The Role of Breaths in Film Sound

Having suffered a nasty respiratory virus for the last while I’ve joked to a few people that my new hobby is ‘trying to breath normally” and its not far from the truth. Now I dislike ADR as much as most people, but when I meet someone who says they want absolutely no ADR in their film I always bite my lip, because there is almost always some ADR even if they aren’t words. I’m not only talking about breaths, there are also “efforts” and/or non-dialogue reactions that it simply may not have been possible to capture during the shoot (eg when a stuntmen is doubling for the hero) but breaths are interesting & I’d like to discuss them more…

[funny Darth Vader video, taken down from youtube by humourless studio dorks]

Darth Vader aside, if you stop & think about it, when do you actually hear breathing in the real world? The most audible would be the breaths of exertion and while some action and/or horror films may not be dialogue heavy, you may be sure the dialogue editors are busy cueing & cutting ADR breaths (we did a film a number of years ago where a breath-double was used because the actor was so expensive!) but of course working with breaths is an intricate part of all dialogue editing….

But many of the other breaths that you hear are often in quiet intimate moments, and in cinema with film sound I think its important to remember two things: in a closeup we are VERY close to an actor and on a big screen subtle sounds find their place, but secondly, breaths (& foley) can play a vital role in creating proximity & placing the audience in that intimacy, and it subconsciously reminds them of their own experiences where they hear another persons breaths…

Of course breath is the very essence of life & accordingly you can be sure if the hero ends up in intensive care he will DEFINITELY be on a ventilator, which serves the constant sonic role of reminding us life hangs in the balance….

Breaths are also an important aspect of creature vocal design – there is a good reference here as to the origination of breath sounds, there being three ‘normal’ breath sounds: Bronchial, (as in humans) Bronchovesicular (as heard in sheep, goats, llamas & alpacas) and Vesicular (highly variable among different species & activity)

When I worked on Black Sheep, an important part of creating the menace of 8 foot tall were-sheep was its breaths. We recorded ADR performances of breaths to picture, using what is known here as the ‘Kongilizer’ – basically recording with a real time pitch shift (using PT TDM plugin) so that the performer hears themself pitched down 3-8 semitones. Working at 96kHz with a Sennheiser MH8000 mic capable of capturing sound up to 50khz means the resolution is still very high with little grain, but most important the performer reacts & performs, much as a guitarist plays differently when a distortion pedal is used.
I took the breaths & first edited them to create the best performance I could & then printed a version of them through my DBX Subharmonic synth, riding the gain & recording the octave lower plus harmonics…. The final result was really scary: the creatures breaths had a weight to them that could only be created by a large, ferocious lung capacity!

Darth Vader would have to be the ultimate in characterful breathing & according to wikipedia “the heavy-breathing of Darth Vader was created by recording Ben Burts own breathing in an old Dacor scuba regulator.” But what other infamous breathers has there been in film?

Ecological apple (experimental short) from Andreas Soderberg on Vimeo.

By Andreas Soderburg found via Create Digital Motion

Then there are the loud ‘nose breathers’ who always seem to sit next to me at Film festival screenings. Sooner or later I am going to take some clothes pegs along with me & peg that whistling nose & see if the person explodes, or maybe they CAN use their mouth to breath….

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