During this essay, I am going to answer the following
How do the film texts you have chosen exemplify
Michel Chion’s theory of the audio- visual scene?
What are the benefits and/or limitations of
I will answer these questions with specific reference to a
wide range of film texts. I will also discuss the theoretical opinions of Michel
Chion by demonstrating a clear understanding of his theory, as well as providing
positives and negatives regarding his work.
Michael Chion’s Theory
Michel Chion is an experimental music composer and Associate
Professor at the University of Paris III: Sorbonne Nouvelle. In his book, Audio-Vision:
Sound on Screen, Chion explores the relationship between sound and image. Both
sound and image are described as two different languages within the multimedia
art form. In his book, Chion discusses the argument from both
technical-linguistic and aesthetic points of view. (Chion, M.l (1994–2005).
Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (translated by Claudia Gorbman). New York:
Columbia University Press.)
Chion has a theory in which he states that music, or sound,
allows film ‘to wander at will through time and space’ (1994:82). This allows
film to guide viewers through time using visual edits and enlists sound as a complimentary
Acousmatic is a word of Greek origin. In his book, Chion
describes acousmatic sound as ‘sound one hears without seeing their originating
cause’ (1994:71). Chion further suggests that acousmatic sound can advance
over two distinctive structures; ‘either a sound is visualized first, and
subsequently acousmatized, or it is acousmatic to start with, and is visualized
only afterwards’ (1994:72).
The second scene from ‘Inception’ is a good example of the
first instance of this theory. (Nolan, C. 2010). In this scene, the character
Saito is seen sitting down at a table. He asks the character opposite him,
Cobb, if he is here to kill him. Saito then picks up a totem in front of him
and spins it on the table. The sound of the totem is then acousmatized a few
seconds later as the screen changes and all we see is a close-up of Saito’s
face as he continues to talk to the man across him. Therefore, even though the
image on the screen has changed, the sound of the totem is still ringing in the
viewer’s mind which, in this case, is an important factor in the film.
A great example of the second instance of this theory is the
Raptors in the Kitchen scene from ‘Jurassic Park’ (Spielberg, S. 1993). In this
scene, two young children are trapped inside a kitchen with two velociraptor
dinosaurs. However, the dinosaurs are unaware of the children’s presence. Throughout
this whole there is music playing which compliments the action within the
scene. However, there is no indication of a source for the sound as it is kept
secret throughout this scene. The sound builds up even more as the dinosaurs
get closer to the children. When the dinosaurs realise the children are inside
the kitchen the music becomes frantic and intense. Although the source of the
sound is never shown, the sheer presence of the sound itself maintains suspense
for the viewer. This allows them to become drawn in by the film and become a
part of it as they feel they’re in the same position as the children.
Onscreen, Off-screen and Non-diegetic sound
In his book regarding the audio-visual scene, Chion goes on
to describe onscreen sound as ‘whose source appears in the image, and belongs
to the reality represented therein’ (1994:73). This is a very common feature in
films as the source of the sound could literally be anything, from the main
character of a movie to an evocative object. A great example of when this statement
was supported in a film is the opening scene of ‘The Godfather’ (Coppola, F.F.
1972). The scene begins with a close-up of the character Bonasera, speaking to
someone opposite to him. This scene strongly supports Chion’s theory as it is
clear to see where the source of the sound is coming from and that it belongs
to the reality represented in the film.
Chion also describes off-screen as ‘sound that is
acousmatic, relative to what is shown in the shot: sound whose source is
invisible, whether temporarily or not’ (1994:73). However, it still belongs to
the reality of the film. One great example of how an off-screen sound is used
in film is the final scene in ‘Saw’ (Wan, J. 2004). In this scene, the character
Faulkner-Stanheight, whose ankle is chained to a pipe, is stuck in a bathroom
with two dead corpses. He searches the body of one of the corpses, Zep, for a
key. Faulkner-Stanheight has previously bludgeoned Zep to death with a toilet
tank lid. Instead, Faulkner-Stanheight discovers a microcassette recorder, just
like the one he had previously found on himself earlier in the film. After
listening to the recoding on the cassette, he comes to a realisation that Zep
was also the victim of another character called Jigsaw, the person who had chained
him to the bathroom pipe, following rules in order to acquire an antidote for a
slow-acting poison in his body. As the tape ends, the second corpse rises from
the ground and is revealed to be Jigsaw. Jigsaw tells Faulkner Stanheight the
key to chain on his ankle was in the bathtub he woke up in previously at the
start of the film. The key was also revealed to have fallen down the drain of
the bathtub when Faulkner-Stanheight first woke up. He attempts to shoot Jigsaw
with Zep’s gun. However, Jigsaw activates a remote control which shocks Adam
and then shuts off the lights. As he reaches to slam the bathroom door shut,
Faulkner-Stanheight begins to scream. Jigsaw shouts “Game Over” as he slams the
bathroom door and the screen goes black. However, you can still hear
Faulkner-Stanheight screaming for his life, even as the credits begin to roll. The
screams coming from the blank screen leaves a lasting image in the viewer’s mind.
This makes them think about what they’ve just watched and makes them imagine
how it would feel to be in Faulkner-Stanheight’s position. Furthermore, the
extension of the sound during the credits causes the viewer to continue
reflecting on the film, even though it has already ended.
Chion also states in his book that non-diegetic sound is ‘sound
whose supposed source is not only absent from image but is also external to the
story world’ (1994:73). He also goes on to mention that ‘this is the widespread
case of voiceover commentary, narration and musical underscoring’ (1994:73). One
example of how this statement is supported in film is from the opening scene of
‘No Country for Old Men’ (Coen, J. and Coen, E. 2007). This scene begins with
an off-screen voice over of a man from an unknown source. This lasts for one minute
and 47 seconds. The source of this sound is not revealed throughout this whole
scene which relates well to Chion’s statement regarding non-diegetic sound. Furthermore,
the fact that this sound occurs during the opening scene sets the tone for the
Benefits of Michel Chion’s Theory
I believe that there are many benefits to the theory of Chion
offers many benefits to films and viewers. One of these benefits is that it
allows the viewer to feel like a part of the film. For example, the use of acousmatized
as well as off-screen sound has the ability draw the viewer into the film visualize
themselves in it.
Another benefit of Chion’s theory is that it allows the tone
of a film to be set. For example, non-diegetic sound is designed to create a
mood for the film and viewer. Another great example of this is the musical
underscoring that takes place before the opening scene of ‘The Usual Suspects’
(Singer, B. 1995). The sound that takes place in this sets the tone for the
A third benefit of Chion’s theory is that it can inform
viewers of the importance of a source of sound. The example used earlier in the
essay regarding ‘Inception’ provides good support for this statement as the
totem used in the second scene is an important object in this film (Nolan, C.
2010). The sound that is emitted from the source helps the viewer to remember
the source which may also assist them in understanding future scenes.
The purpose of this essay was to answer the following
How do the film texts you
have chosen exemplify Michel Chion’s theory of the audio- visual scene?
What are the benefits
and/or limitations of Chion’s theory?
It is quite evident that the film texts I have chosen epitomize
and support the theory of Chion. I have described specific film scenes to support
my views. Furthermore, I have also managed to discuss the benefits that Chion’s
theory provides as well as using specific examples to support my arguments.