Room Ambience: Home as Heard in Film and Media Arts

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay 

1. Bedroom


I look for freedom inside the close confines of a room; the walls slowly move towards me; the geometry of my environment remains in flux. The intruding wind and its muffled sounds, sifting through the porous windowpane, take over and enhance the fragments of silence, even those left over from yesterday. I have nothing to say to the objects in my interior environment while the car horn sounds outside through the neighborhood; outdoor sounds provide the interior with an essential sense of place. Reflections of the sound within the room and their fading resonances convey the atmosphere of interactions with lived and remembered experiences of the outdoors. As the car horn dissolves into the sounds of houses being constructed in the urban neighborhood, I appreciate how my indoor ambience reflects an encounter between private and public space as their sounds intermingle and subtly coalesce to form a fertile room tone.[1] I can listen to my desire for freedom inside the close confines of this room and let my thoughts regain their innocence. The walls merge with my skin, and the built environment surrounds my body. As I search for the window, another car horn rings out. The moving and the static and the distance between them grow beyond a known arithmetic. They merge and replace my search for freedom. My confinement is defined by the sense of domesticity within this enclosed space. I embrace the sonically approaching walls and enhanced silences and ignore the muffled sounds of wind to feel secure. The window separates the safety and privacy of the room tone from the outdoor ambience of a thriving communal environment, as if the windowpane were the architecturally constructed boundary between indoor and outdoor realities. Windows and walls that separate the outdoors from the indoors are often soundproofed or covered with heavy curtains that sometimes serve as sound barriers. Why are ambient sounds considered unwanted noise in a household auditory setting? Is it because the sanctity of the private sphere enjoys a certain domain of acceptance whereas the public sphere needs to be restrained? When someone opens a bedroom window and leans down to see and hear what is happening on the street corner, their curiosity crosses this boundary. This is a moment when outdoor sounds enter the domestic sphere and provide news, perspectives, and views. Is this intrusion unwelcome? Does it entail a sonic disruption within the closely guarded space of the bedroom and its domestic ambience? Or is it part of a sonic flux outlining the transformative sonic environments of the inhabited spaces of the home, with its indoor, domestic sites, such as the living room, bedroom, hallway, balcony, and staircases? 


In this article I am interested in asking these questions within the context of film and media arts. The article investigates the mediation of homey ambiences or domestic atmospheres and their relationship with the outdoor in film and media productions. It also examines how human mediation affects the perception of site-specific ambient sounds of the home that are aesthetically incorporated as “auditory settings” in films and media artworks.[2] The focus is on examining the processes of reconstructing the site of the home through the reproduction and mediation of its relatively enclosed sonic environment and its complex relationship with the outside worlds. In narrative film and audiovisual media artworks, the sonic environment is understood as the mediated space and setting in which a story or event takes place. Sonic environments offer specific information about place, time, and the site-specific ambience, creating a backdrop for the narrative action. The sonic environment is constructed through the use of a specific sound component known as “ambience” or “ambient sound” - two terms that can be used interchangeably. Etymologically, however, ambient sound connotes the material and functional aspects, whereas ambience (in filmmaking terminology) or ambiance (urban sonic environment in the Francophone vocabulary) connotes the social, urban and cultural aspects.[3] Both (ambient sound and ambience) are standard terms used by sound practitioners to refer to the site-specific environmental sounds that provide characteristic atmosphere and spatial information in audiovisual productions. In this article, I will use both terms more often than “environmental sound” in order to align myself with the terminology and vocabulary used by film sound practitioners, thus taking a practice-based approach. 


Under the specter of a current pandemic, most people around the globe are confined to their homes due to nationwide lockdowns and travel bans. Under these circumstances, it is a worthwhile endeavor to rediscover our relationship to the sound of home, in this case through the study of human mediation and appropriation of homey ambiences in film and media arts as we confront our solitude more often inside the home, in which film and audiovisual art become a refuge. Examining the transformations of site-specific ambient sounds recorded in a domestic location to form reconstructed auditory settings in film and audiovisual media helps us understand human agency in the perception, design, production, and mediation of ambience and the nature of sonic environments in the Anthropocene - the proposed geologic epoch with an unprecedented multiplication of human-generated ambiences and atmospheres. The article focuses on global film and media arts design practices for a few generic sites within the home or inhabited space. It examines the diegesis of film and media artworks that are set inside the subtly dynamic sonic environments of household spaces. The method employed in this research is a critical listening to representative passages of film and media artworks through a sonic ethnographic approach. I apply the method of sonic ethnography, which advocates “location study,” that is, the listening observation of a specific site through ethnographic means before and during the practice of a site-aware field recording/writing. In line with this approach, a few field recording-based media artworks will be discussed here as examples that can be used to compare the artistic mediation process to the standard filmmaking process. Additionally, an exploratory and creative writing style is embraced, self-reflections situated in these homey sites. The site-aware analyses address the similarities and differences between ambient sounds recorded to reconstruct the site of home within a film’s interior world and field recordings of domestic spaces used in certain site-driven sound and media artworks. Using a variety of different recording practices from various eras of sound production as reference, a number of relevant film sequences and media artworks – in which similar or related household sites are recorded and designed as part of the narrative or descriptive auditory setting – will be considered. The selection of examples discussed is wide-ranging and globally representative: alongside European and American films, films from Asia are discussed to address the lack of representation of film and media works from the southern part of the globe. By sensitively reading these examples through the lens of a sound practitioner, domestic sound changes will be studied in various corresponding and historically intercepting phases of recording and sound production. This practice-based approach will ground the research in the real world.


A bedroom is the setting of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s drama film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). The film focuses on the obsessive and co-dependent relationship of a narcissistic fashion designer with her assistant; they are the only two characters in the film. The insistent focus on a single homey setting, the bedroom, heightens the dramatic tension and provides an insular backdrop that reveals the female character’s own entrapment in the props of her failed relationship. The static sounds become increasingly repetitive and empty. The domestic site of the bedroom becomes circumscribed by the intense closeness of the two characters and their interpersonal dynamics. 


In contrast, arthouse films from South Asia tend to combine domestic sounds with vibrant social dynamics, even if they often lack technological sophistication. In Subho Muharat (2003), Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh develops an intimate yet secluded sound world of a bedroom. The film follows an elderly Bengali woman’s acute sensitivity and curiosity about events that take place outside her home. Her domestic world is accompanied by a vibrant neighborhood, a few house cats, the antics of her outgoing niece, and her intermittent phone calls. The cozy details of the interior auditory setting are a mix of the calls of street vendors entering the bedroom, sounds of the wall clock, cats purring, and other sonic oddities, all recorded and layered with care in a monaural mix based on guide tracks from location recordings – a common practice in Indian cinema.


Since the advent of sound in cinema, ambient sound has been considered a practical production problem. It was initially regarded negatively, as unwanted background noise from the location, and then positively, as site-specific information to be included in the film’s diegesis. The latter clearly explains ambient sound’s significant role within film sound production. Distinct and subtle sounds emerge from and within the environment of every site depicted in a cinematic narrative. These sound sources include, for example, wind, rain, running water, rustling leaves, distant traffic, aircraft and machinery noise, etc. Within a domestic setting, sounds range from distant human movement and speech to the creaks and pops of thermal contractions, air conditioners and plumbing, the hum of fans and motors or electric machines, as well as the very subtle layers of a site-specific room tone. While film sound has received extensive academic attention, much of it has been devoted to explaining the role of voice and music in relation to the visual image (Chion 1994, 2009; Gorbman 1987). However, ambient sounds carry elemental spatial information and construct a site’s “presence” (Doane 1985; Grimshaw 2011) through an interplay between diegesis (Percheron 1980; Burch 1982) and mimesis (Kassabian 2013; Weiss 2011) as well as through the process of rendering (Morton 2009). These environmental sounds (Chattopadhyay 2017, 2021a) have largely remained underexplored and under-theorized and, therefore, deserved careful attention and analysis in my book The Auditory Setting (Chattopadhyay 2021a). Scholars of sound production point to the spatial, enveloping properties of ambient sounds (Sonnenschein 2001; Holman 2002; Kerins 2011). Film sound scholar Michel Chion discussed ambient sound, location sound, and the superfield (1994, 2009), but his discussion remained limited to the audio-visual relationship: the independent potential of ambience to impart a sense of presence was largely ignored under the pressure of the primacy of visual narrative. Historically, ambient sounds became an important art and design component as sound production moved from monaural to digital productions, such as with Dolby Atmos. 


There has been little film sound research on the practice and implications of using site-specific ambient sounds or the specific purposes they serve. The terms sonic environment, ambience/ambiance, environmental, and ambient sound have gained currency in contemporary sound studies as well as in film and field recording-based sound and media art ever since digital technology has made it possible to record sound with high fidelity and precision in the actual location and (re)construct it in various spatial configurations. In contemporary media studies, this is often referred to as the “spatial turn.” Sound culture researcher Andrew J. Eisenberg notes that 


the increasing recognition of the intimate links between sound and space may be attributed to a confluence of scientific and technological developments in the latter half of the twentieth century, including the development of traveling-wave models of auditory perception and the rise of multichannel audio recording and playback. (Eisenberg 2015: 195)


The incorporation of domestic ambient sounds, such as room tone, helps to create a realistic sense of the presence of domestic space in media art. Room tone can be regarded as a means of enhancing a sense of reality by augmenting the perceived presence of a household site in the mediated environment. In other words, incorporation of room tone as an ambient sound component in (film) sound design makes the image of the domestic site “credible’” (Wayne 1997: 176).


Since the advent of digital synchronous sound and Dolby systems, the practice of incorporating a low frequency room tone can be found in filmmaking. In (South) Asia, Dil Chahta Hai (The Heart Desires, Farhan Akhtar 2001) was among the first films to use sync sound.[4] This Hindi film now enjoys cult status due to its refreshing approach, which conveys a sense of the here and now, largely through the practice of shooting on location with sync recordings, followed by surround sound design. Right from the start of the film, set in contemporary Mumbai, the accurate sound portrayal of traffic forms such a contrast to the audience’s expectations and experiences of studio-recorded sound that they immediately feel “on the streets.” Much of the sound used in the film’s indoor sequences consists of a room tone, a noise-like “hum” (Holman 2002) that comes from various indoor electrical and other devices. The inclusion of such low-frequency room tones was a novel approach at the time, made possible by emerging digital technologies. Each sequence, therefore, afforded the accurate placement of the characters within the mise-en-sonore through the reflection of voices on the walls and the room tone surrounding the audience. In the last major sequence of the film, the synchronized sound manifests itself in the diegetic use of wedding songs. This sequence is notable because, unlike earlier Indian films, it uses diegetic music, without studio processing. Through the use of sync sound at the site of the story-world, the sequence provides the audience with ample information about the specifics of the site, which are so well reconstructed sonically that viewers feel as if they are situated within the actual site even though it is mediated.[5] This renewed sense of realism in the narration of fictional sites has driven the production of several subsequent Indian films such as Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labor of Love, Aditya Vikram Sengupta 2014). The auditory settings of these films were created through careful spatial organization of ambient sounds recorded on location. Set in the crumbling environs of a Kolkata household, Asha Jaoar Majhe is a deeply lyrical unfolding of the lives of ordinary people trying to survive the economic recession. The film sensitively observes and carefully listens to the domestic environment of a working couple alienated from each other by their asynchronous work shifts. The acoustic backdrop was developed by recording rich layers of ambient sounds that are present to varying degrees indoors: machine hums, electrical buzzes, singing lessons within neighboring houses, car horns, tram bells from the adjacent street, political demonstrations moving through the streets, cawing crows, and the voices of street vendors seep into the stasis of the home atmosphere, interspersed with cat meows, radio news announcements, and diegetic music on TV, which resonate within indoor walls, staircases and balconies, and other ambiences typical of everyday domestic environments. The careful inclusion and elaborate spatial organization of these ambient sound mixes gives this film a “gritty documentary feel” marked by an immersive, immediate realism that contrasts with the typical song-and-dance films from Bollywood. As this film does not require dialogue to convey its content and context, it was able to focus on the ambient sounds that surround the characters. Asha Jaoar Majhe, like other independent Indian films, represents a renewed sense of situatedness in everyday life through the meticulous depiction of ordinary sites. Thanks to their inclusive auditory settings, the site itself becomes a prominent character in the narrative and contributes to a compelling sense of verisimilitude within the filmic space.


This sonic spatial shift can already be found in the new wave of Asian cinema in the 1980s. The films of Tchai Ming-liang, for example, are anything but verbally-centered; the voice, which is rarely used, comes across as a banal layer that does not add much to the cinematic narrative within the overall sonic environment. Ming-liang’s Vive L’amour (1994) is set in a disused apartment where three characters negotiate their urban alienation in mutual separation. The film opens with a long interior sequence without any dialogue in which one of the characters sneaks into an apartment and unsuccessfully attempts suicide. His loneliness is compounded by loud traffic sounds that penetrate the closed bedroom. His heavy breathing is ungrounded, floating in thin air, reflected from the walls, suspended like his own existence. The female character speaks to her clients on the phone. Her voice and high-heeled footsteps reverberate inside the room and the corridor of the apartment. The hollow auditory setting of the indoor locations suggests the characters’ lack of belonging to these spaces. The film conveys urban alienation, loneliness, and ennui through these empty and echoing indoor sounds. Ming-liang’s subsequent work, The Wayward Cloud (2005), consists of longer sequences without a single spoken word but with a varying layer of ambient sounds. Although verbal silence is not a central aspect of these films, dialogue is not required for their design. They open the ear to the idea that cinema has overemphasized dialogue throughout its history of dealing with narrative. These films allow environmental and site-specific ambiences to provide an augmented, grounded, and potent narrative beyond dialogue.