation of existing photographs (as in photomontage) then motion
picture sound is, more often than not, a hostage of pre-recorded sounds limited to
layering and processing. Despite recent technological advancements, some of the
most liberating sound design techniques to date are the early mechanical sound
generation devices employed by Disney, as well as the worldising concept
developed by Walter Murch. For many years, motion picture sound designers
have employed de-contextualised post-sync sound (Foley sound effects) in order
to provide a sense of elevated realism. Ironically, elevated realism is achieved by
removing real recordings, (as reality is often found to be sonically underwhelming), and re-constructing a fabricated illusion of reality. The audience,
however, accepts this illusion as more real than reality itself. Founded on the
aesthetic principles of Photorealism, Hyperrealism questions the existence of
objective reality by taking into account photographic artefacts and treating them
as objects. In this article, the philosophy as seen by the lens is compared to as
heard by the microphone. This article focuses on the issue of simulation of
realism in motion picture sound. By highlighting some key concepts in the visual
The New Soundtrack 4.2 (2014): 181194
DOI: 10.3366/sound.2014.0062
# Edinburgh University Press and the Contributors
www.euppublishing.com/SOUND

KEYWORDS
sonic hyperrealism
synthesis
sonic taxidermy
procedural audio
artificial reverberation
aural forgery
sonic contraptions

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arts it stimulates thinking on the current state of sound design. It is a discussion


on the power of blank canvas and paint, and on how these concepts relate to
sound.
ANYTHING OUT OF NOTHING
There may be different views on the definition of painting but most seem
to agree that, mundane as it sounds, it is a form of art that involves the
action of applying paint to a surface. Over the years, different schools of
painting diverse in their aesthetics and techniques have experimented
with the meanings of surface, brush and paint. Remarkably, many
centuries and, in fact, millennia on and the painter is still using an almost
identical set of tools. Chemical formulas may have advanced, colour
theories may have changed, but the basic principle remains. A painting still
begins with a liberating blank space and the freedom to create anything out
of almost nothing. Oil or acrylic paint, tempera or gouache, pastel or
watercolour, brush or airbrush, sponge or knife, or even the artists own
body can be used to apply paint. This anything develops by freely mixing
together the basic elements of cyan, yellow and magenta. Black and white
can be blended in to create an almost endless range of colours. What is
important to note here is that the starting point is nothing. We can call this
nothing blank space or complete silence. This is in contrast to photography,
collage or photomontage where the starting point is already something: an
image of a cameras reality captured on film or a set of existing photographs
rearranged and otherwise manipulated.
What is fascinating here is that a blank canvas and paint are enough
to visualise anything, a chunk of wood and a knife to objectify anything,
a sheet of white paper and ink to tell anything . . . However, auralising
anything out of nothing is seemingly more complicated. Can the illusion of
any sound be constructed from scratch by using a basic set of tools? What
follows is a discussion on where we are today and what this concept
potentially means for sound design.
SONIC TAXIDERMY
The issue taken with auralising something out of nothing stems from
the fact that sound is tied to its temporal dimension. Unlike a painting, it
does not exist without time. Up until very recently a timed sequence of
vibrations could not be captured and reproduced. Musical notation offered
ways of storing and recalling a rather basic sequence of actions through
standardised instructions; however, it was still limited by its rather subjective nature and open to interpretations. It did not accurately capture
timbral or spatial characteristics of sounds; timing was relative and each
individual performance was slightly different to the others. Birds, on the
other hand, and especially parrots or the fabulous lyrebird, are well known
for their ability without the need for any extra tools, of course to
mimic accurately sounds they hear in their surroundings. Lyrebirds render,
with great fidelity, the individual songs of other birds and the chatter of
flocks of birds, and also mimic other animals. They are capable of imitating

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almost any sound, including, manmade sounds such as a mill whistle; a


cross-cut saw; chainsaws; car engines; car alarms; fire alarms; rifle-shots;
camera shutters; electronic games; dogs barking; crying babies, and even
the human voice itself. It is intriguing that these birds are able to archive
and reproduce complex individual or multi-layered sounds as single objects
without attempting to separate each element and reinterpret them individually.
For humans, however, such sophisticated sound reproduction
mechanisms were not available until the emergence of recorded sound.
As a result, it was finally possible to store real sounds as objects with
their timbre and space, reflections and movement and, in fact, every
nuance just as in real life. Unlike echo, a recorded sound can be separated from reality, archived and reanimated long after its real counterpart
has disappeared. Recording brought a way of preserving, manipulating,
rearranging and layering captured sounds. This principle closely resembles
taxidermy, the practice of creating lifelike representations of animals by
using their prepared skins and various supporting structures. It is
equally reminiscent of Herman Ploucquets and Walter Potters chilling
anthropomorphic taxidermy compositions. This is the state of motion
picture sound design today; it is in a state of sonic taxidermy. While
synthesised sound is generally acceptable for non-representational effects,
recorded sound is usually the preferred choice when it comes to realism.
A variety of recorded (collected) real sound sources not unlike specimens
in a Victorian museum of curiosities are combined together in order to
simulate a certain situation. This is sound montage. The starting point in
terms of material is recorded sound, that is, dead sound, sound of the past,
voices of the dead. These sonic creatures are reshaped, repaired and
relocated into unnatural contexts, whether in synchronicity with a moving
image, which gives clues to their meaning, or in complete isolation. The
parts that are found unsuitable or underwhelming are replaced or enhanced
in order to make them appear more pleasing. Sonic taxidermy is the
recontextualisation of dead sounds. While the audience is aware that a
subject is no longer alive in reality, we construct an illusion of its
authenticity by replicating a setting or an action that the subject is known
for in real life. In taxidermy, it is not uncommon to expand the wings of a
bird and suspend it from a ceiling to give the illusion that the creature is
flying. Similarly, artificial reverberation is applied in order to reanimate
and connect two or more independently captured sounds such as a dry
recording of an old creaky door and that of footsteps. Although both
sound sources may have been recorded at different times and no longer
exist in reality, such treatment gives the illusion that the door is attached to
a construction, inside of which the person is walking. This highlights
similarities between one of the principle functions of taxidermy and postproduction audio for films. While there are ways to distort a recorded
sound, just as the photographer can apply photographic filters using an
image editing software package or a taxidermist can re-shape the skin of an
animal, the core structure of a sound remains locked in a certain state with
certain features which cannot be altered. It is natural then that due to the

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lack of post-facto control, sound designers find themselves held hostage


by pre-recorded sounds. Even when sounds are manipulated beyond
recognition, they remain derivatives of the original. Reused library
sounds circulate, often suggesting lack of originality, but because of the
convenience of recorded audio, the art of producing sonic Frankensteins
has remained unchanged for decades. Perhaps, because we do not perceive
sounds as individuals, any significant debate on ethics and cruelty or
opposition from sonic rights activists is almost non-existent.
REALITY OF THE REPRODUCED
Throughout this article realism refers to believability of sounds made
by characters, gadgets and objects located within their environment. It is
their ability to function according to the laws of physics of their own
world, even if that world is an imaginary context to the story. Therefore,
such definition of realism is equally valid in science fiction or documentary.
Filmmaking is the art of forging reality using methods such as
photography; acting; editing; colour correction; visual effects and sound.
While documentary is often seen as a more realistic form of filmmaking,
it is equally influenced by these factors: a cameras lens registers a sequence
of real-life events which are then reordered, edited, re-voiced and otherwise, manipulated. Therefore, true reality in cinema does not exist. To date
exaggerated, or to be more precise distorted realism remains an
important aspect of filmmaking, and more importantly, in film sound.
Interestingly in the visual arts, the last century has been dominated by
various forms of non-representational art and movements that reject realism. Kerstin Stremmel notes that throughout the twentieth century,
Western critics conducted a passionate polemic against all figurative art,
voting for Abstraction on the grounds that Realism and Totalitarianism
belonged together (Stremmel 2004). This dictatorship of abstract art only
began to soften in the late 1960s. Linda Chase explains that when
Photorealism burst onto the art scene in the late sixties as a response to,
and an extension of, the work of pop artists, it incorporated and challenged
messages of modernism (Meisel and Chase 2002).
Very radical for the time, Photorealist painters such as Robert Bechtle,
Charles Bell, Ralph Goings and Richard Estes depicted contemporary
subject matter that were not only based on photographic sources but were
also unapologetically photographic in style (Meisel and Chase 2002). In
the early years, accused by the critics of purveying cheap thrills for the
masses or sleight-of-hand tricks (Meisel and Chase 2002), Photorealists,
in fact, used this immaculately neutral style to question matters such as
authenticity, subjectivity and reality; therefore, the use of photographs was
central to both Photorealist practice and its theoretical underpinnings. The
photograph gave artists the ability to interpret the photographs subjective
image of a projected reality, rather than the actual reality itself. A recent
and more advanced form, Hyperrealism, takes this approach even further
by exaggerating the photographs subjective image of reality to such an
extent that the artefacts of the photograph become the subjects; they

Sonic hyperrealism

Figure 1. Distorted details in Profil 2 (oil on canvas) by Jacques Bodin,


Hyperrealist painter.
become of equal importance to every other element. Photorealist ethics
dictate that the painting must adhere strictly to the information found in
the photograph. Photorealism depicts the subjective reality contained in
the photograph as an object, creating an illusion that makes the painting
look more real than the photograph itself. Irony is at play in the Photorealists use of the photograph: the fact that the painting when photographed resembles a photograph and the fact that the photographic look
lends a documentary credibility (Meisel and Chase 2002).
Visual Hyperrealism largely depends on photography as its guide or
starting point. In sonic terms, photography can be replaced by phonography,
or the photograph by a recording. A recording, just like a photograph, is a
medium containing subjective reality as heard by the microphone (or as
seen by the lens). Significantly, what sounds true is rarely what is true, as
the meaning is heavily influenced by the context.
ENTERING THE UNCANNY VALLEY
It appears that the work of Photorealist and Hyperrealist painters balances
right at the edge of the uncanny valley: the viewers are made to believe that
what they are witnessing is a genuine photograph of an objective reality;
however, they are dropped out of their comfort zone as soon as the illusion
is shattered or the unnaturalness of a certain detail becomes obvious.
The uncanny valley, a phenomenon which Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori first highlighted in 1970, suggests that a human appearance or
behaviour can make an artificial figure seem more familiar for viewers
but only up to a point. The sense of viewer familiarity drops sharply into
the uncanny valley once the artificial figure tries but fails to mimic a real

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human. A humanlike appearance raises certain expectations in the brain.


When those expectations are not met, the brain can no longer comfortably
interpret the data. Thus, when a subject looks humanlike, but when its
details such as motion or eye contact are not exactly accurate viewers find
these simulated individuals uncanny. This theory can also be applied
almost directly to a sonic context. When a sound resembles a human being
but is heavily processed or merged with another, usually synthetic, sound
source the audience will often find it amusing and cute, for example the
talking mainspring in Disneys Clock Cleaners (1937) or Wall-E (2008).
However, when an otherwise neutral sounding voice starts to behave in a
slightly unnatural manner the audience suddenly finds it uncanny (such as
HAL 9000s voice gradually slowing down while he sings Daisy Bell in
Stanley Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or the backward-talking
man in the Black Lodge from David Lynchs Twin Peaks (1990)). Audiences, and especially children, are entertained by voices modulated through
a vocoder using a synthetic sound carrier; however, Yamahas virtual
singing character Hatsune Miku, found in its Vocaloid technology, mimics
a human voice so closely that many listeners find themselves pushed right
into the uncanny valley. Because of its high level of realism, our brain
relaxes and stops questioning its authenticity; yet, it almost inevitably fails
upon closer inspection, thus, triggering uneasiness and insecurity for the
listener.
AURAL FORGERY
Compared to the incredible advancements in computer graphics over the
last decade, realistic sound design is still in its infancy. Speech synthesis
has been extensively developed since IBM 7090 sang Daisy Bell for the first
time in 1961, a predecessor to HAL 9000. While computer graphics have
already entered and left the uncanny valley more than a decade ago, we are
still heavily involved with sonic taxidermy. Sound designers are restricted
by the material and rely on the availability of pre-recorded objects in
their library. When a specific sound is unavailable, it is substituted with
the closest match or it is fabricated by manipulating another existing
recording. Foley techniques, pioneered by Jack Foley, provide a way to
replace such missing sounds by recording a staged interaction with props.
However, this approach is not always practical in a studio setting due to
the physical features of certain sound sources. Similarly, the sounds may
not exist in isolation in their natural environment or they may simply
be inaccessible. In certain situations it may be necessary to extract a
component out of a mixture of sounds, for instance, the call of a specific
species, which in reality is only available in the company of other,
unwanted, sounds. It may be necessary to separate the sound of underwater
air bubbles from the sound of the crashing waves above. Likewise, it may
be necessary to recreate a rare sonic event which is only documented in low
technical quality. Significantly, a painter is able to separate an object into
its components and visualise it selectively by using just canvas and paint. In
a similar fashion, a sound designer must be able to decompose and rebuild

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convincing simulations of sounds from basic waveforms and sonic objects.


Sounds can be programmatically designed and controlled in terms of
scale, speed, density, directionality and proximity. By adjusting a set of
parameters, a digital model of a soccer ball could instantaneously become a
half-filled metal canister; it could be dropped and rolled, filled or emptied.
Similarly, the simulated sound of rainfall could be remodelled and transformed into the sound of falling rocks. These are only very basic starting
points but entire aural environments could be realised this way using high
fidelity, exactness to detail and complex dynamic structures.
Digital sound synthesis seems to be acceptable and, frequently,
even desirable when it comes to non-representational sound effects.
Nevertheless, a proposal to re-voice synthetically an actor or model a
galloping horse would likely be dismissed on the grounds of potential
inaccuracy. However, if the character had to go through a transformation
from a child to an old man to a young woman to a cyborg in the same
scene it may begin to make sense. Likewise, it would be possible to
separate the sound of crushed grass or the impact from the vibrations of
the hooves of that fictitious horse. A sound model of the horse could easily
be duplicated and transformed into an eight legged insect in the same
scene or even be re-used in a sequel. While this example of a horse is an
obvious caricature and in no way assumes to compete with Alan Splets
unmatched Hyperrealistic work on the Black Stallion (1979), it does serve
to highlight the possibilities that filmmakers seem to have barricaded
themselves from and, hopefully, stimulates the idea of breaking that
barrier that sonic comfort zone which is currently secured by our
over-dependency on recorded sound.
A SYNTHESISED REALITY
The hesitation and resistance towards remodelling sound has somewhat
softened over the last few years as a result of the availability of new sound
synthesising tools and methods such as digital waveguide modelling;
composite synthesis; re-synthesis; granular synthesis; convolution; wave
sequencing, vector synthesis and physical modelling. More recently, digital
Foley instruments have emerged. They are complete toolkits equipped
with thousands of individually recorded footsteps, clothing and accessory
noises covering a wide range of materials and textures. Unlike the traditional Foley technique which uses fixed recordings, these tools allow the
sound designer to re-dress each character individually from head to toe
with the ability to change materials or surfaces at any stage. In a similar
trend, a team at Cornell University developed technology for simulation
of convincing physics-based cloth sounds by employing techniques
such as concatenative synthesis (An, James and Marschner 2012).
Acousticians use complex software tools to model and auralise nonexistent spaces enabling one to hear a sound in a building before it has even
been built.
Procedural audio, a term popularised by Andy Farnell (Farnell 2008),
refers to what could conceptually be understood as the audio equivalent

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of 3D modelling and rendering. Using this technique, any sound that we


hear can be modelled. A simulated sonic object can be enlarged, reduced,
sped up, slowed down and altered in weight. There are a great variety
of software audio prototyping environments available and each one
of them is supplied with an excessive selection of basic audio objects
or building blocks ranging from raw oscillators to complex simulators.
Procedural audio demonstrates that all the necessary tools for designing
aural illusions, in other words sonic canvas and paint, already exist. While
this approach seems hauntingly technical, and is often seen as more
applicable to video games and interactive products, it is also employed
by many cross-media artists without any prior programming experience.
A useful parallel can be seen in the painter, or master of any craft, who
spends extensive amounts of time acquainting themselves with materials
and mastering their technique.
In the documentary Alles was wir haben (All that we have), director
Volko Kamensky and sound designer Julian Rohrhuber create the
impression of a constructed, isolated, artificial reality as the story revolves
around a space that has been rebuilt several times after being destroyed by
fire. To emphasise this aesthetic, Rohrhuber used the Supercollider audio
programming environment to build convincing synthetic imitations of
natural sounds, as well as all actions that are expected to produce sound:
synchronised rustling leaves and wind. The process was not based on
accurate recreations or physical modelling but rather on almost fabricated,
stylised approximations of real sounds. Both aesthetically and conceptually
it has a strong connection to the photorealist approach and echoes Honore
de Balzacs views, on the reproduction of realism, who believed that
true-to-life depiction of reality in all of its details was not as important as
the representation of the essentials, the truth about reality (Stremmel,
2004). In terms of sound, this can be viewed as the perceptual compression
of sonic detail.
In Sergei Loznitsas Blokada (Blockade) (2006), sound designer
Vladimir Golovnitsky constructs an illusion of non-existent aural reality by
employing traditional Foley techniques. An uncannily detailed artificial
sonic world functions in synchronisation with complex historical black and
white imagery. Occasionally, as if in a dream absent of the laws of physics,
visual mouth movements fail to produce sound creating the effect of an
orchestrated audiovisual simulacrum an illusion of reality that is realer
than real.
SONIC CONTRAPTIONS
In contrast to the technical nature of procedural audio, there exists a
process that does not rely on the availability of electrical current. In fact,
this method has been successfully used on some of the most influential
motion pictures from many decades ago. Disneys sound designer John
James Jimmy MacDonald built an extensive collection of contraptions
designed specifically to simulate certain types of sounds. While this

Sonic hyperrealism

approach emerged from the technical limitations of the era, it too can be
compared to the idea of a blank canvas and paint.
Some of the devices were extremely minimalist but, nevertheless,
effective. A bunch of bamboo sticks bundled together effectively simulated
the sound of fire. A string tied to a coffee can produced sounds reminiscent
of the croak of a frog or a creaky door. MacDonalds wind machine featured in Winnie the Pooh and The Blustery Day (1968), amongst other
productions, allowed the performer to speed up, slow down or intensify the
sound of wind in synchronisation with the picture. He also built a similarly
effective device that simulated the sound of rainfall. A rotating drum-like
container with nails attached to its inner walls and a handful of Mexican
peas provided the basis to this iconic sound. A reversible frame with
brass and rubber covered objects tied together in a grid formed the sound
of marching ants in Tea for Two Hundred (1948). By reversing the frame it
was possible to simulate synchronous footsteps on two different surfaces.
Amongst MacDonalds most complex contraptions were Mickey Mouses
automobile and the steam train machine. These devices consisted of
multiple elements such as springs, metallic objects, horns, valves and pipes.
They required two performers to operate and created an extremely complex
and detailed sonic structure, covering all aspects of the potential sounds
from the clicking of the track and the vibrations of the engine to the
release of steam. While many of MacDonalds devices were constructed in
order to perform non-representational sound effects, others were designed
to mimic real sounds. They worked in almost ventriloquist fashion offering
stylised approximations of familiar sonic events. Not much unlike objects
in Luigi Russolos Intonarumori, some of these contraptions may look
like objects from a steampunk novel but it is precisely the use of simple
materials, rather than a mathematically correct replica of a sound source,
that brings MacDonalds devices closer to the idea of blank canvas and
paint than anything else.
IMPOSED SPACE
Echo is sound of the past. It gives the illusion that a sound continues to
exist, while in reality the original source may no longer be alive. In an
anechoic chamber a space without sonic reflections many sounds
(especially the louder ones) lose their recognisable character and the
properties that we are accustomed to hearing and take for granted as being
part of the sound itself. An orchestra loses its commanding force and
richness and most sounds become lean and underwhelming, unrecognisable and uneventful. The sound of a typical gunshot, for example, only
lasts several milliseconds in an anechoic environment, but it continues to
ring that is, stays alive for nearly two minutes inside a structure such as
the Inchindown oil storage tank in Scotland (Cox 2014). Evidently,
reverberation or the properties of an acoustical space are a significant and
integral part of many common sounds.
Realism of simulated sounds can be stimulated through the use of the
worldizing technique. Walter Murch developed this system where a sound

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is brought to a certain physical environment, played back in that space


and the sound and its echo are then re-recorded. Once back in the studio,
both the original and the newly recorded sounds could be aligned
together and it was then possible to make it sound dry with a minimal
amount of echo or echoing with practically no original sound.
Murch rightly notes that it creates the sonic equivalent of depth of
field in photography (Jarrett 2000). With the help of this technique,
certain elements can be moved to the background or foreground
as desired. Diffusion or excessive reverberation masks the detail and
unfocuses the sound. In contrast, any dry sounds will automatically be
perceived as sounds in the foreground. In an almost identical way, spatial
character can also be imparted digitally through convolution by sampling
real acoustical spaces, which may not necessarily be in any way related to
the source that is being mimicked. It is then possible to virtually place
such forged sounds in specific real rooms, halls, pipes, containers or even
outdoor locations.
There is, however, another option and that is, of course, recreating
everything synthetically. By using an algorithmic reverberation processor
and adjusting its virtual room size, reverb decay time, early reflections,
virtual surfaces and other parameters it is possible to simulate a hyper-real
space. A sense of authenticity can be further enhanced by emphasising or
removing certain frequencies, creating resonances, enriching or impoverishing a sound source, delaying, layering and so on. These are common
techniques that film sound re-recording mixers use in order to impart
spatial character onto recorded audio.
One of the advantages of convolution and worldizing techniques is that
multiple aspects of simulating an acoustical space such as reverberation,
directionality, spectral imperfections and other artefacts are applied to a
sound source naturally (automatically).
As an example of the application of all of these techniques, one could
imagine a complex sonic sculpture, or rather a sonic contraption a more
advanced version of MacDonalds early inventions made out of multiple
worldized sound sources where white noise running through a pipe may
simulate gas or where a subwoofer rumbling low frequency bursts of noise
or a modulated sine wave used to simulate low frequency thumps resemble
the footsteps of the neighbour upstairs and so on. So the concept of
worldizing can be extended even further. Rather than positioning and rerecording sound in real spaces, it can actually involve the process of
intentionally creating such physical spaces and containers specifically for
sound.
ON THE ROLE OF SONIC ARTEFACTS
The deliberate use of artefacts as a possible means for portraying a more
real representation of reality through sound is widespread. Michel Chion
notes that the impression of realism is often tied to a feeling of discomfort,
of uneven signal, of interference and microphone noise, etc. (Chion 1994)
In fact, sonic imperfections and errors are being exploited by glitch and

Sonic hyperrealism

circuit-bending musicians where digital artefacts are employed as instruments or sound objects in music composition. Hyperrealist painter Denis
Peterson has stated that Idiosyncratic anomalies in digital reference
photos, that is, multiple depths of field, expanded color range,
low resolution images, broken fractals, etc. are all explored. (Peterson
2008) He explains that since the human eye does not ordinarily distinguish
these, somewhat, inchoate mutations, they are freely assimilated into
the work.
A wide range of sonic artefacts can be employed to create the sense of a
cultural or stylistic context: analogue such as overmodulation or saturation;
phasing; wow; flutter; hiss; hum; clicks; pops, print-through and so on;
digital such as aliasing; clipping; waveform continuity errors, dropouts and
those caused by low-bitrate lossy compression; and finally acoustic such as
excessive reverberation; directivity; wind; rustling paper; coughs, traffic and
other unintentional sonic intruders. It should be added that even speech
disorders such as alalia literalis, more commonly known as stammering,
can be employed for imposing additional believability. Voice actor Mel
Blanc used such effects to provide an added sense of realism for many
of his Warner Brothers characters, including Porky Pig. Artefacts,
and especially those of electronic origin, are sometimes more important
than the authenticity of the rest of the audio signal when simulating a
sound object that is a by-product of a certain type of media. There are
thousands of examples to be found in cinema, including futzed dialogue,
simulations of phone calls or vinyl records. Automated dialogue replacement technique, amongst other aspects such as correct simulation of
proximity or reverberation, often depends on superimposed acoustic
artefacts such as a clothing rustle or hand movements to create the illusion
of continuity and realism.
SONIC HYPERREALISM
By starting with primary sounds such as a sine wave or white noise and
by carefully applying them at different intervals and quantities, a sound
designer constructs and grows a Hyperrealistic sonic painting. Through
careful listening and comparison, new processing components are added to
sharpen, smudge or blur detail. This sonic structure continues to grow
until its audio elements merge and behave in such a way that resembles a
recognisable sonic event. Such technique requires an electronic device to
run on, but so does all recorded sound. Currently, all stored sounds
can only be reproduced by converting electrical current into molecular
vibrations, and so this technique should not be seen as being excessively
technical. Because this process is still in its infancy, a sound designer must
be rather selective about the choice of sonic subjects (or objects) as certain
sounds human speech or animal vocalisations can be extremely difficult
to simulate. Human hearing is designed to detect any irregularities or lack
of authenticity especially in human voice. How convincing these illusions
are is entirely dependent on the skills and creativity of a sound designer as,
despite its seemingly complex nature, it is very much a smoke-and-mirrors

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approach that does not require exact scientific simulations or mathematical


formulas to function. A Hyperrealist sound designer works based on purely
aesthetic and subjective evaluation of a subjective reality and renders
its interpretation. Since perception of reality can never be verified, the
outcome is an intentional or unintentional misinterpretation. It is, perhaps,
because sound is an instant medium that sound designers are accustomed
to instantaneous results.
However, it is not uncommon for a Photorealist painter to spend
weeks, if not, months or even years on a single painting. In a Hyperrealist
painting each detail may have been touched and refined by the tip of a
brush hundreds of times. It is the intentionality behind each of these
brushstrokes that formulates the artists message to the audience and gives
the finished painting an almost documentary credibility. The lens of a
camera or the diaphragm of a microphone may be able to archive a
representation of reality in a split second, but its reinterpretation by signs
can never be fully automatic.
FINAL THOUGHTS
It appears that synthetic audio functions outside the comfort zone of
most linear cinema workflows. It does not automatically guarantee artistic
superiority over the tried-and-true recycling of library sounds. This,
however, may be partly due to the fact that the system of sonic taxidermy is
rather mature. It has been continually refined by several generations of
engineers and artists. The process is no longer buried behind technical
obstacles. With the right performance Foley is almost instant. So is
reversing a sound recording and playing it backwards. In fact, the latter is
usually faster than real time. The ideal signal chain from acquisition to
reproduction continues to be refined over and over again. Recorded
sound may be inflexible, but it rarely fails at delivering ultimate realism
with the same amount of input.
The first problem with realism in synthetic audio, however, is that the
process still remains highly technical and time consuming. The necessity of
mechanism to aid the sound designer in ex-nihilo construction is high, yet
no single tool is ergonomic enough and capable of synthesising convincing
realistic sounds. In linear movies such as Alles was wir haben synthetic
audio has been employed successfully as an aesthetic tool. However, the
emergence of non-linear platforms; user editable content and computergenerated cinematic formats, raises new issues linear audio often fails to
cope with. Synthetic audio adapts easily to dynamic material as each
iteration can produce a slight variation of a rendered sound. Such sound
models can be used, re-used and upgraded. Secondly, compared to the
elegance of sketching with pen on napkin, audio conceptualisation and
prototyping remains a massively underdeveloped area. Projects such as
SkAT-VG, for example, aim to address this issue by developing a system,
which analyses human voice and translates non-verbal sounds into
synthetic models. While this is a promising solution to the interfacing
issue, we are still dependent on complicated hardware and software, as

Sonic hyperrealism

well as the availability of electrical current. Mobile devices, perhaps, can


address some of these issues, but physical devices such as MacDonalds
contraptions remain some of the most elegant and truly independent sound
design mechanisms to date.
Anything can become the sonic canvas. Sound does not need a clean
surface, therefore it can be applied onto anything - sonic graffiti can be
layered over complete silence or blend into white noise. If our voice is able
to substitute the hand holding a brush, then voice analysis with all its
complex interpretational and synthesis mechanisms can become the paint.
Arguably, due to its ability to emerge ex-nihilo and exist in an aural
environment in real time, synthetic audio can be more alive, and more real
than a recording.
SOURCES
An, S. S., James, D. L., Marschner, S. (2012), Motion-driven
Concatenative Synthesis of Cloth Sounds, ACM Transaction on Graphics
(SIGGRAPH 2012).
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Bodin, J. (2014), Site de Jacques Bodin, http://www.jacquesbodin.com
(accessed: 28 May 2014)
Chion, M. (1994), Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, NewYork: Columbia
University Press.
Cox, T. (2014), An Acoustic Analysis of the Worlds Longest Echo,
www.sonicwonderland.co.uk
Farnell, A. J. (2008), Designing Sound, London: Applied Scientific Press.
Frost, Mark and Lynch, David (1990), Twin Peaks, film, USA: Lynch/
Frost Productions.
Hannah, Jack (1948), Tea for Two Hundred, film, USA: Disney.
Jarrett, M. (2000), Sound Doctrine: An Interview with Walter Murch,
www2.yk.psu.edu/jmj3/murchfq.htm (accessed: 28 May 2014)
Kamensky, Volko (2004), Alles was wir haben, film, Germany.
Kubrick, Stanley (1968), 2001: A Space Odyssey, film, USA/UK: MGM.
Loznitsa, Sergei (2006), Blokada, film, Russia: St. Petersburg Studio of
Documentary Films.
Meisel, L. K., Chase, L. (2002), Photorealism at the Millennium,
New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Peterson, D. (2008), Artist Statement, www.artincontext.org/artist/
artist_statement.aspx?id=270 (accessed: 28 May 2014)
Reitherman, Wolfgang (1968), Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, film,
USA: Disney.
Sharpsteen, Ben (1937), Clock Cleaners, film, USA: Disney.
SkAT-VG. (2014), Sketching Audio Technologies using Vocalizations and
Gestures, http://skatvg.iuav.it/ (accessed: 28 May 2014)
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Stremmel, K. (2004), Realism, Cologne: Taschen.

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Vytis Puronas

CONTRIBUTOR DETAILS
Vytis Puronas is a Lithuanian born sound designer and re-recording mixer
whose work encompasses sound restoration, film and interactive work. He
is a graduate of Architecture and holds a degree in Sound Arts from
University of the Arts London. Having worked for London Soho based
post-production houses for clients such as BBC and National Geographic
he currently resides in Vilnius and lectures at the Lithuanian Academy of
Music and Theatre.
Contact: vytis@sfxlab.com
www.sfxlab.com