Archive for November 2009

Ballistics in the 1970s and 1980s

November 21, 2009

So, today I’m watching The Bourne Identity. The first one. From 1988, with Richard Chamberlain. The one that actually followed the book almost letter for letter. Remember that one? That’s okay. No one else does, either.

This is not to say it’s a film you can’t learn something from. You can learn how not to design a soundscape. What you observe – or hear – is:

All guns, regardless of caliber, environment, target, or proximity to the viewer, sound exactly the same. For example:

A pistol, fired in a wood paneled room with 12′ ceilings, a few feet from the viewer

sounds just like

A revolver, pressed against and fired through a heavy overcoat in a Saab sub-compact, a foot away

sounds just like

A revolver fired close to the wall (and an assailant’s ear, as it happens) in an elevator, a few inches away

sounds just like

A pistol, fired in the open air using a silencer, from several yards away.

And I think that in all the sound effects libraries in all the world there were only two ricochet sounds, and they were used regardless of the surface being struck…including water. Thus, that bullet, fired in the passenger cabin of the aforementioned Saab hits the roof with a sound that whines and decays away just the like bullet that bounces off the stone wall next to the hero’s head in a high narrow alley.

Makes one wonder if the sound designers actually watched the films they were working on – or ever listened to how things actually sound.

Contrast this with the sound design of the ballistics for, say, Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001). There are two places that really stand out. (Keep your opinions as to the relative value of this film to yourself. That’s not why we’re here.)

In the British fighter attack on the German bombers, the 20mm rounds are heard striking metal – thin metal at that – and those that miss can be heard flying by the camera.

In the attack on Pearl Harbor itself, the bullets from the 7.7mm guns on the Japanese fighters (Aichi D3A, or “Val”s) and torpedo bombers (Nakajima B5N, or “Kate”s) exhibit different sounds: the heavy metal plating and wooden decks of the American ships ping, clang, and thump, the concrete and asphalt of the airfields pocks.

It’s an unsettling level of realism.