Music, Sound, and the Moving Image

The Labour of Breath

Performing and Designing Breath in Cinema

Music, Sound, and the Moving Image (2016), 10, (2), 109–133.

Abstract

The presence of breath in fiction film is a conscious choice by filmmakers. Since the introduction of Dolby sound in the mid-1970s we have experienced a significant development in the quality of playback systems in cinemas, which means that we are now more clearly able to hear the breathing performance of an actor. The inclusion of breath offers a technologically enhanced aural close-up of characters within the story. This article will consider two ostensibly different examples, The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980) and Rising Sun (Philip Kaufman, 1993); both films are the work of the sound designer Alan Splet. Drawing from these films and archival material from the Sound Mountain sound effects library, this article seeks to address the role of breathing within these films, considering issues such as: the actor’s breathing performance; breathing and disability; the gendering of breath; and the depiction of differing industrial (nineteenth-century England) and technological (twentieth-century America) environments, both of which are associated with different levels of air quality. The archival material will broaden out the discussion of these elements, illustrating the post-production design of breath and air in these fiction films.

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Greene, Liz