I finally got around to framing my Eraserhead poster; after 3 years of neglect it now has pride of place in our spare bedroom (which I have secret plans for as “Kenny’s Studio”, but don’t tell the Mrs). It’s questionable whether a bedroom is the best place for a disturbing movie poster, but I reckon the only reason it’ll give anyone nightmares is if they’ve actually seen the film. Because it is quite the experience.
The use of sound in Eraserhead (1977), David Lynch’s first feature, is oft pointed to by sound designers as a great example of their craft. The intense feeling of being trapped in a relentless, hideous nightmare owes much to the powerful soundtrack constructed by Lynch and Alan Splet. You could never accuse it of being an easy film to watch; a friend of mine would put on Eraserhead when she wanted people to leave her flat after the party had gone on quite long enough. But no matter what you think of the film itself there’s no denying that it has its own special sound, albeit not quite as unique as it would have sounded 30 years ago.
I had a proud moment a couple of years back whilst I was working on the pre-production for a project where a senior member of the team had described the work I was showing him as “a bit David Lynch”. As flattered as I was this was meant as a put-down, him thinking that this approach wasn’t appropriate for the dark, suspenseful thriller we were working on. But I think it nicely illustrates how unique Lynch’s body of work is that he can be name-dropped, especially by a non-sound designer, to describe “that sound”.
As part of Ann Kroeber’s talk at 2007’s School of Sound, Frank Behnke played some wonderful interviews he had recorded with Alan Splet on the set of Blue Velvet (Behnke was a student intern at the time). Splet rather matter of factly revealed that all the sounds in Eraserhead were based on library material. This puts the sound design community’s obsessive emphasis on recording and using original sounds in to perspective.
High quality original sounds are superior to library sounds, of that there is no doubt, but it’s what you do with the material that counts. The “design” in sound design does not come from “designing sounds” but from “designing for sound”.
Part of the reason I say this is of course because I don’t have as much time or budget for original SFX as I would like and knowing this little factoid about Eraserhead‘s soundtrack makes me feel better about that, which probably takes away from the point I’m trying to make. So just pretend you didn’t read this last paragraph, and think on…