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City College of San Francisco Film Appreciation: Nashville

The director Robert Altman is known for his complex sound mixes that present a realistic soundscape. Unlike most directors, Altman does not highlight dialogue over effects and music; indeed, he often overlaps dialogue (from one or more conversations) and uses sound to place the viewer inside the purportedly real space of the film.

Analyze this short scene from the film, Nashville.

Use these questions to analyze how the basic elements of sound recording, editing, and mixing contribute to the story content of a film. Begin by thinking about the overall effect of the sound design, and then focus on individual components.

What do you learn about the story and characters from the sound design alone?

What emotional effect does the sound design have on you?

  • Take note of all the distinct sounds you hear. Play the video back again and do not look at the image (close your eyes).
  • Which sounds originate from the world of the film (diegetic)? Which sounds are nondiegetic?
  • How do the nondiegetic sounds affect your view of the scene? How might you read the scene differently if the sound were diegetic only?
  • Do any sounds originate off-screen? If so, how do they affect your reading of the scene?
  • Do any sounds extend from an earlier or later scene? How does that sound bridge connect story elements from the two scenes?
  • Take note of all of the individual voice tracks, especially dialogue and voice-over.
  • How do the actors’ line readings affect your reading of the scene?
  • Is there a moment of direct address? If so, how does it affect the tone and meaning of the scene?
  • Is there any voice-over? What sort of commentary does it provide?
  • Take note of all the instances and sources of music.
  • Describe the general qualities of the musical score. How does the score affect your reading of a specific scene? Of the film as a whole?
  • Are musical motifs used in the telling of the film story? If so, how?
  • Do you recognize any previously recorded music in the film? If so, how is it used? Does it comment on the action in any way? What does it contribute to the mood and tone?
  • Take note of all the distinct sound effects.
  • Do these effects (taken together) contribute to your impression of the setting as real?
  • Are sound effects used to build suspense or provide cues?
  • Are there instances of distorted or muffled sound effects? How are these used in the telling of the story?
  • Which component of the sound mix is most prominent—voice, music, or effects? Why?
  • How do the dynamics of the sound mix—the range of highs and lows—affect your experience of the action?
  • Is silence used at any time in the film?

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