Stacey Peebles teaches the art of sound in film
Since their inception, movies have captivated audiences around the globe, whether depicting action or romance, drama or comedy. Centre College’s Assistant Professor of English Stacey Peebles’s (pictured above) latest film studies class focuses on an often overlooked element of films of every genre: sound.
“Film is often thought of as a visual medium,” Peebles explains, “but even from its beginnings, that was only half the story. What we hear — whether it’s sound effects, dialogue between characters, a musical score or music being played live as the film is screened — deeply affects the way we understand and react to what we’re seeing. It’s an important part of this art form that is sometimes easy to overlook.”
To delve into this fascinating and complex subject, Peebles’ class takes students back to the very origins of cinema to learn about how “talkies” began and how sound technology evolved over time.
“We began with early silent films and the music that almost always accompanied them,” she explains. “We then addressed the transition to sound with films like The Jazz Singer from 1927 — which wasn’t the first film to have synchronized sound, as is often assumed, but was the first one to be a huge success, convincing the studios that sound was actually a good idea.”
After establishing a firm foundation in the history of sound in film, the course features films with iconic or innovative scores and sound effects, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation.
In addition to the usual run of quizzes, papers and exams students complete, there are two particularly interesting “masking” exercises. In video masking, students listen to the audio of a film score without viewing the images, writing about what elements of the film they notice as a result. In the second assignment, students complete audio masking, where they view the images of a film without the sound, again writing about what this particular experience brings out for them. Both exercises bring specific elements of the film into focus in ways that are not possible otherwise.
As part of the class, students met with cast members and the foley artist, or sound effects creator, from The Intergalactic Nemesis, a live-action graphic novel performed at the College’s Norton Center for the Arts in early February. The visit helped students understand just how important sound can be in effective storytelling.
For Peebles, the class has been a learning experience not only for her students but also for her.
“This is a new class for me, but it’s also a new area of study,” she says. “I don’t have musical training, and planning the class was an exercise in discovering how much I didn’t know. But it’s been terrific to explore all this with an enthusiastic group of students.
“Some of the films we’re covering are favorites of mine that I’ve seen a number of times,” she adds, “but I’m really understanding them in a new way as a result of the class.”
Above all, Peebles is enthusiastic about how this class can influence the way her students understand and interpret such an important cultural medium.
“I think it’s a chance for everyone to learn more about this aspect of film history,” she notes, “and to be as thoughtful about what they hear (or don’t hear) as they are about what they see.”
Learn more about Film Studies at Centre.
By Mariel Smith