Sounds that smell

About one person in every thousand literally smells sounds – the general term is synaesthesia although that also includes people who see sounds, hear paintings etc… But I got to thinking about sounds that smell the other day when un-volunteering to record sound FX of the doors of a portaloo for the film Show of Hands that we’re currently working on. If you’ve ever been to an outdoor concert you will know (& probably try desperately to avoid) the portaloo, but it made me think about what other sounds in my library smell…
Unfortunately many smell memories are unpleasant ones, such as the portaloo, but one that wasnt too bad was generated by our Vegetable Violence recording session for Black Sheep – at least that time the studio ended up smelling like a giant fruit salad… But that film also raised another smelly quandry – for the climax of the film the sound of farting was required, and not just one or two, group farting! I was happy to assign this task to someone else, and I did! And I was happy to not know how the FX were generated, but was relieved when I was told; no humans (or animals) were involved! It turned out that a friend of the assistant FX Editors had created & were marketing a game based on the ability to generate farts using something much like silly putty! Phew! But I knew well not to tell the director how the sound was made, until he had signed off on it. Accordingly a copy of the game was given to him & the producer at the end of the mix. And my library has a huge collection of farts that don’t make me grimace, well as far as their recording goes anyway….

One smell that I cannot even bear to remember without grimacing was from a recording session for 30 Days of Night. While researching locations to record sounds for the Muffin Muncher in the film (a large scale garbage disposal unit) we ended up visiting an industrial company who dispose of all sorts of heinous materials by incinerating them at extreme temperatures… so imagine a bakery, who cook nasty nasty stuff (eg industrial, medical, chemical waste) for long periods of time at very high temperatures… I swear I can smell that place as soon as I play any of the sounds from it…… yeech!

Smells are so mysterious, as this article in the New Yorker clearly illustrates: Scents & Sensibility: “So taste is mainly smell, and smell is a profound mystery. Why is it that one molecule smells of spearmint, while its mirror image smells of caraway? No one knows. When scientists create new molecules in the laboratory, they may know every detail of a molecule’s structure yet have no clue about what it will smell like….”

Weirdly & much more pleasantly, all this thinking about sonic smells happened to coincide with watching the film Perfume – if you havent seen it i highly reccomend it. As you would hope with a film about the senses it makes full use of sound in its storytelling – dynamically, evocatively and for a period drama at times quite stylistically… below is the trailer, and kudos to the sound team for a job very well done!

Perfume is one of those (74 according to imdb!) rare films where the director & composer is one and the same… Accordingly there is an interesting interview with the director/composer of Perfume on the Dolby website where he discusses his approach: “it was always clear to me that the way Grenouille, the hero of the film, actually knows and recognizes the world more or less only through the nose, and through smelling it. I was really into trying to find the sound language for what one could call the ‘experience-world’ of Grenouille.”
He also goes on to explain his process & the role music plays: “I’m already starting to compose while I’m working on the script. The three of us—Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil, and I—we sit down and we start composing alongside the script, so we find the sound in terms of the music of the film while we’re in the writing process. When we arrive on set, we already have a substantial part of the music composed, and we’ve hired a small orchestra to play it for us, so we can really play it to the actors and get it ‘into the scenery’ of the actual shooting, as it were. So people could already explore the atmosphere and the acoustic world of the film while they were acting in it.”
Dolby, of course quiz him on the scope of his soundtrack; music, sound design, dialogue & the mix…. and god bless him, in three sentences Tykwer outlines exactly why the soundtrack for Perfume is so evocative, sensibility! “Sound design is often appreciated in films that create a lot of noise, but I’m a big admirer of the quiet movies. I know since I made Heaven in 2001 how difficult it is to mix a convincingly quiet film, because quietness has so many levels. It’s much easier to produce a very loud, effects-driven and music-overloaded movie. I remain a fan of films that were made in the very early days of sound design and that can still deliver interesting results. The Exorcist, for example, has an amazing soundtrack, and in more modern times, what David Fincher does is really impressive. The entire suspense of his film Seven is really built through the soundtrack, with music and sound so well intertwined.”

2 thoughts on “Sounds that smell

  1. Andrew

    Nice approach – it must make it so much more “real” for the actors to get a sense of the final production.

    Now if I could just find a small orchestra to follow me around through the day and provide a soundtrack!

  2. Heidi

    There is a decent book (1993) out about synesthesia called THE MAN WHO TASTED SHAPES. The author, Richard E. Cytowic, MD concludes that synesthesia may be a normal brain function that we all do, but that only a few people are actually aware of when they are doing it.

    I wonder if synesthesia is a throwback to our more primitive selves, because when my dog perceives a sound or smell on the wind, I often see him open his mouth as if he were trying to taste whatever he is receiving through other perceptive pathways. He just still knows how to perceive it.

    Maybe its from the holographic nature of our brains and the pathways between olfactory and oratory senses are either collapsed without border or intermingled, dimensionally.

    At any rate, I suddenly see concert audiences as Peter Max rainbow human chameleon illustrations with their heads tilted back and tongues extended catching butterfly notes of music emanating from an amphitheater.

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