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….

12 thoughts on “The Role of Breaths in Film Sound

  1. jeff p

    I worked on a film with primate creatures ripping apart young kids on an island (why not 🙂 ) and for the breathing part of the vocal design I took horses breathing and did some micro editing on the exhales (cutting a good chunk of the exhale out) so the creatures sounded like they inhaled more then exhaled. It made them sound very strange and horrific and when many were on the screen at once it became very chaotic. Really fun 🙂

  2. tim Post author

    Wow, well done Phil!! Thats an amazing achievement on everyones part, especially the production sound team! There are plenty of complex, ensemble scenes in the film too… If tis ok I’ll be quizzing you more about Punch Drunk Love, once we start the Film Sound Study on it – I want to rewatch it this weekend but I thought it was a brilliant soundtrack, showing real restraint & character….

    ps It would be an interesting list to see; of films with no ADR at all

    1. jeff p

      there would be a tons of ultra low budgets on that list 🙂

      ohh you mean good movies with no adr :p

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  4. tim Post author

    from @terminalgarden “I’m surprised that even a brief consideration of breathing in film sound didn’t pick up on 2001.”

    true, and true of all space films – the recent film MOON had some highly emotive moments where breaths played a key role, similar to the respirator they also reinforce life support

  5. Chris

    Because I spend so much of my life cueing, recording and editing ADR I do everything I can to make it unapparent. I’m the first to admit that it sucks when it’s obvious, but in it’s defense there are plenty of moments where it works very well and I feel happy when a director tells me that they feel a performance – a whole scene or even a character has strengthened due to the work done in ADR.

    Which is where breath comes in… I began to notice a while back that the reason ADR often seems so unnatural is because the lines are devoid of breath – in, around and between the utterances. And I’m not talking about “breaths” cues either, where characters puff, pant, rasp, wheeze, snort or sigh. I mean in the dialogue itself.

    Human beings that don’t breathe are dead, I guess, and must feel dead to a film’s audience, so it strikes me that this is a core problem with ADR that can be helped by ensuring that the performance of ADR includes the necessary respiratory detail that gives it life.

    Sam Neill has a reputation for being good at ADR and this was outstandingly the case when I worked with him on Under The Mountain. Sam is completely aware of the importance of breaths informing his performance and the detail he provided was fantastic and deeply satisfying to a dialogue editor and great for the film.

    But there certainly are breaths that feel unnatural. For example actors who work a lot on the stage can sometimes over push their breaths. Like the old school pretense of doing “great acting” entrenched in english TV and cinema; the hammy technique of suck and hold the breath, pause and deliver the line that doubtless works well on stage but for me at least the “great” actor who does this on screen immediately appears to be acting, which is an anathema to the suspension of disbelief that we all try so hard to uphold.

    “She with one breath attunes the spheres, And also my poor human heart.” – Henry David Thoreau

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  7. robin

    I was going to say “2001” but was beaten to it.

    Instead I’ll just remark that some of the same concerns exist in vocal recordings for pop music. Listen to different genres and you will hear different techniques applied to the breathing, ranging from compressing it with the rest of the track to chopping it out completely. Tori Amos springs to mind for fans of heavy breathing.

  8. animated emoticons

    Dennis Hopper will always be remembered for his great movies. It’s very sad and a great loss. Not just for the movie industry but in general as he was a man of integrity. His most rememorable movie for me is Blue velvet.

    angry smiley

  9. Georgi

    I am now watching an Italian film in which the heavy breathing of the protagonist is utilized as an interconnecting motif of different traumatic experiences in his life ( Padrenostro 2020)

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