The synergy of sound and visuals
What is synergy?
Synergy, from the Attic Greek word ‘συνεργία’ meaning ‘working together’, is when something is combined to form something greater than its individual parts. Our role as sound designers and composers is to create synergy every time we combine sound and image.
‘What do I hear of what I see? What do I see of what I hear’?
What is acousmatic sound?
The term acousmatic Sound, coined by the French novelist Jerome Peignot, refers to off-screen sound, and was later popularised by composer Pierre Schaffer. Michel Chion describes it as ‘a sound one hears without seeing its origin’ (Stonehouse, 2021), an explanation which further clarifies the meaning of this term.
Off-screen sound can intrigue or deceive the viewers, and is one of the most potent techniques in the sound designer’s arsenal. For example, in the film Jurassic Park, the menacing sound of footsteps is heard off-screen, loud enough to create ripples in a teacup, for over a minute before the audience first sees the humongous T-Rex that is the source of this sound. It is also worth noting that this scene is made even more intense by the fact there is no accompanying music. Only diegetic sound is heard, which pulls the viewer into the storyworld and intensifies the moment.
What is synchresis?
The opposite of acousmatic sound is synchresis. Michel Chion coined the term by combining the word ‘synchronism’ (two unlikely things combining) and ‘synthesis’ (cohesive combination). In his words, synchresis is the ‘spontaneous and irresistible mental fusion, completely free of any logic, that happens between a sound and a visual when these occur at exactly the same time’. (Chion, 1994). What he is saying here is that you can fool the audience into thinking a sound came from an image, if it is synchronised enough. A lovely example of this is Norman McLaren’s animated short called Dots, where the choice of sound aligns perfectly with each new dot creating a believable synergy between the audio and the visual.
A more humorous example is The Wilhelm Scream, an ‘in-joke’ in film and TV sound. The Wilhelm Scream is a single scream that has appeared in over a thousand films, TV shows, and computer games. It was first recorded in 1951 for the movie ‘Distant Drums’ and was re-named by the sound designer Ben Burtt when it was used a second time for Private Wilhelm, a character in the film ‘The Charge at Feather River’. Once you have heard it, it is unmistakable, and sound designers continually pay tribute to this infamous sound.
Synchresis in the game Gris
Since learning about synchresis I have found examples of it everywhere, including in video games. In the introduction to this blog I wrote about how I gravitate towards games that are relaxing, as a way to counter the stresses of modern life, and I recently discovered a game which fits this description called Gris. I found Gris to be very meditative, more like an immersive art experience than a game. The accompanying soundtrack was an important factor contributing to this calming mood, in particular the beautiful moments of synchresis. The sound designer chose very interesting and magical sounds to blend with moments of action in the gameplay, to the extent that no verbal dialogue or narrative was needed to set the scene. The sound alone was enough to immerse me in the fantasy world. Along with some other games that I’ve played recently, Gris has raised the bar for me and the way I will approach future projects.
BUCHANAN, B. (2016). Star Wars: Wilhelm Scream Edition. [Online video]. May 4th. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y61sTtA2Afs. [Accessed: 08.12.2021].
CHION, M. (1994). Audio-Vision: Sound On Screen. New York: Columbia University Press. Pp.Foreward, xviii-xix.
CHION, M. (1994). Audio-Vision: Sound On Screen. New York: Columbia University Press. Pp.207
DEVOLVERDIGITAL. (2018). Gris Reveal Trailer. [Online video]. August 13th. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvECQlxrhbw. [Accessed: 13.12.2021].
JOBLO MOVIE CLIPS. (2017). JURASSIC PARK Movie Clips — All T Rex Scenes (1993) Steven Spielberg Sci-Fi Adventure Movie HD. [Online video]. December 7th. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-d90tVWaxE. [Accessed: 08.12.2021].
STONEHOUSE, J. (2021). SOUND DESIGN IN VISUAL MEDIA, 7CTA1104–0909–2021, [Lecture notes] Sound Design 1. University of Hertfordshire, MSc in Music and Sound for Film and Games, Remote, October 2021.
THECIPO. (2007). Norman McLaren — Dots (1940). [Online video]. October 6th. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3-vsKwQ0Cg. [Accessed: 08.12.2021].