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the Major Aspects of Diegetic Sounds in Motion Pictures

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Remember the scene from the movie “Taken” where Bryan Mills, played by Liam Neeson, tells the kidnapper, “I will find you, and I will kill you”? Even though the movie was filled with some great action scenes, that line in Liam Neeson’s deep voice became a fan favourite. Now imagine the same movie with no sound. Does the scene excite you anymore? Probably not.

Sound plays a crucial role in enhancing the impact of a particular scene in a motion picture. It’s not that silent movies are ineffective. Technically speaking, sound engages the auditory senses of the audience. Quite obviously, the audio (music, speech and sound effects) in a movie offers a richer experience. In filmmaking, these audio elements are referred to as diegetic and non-diegetic sounds.

Sound is one of the basic things that push a story forward. By listening to the background score, you can guess what type of situation is being portrayed in the scene. While the sound may create an ambience in the theatre, the dialogues and sound work together to navigate the story. These kinds of sound, whose sources are visible on the screen, are identified as diegetic sounds.

What is diegetic sound?

The words spoken by the characters in the film, the sound generated from the surrounding, the chirping of birds, the song on the radio – any kind of sound that has an identifiable source on the screen can be referred to as diegetic sound. In other words, the sound whose source is implied to be present by the action of the film is diegetic sound.

The word “diegetic” has been derived from “diegesis” which means a narrative or plot in a film. Any sound that comes from a source within the narrative or plot is referred to as diegetic sound. It can be voices of the characters (like the example from ‘Taken’), sounds made from the objects and surroundings (within the film world), and music that is played (with an instrument) within the story space.

What is non-diegetic sound?

After learning the diegetic definition of sound, you may have a slight idea about what non-diegetic sound can be. The non-diegetic sound is any sound whose source can neither be seen on the screen nor has been implied to be present in the course of action. This type of sound comes from a source outside the story space.

The non-diegetic sound has a huge contribution in setting up the mood for a particular scene. Background scores, dramatic sound effects, narrator’s commentary – these are some examples of non-diegetic sound in films. If you are a fan of horror movies, you may have noticed that the background score and dramatic sound effects have a huge part in creating a scary feel. Similarly, when it comes to comedy movies, the dramatic sound effects are used to enhance the humour in the scene.

Diegetic vs Non-diegetic Sound: Comparison

The difference between diegetic and non-diegetic sounds is quite evident from their definitions. Apart from the nature of their sources and their impact on the scene, there’s not much to differentiate between these two types of sound used in films.

However, the distinction between diegetic or non-diegetic sound depends on the individual understanding of the conventions of film viewing and listening. In most cases, the filmmaker fuses these two types of sounds to create an atmosphere that the audience experience while watching the film.

importance of diegetic sounds in films

It is important to acknowledge the fact that diegetic sound is not always kept as it is from the time of recording. It can be dubbed, enhanced, or even completely changed as per the director’s instruction. So, there’s no point in believing that all edited sounds are non-diegetic sounds. It may look so when you are watching the film. However, from a filmmaker’s point of view, that’s not how you should differentiate between diegetic and non-diegetic sound.

  • Complementing the CGI scenes:

Today, one out of every five movies is using computer-generated images (CGI) for creating realistic footages. However, it is hard to tell the difference between what is real and what is made with CGI. And thediegetic sound setup has a huge role to play in it.

Take any sci-fi or fantasy movie for instance. A majority of the scenes of such movies are shot in front of green screens. To make those scenes more believable, the film crew needs to invest a lot of time and efforts in creating the required diegetic sound.

As you may realise, background score, narrator’s commentary, music – these are all secondary. Unless the movie has properly synced diegetic sound, it is going to fail regardless of what. Most studios acknowledge this fact.  This is why they hire a dedicated sound engineering team for every movie these days.

  • Creating the environment for a scene:

CGI and green screens can make up for the visual elements that aren’t actually there. However, a digitally crafted environment won’t be impactful unless it is supported well with the diegetic sound. If the scene involves the city life, and there’s no sound of cars passing by, it may seem too artificial to the audiences.

The contribution of the foley artists in recreating diegetic sound is unparalleled. They work tirelessly to deliver the exact diegetic sound in a scene. With the help of diegetic sounds, they create each and every piece of sound (starting from the rustling of leaves to the chirping of birds) that are occurring in the scene.

Also, the filmmakers often replace the original diegetic sound of a clip and replace it with more polished audio. In case, the audio is not recorded properly, the sound has too much of disturbances, or the dialogue needs to be modified, the cast may need to dub the audio for the whole scene.

  • Bringing old footage to life:

One of the disadvantages of using archived footages is that they don’t have proper audio. And if there’s any audio with the clip, it is insignificant in most cases. A simple diegetic sound as per the script can make the archived clip into a reusable content for a documentary or a feature film.

The old footages of war often use additional diegetic sound since the original video doesn’t usually contain any proper audio track. With the edited sound, creators can use the archived footage with more relevance in certain contexts.

Moreover, usingdiegetic sound instead of audio tracks can help stitch the fabric from one transitional scene to the other.

In conclusion,

The sound is one of the essential aspects of filmmaking in today’s date. In fact, brilliantly recorded sound can determine the success of the respective film. Even though the contribution of non-diegetic sound in a movie is undeniable, it is the brilliance of diegetic sound projection that decides the quality of the production.

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Georgia Taylor

Hi, I am Georgia Taylor. I am a certified midwife nurse. Though I am a nurse by profession, I could never let my passion for reading and writing subside. Caring for ailing people gives me as much joy as does helping out students trying to earn their degrees. While working hard during my MSN days, I saw how my non-native batch mates struggled to work on English essays and assignments. As much as their dreams of getting into the medical field mattered to them, their struggle with English essay tasks was real and challenging. That's what ignited the desire to be a guide to such people. From helping my fellows to becoming a part-time English essay writer, the journey has been quite exciting. As my profession teaches us for being kind, that's my way of abiding by this responsibility. 

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