Quinton Tarantino's films artfully exhibit the use of technical elements in a creative way, and Kill Bill Vol. 1 (and Vol. 2) is undeniably one of Tarantino's most highly regarded, not only for it's cleverly stylised and yet still shocking violence, but also it's thoughtful use of music and sound design.
Cameron University's Celeste Powell reflects on the importance of music in Kill Bill Vol. 1 with a recap of the opening scene;
"At the final ring of the opening gunshot, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” by Nancy Sinatra plays, drawing the visual and auditory parallels of Sinatra’s ballad and The Bride’s entrance into the film; this gives the viewer affirmation of not only the tone of the film, but also that there is a relationship between the monstrous shooter, Bill, and The Bride. The mournful opening song furthers the sorrow felt for the helpless bride. Sinatra’s lyrics “just for me the church bells rang” holds a double meaning for The Bride as the church bells could ring twice on her occasion: once for her wedding and a possible second time for her funeral." (Powell, C. 2018)
"Listening to the soundtrack of the movie with headphones provides a different experience—all vocals are played through the right ear, making the listener feel like they are being whispered to by the past experiences of their current lover. Her story is made even more chilling with a haunting guitar strum that emphasises each phrase through the left ear." (Powell, C. 2018)
That last quote really strikes a chord with me; the use of the stereo field in a non-conventional way is always interesting to me, or any non-conventional use of sound at that.
After having a brief look online for information or articles about the sound in Kill Bill Vol. 1, I noticed that it was easy to find just about anything you wanted to know about the music but anything to do with sound design or the analysis of sound design mostly came from people like me, studying audio and analysing it for themselves. I'm not sure if this is just because the respect for the audio work done on Kill Bill is unspoken, or if it's so unconventional that it isn't spoken of at all. Either way, I want to know more about what makes it so special, and to do so I'm going to pick apart a scene which I think is fantastic for it's use of sound design.
Silence and Diegetic Sound
The first thing you'll notice is the complete lack of music throughout this scene; it relies completely on the sound effects used throughout. After The Bride's (Uma Thurmin) first kill in this scene, the camera cuts O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) and a sound plays that is reminiscent of an old horror film, this sound could be considered a musical element but even so, it slowly fades away into silence again. The only audio we hear throughout this scene is either dialogue, or over the top effects. Silence is like taking one of your senses away; if you're blind, your hearing becomes more sensitive, if you're deaf, your vision becomes more important. Film makers use silence to draw the viewer in by taking a stimulus away from them and making them rely on another. The focus of this scene is obviously the fight between GoGo and The Bride, and the choreography is brilliant so Tarantino wants to make sure we take notice of it.
"The absence of non-diegetic composition can give an extra level of “realness” to your sequences. Emphasis on brutal actions, like car crashes or gun shots, seems more abrupt, and these sequences hang in the air longer as the audience lingers with the echoes throughout an entire scene or film."(Aldredge, J. 2017)
Silence all throughout this scene would be a bit awkward though, we know that there's action happening and we want to feel excited about it; by using sounds only to promote exactly what is happening on screen, we're forced to draw our attention towards it even more. Sounds that are emanating from objects in world we are viewing through the film are referred to as "Diegetic Sounds" However, "Just because a diegetic sound emanates from the world of story, doesn’t necessarily mean that it was recorded that day on set. Many diegetic sounds are actually recorded in a studio by sound engineers, making the sounds clearer." (Masterclass, 2019). A film that makes fantastic use of diegetic sound is one of my favourite films No Country for Old Men, which is completely void of a soundtrack.
Kill Bill takes the idea of diegetic sounds one step further and almost merges them with non-diegetic sounds; "Non-diegetic sound, also called commentary or nonliteral sound, is any sound that does not originate from within the film’s world. The film’s characters are not able to hear non-diegetic sound. All non-diegetic sound is added by sound editors in post-production." (Masterclass, 2019) The use of non-diegetic sound in Kill Bill makes it seems as though it comes directly from the film world, for example: when The Bride counters GoGo's attack and knocks her through a table (2:40), if you listen closely you can make out the sound of bowling pins being knocked down mixed in with the sound of the table breaking, or, just as GoGo is about to hurl her Meteor Hammer towards The Bride, we hear a sound similar to something from The Six Million Dollar Man or at least in vein of that era.
Mixing diegetic sound with non-diegetic sound makes the action happening on screen seem larger than life, and is also a clever way of creating a sense of nostalgia through sound, as a lot of old film and TV, like the previously mentioned Six Million Dollar Man use effects created through sound design to portray actions on screen as something larger than life.
Old Techniques Still Work
Watch from 11:14
"After a childhood filled with Bruce Lee movies, it was extremely easy for me to appreciate the references that Tarantino littered throughout the film. One of the most noticeable examples of this is the iconic yellow jumpsuit that Bruce Lee wore in his final film Game of Death. Along with this, viewers are also treated to visuals of the Kato mask that Lee wore in The Green Hornet as well as a scene that mirrored a famous fighting sequence from Fists of Fury." (Marotta, L. 2017)
Tarantino's films are more often than not, littered with references that pay homage to his influences, Kill Bill is no exception. Throughout the film there are multiple instances in which the cinematography, narrative and choreography make reference to classic kung-fu movies, and so does the sound design and audio, especially in this scene between The Bride and GoGo. There are a few particular sounds in this scene that I want to highlight as prime examples of the homage this film pays to early martial arts films.
GoGo's Meteor Hammer:
When we first see GoGo, our attention is immediately brought to the fact that she is wielding and dangers looking ball on the end of a chain. As chain rattles and jingles has she waves "hello" to The Bride, we're reminded that she is so in control of this weapon that she feels comfortable enough to have it in ready position, wrapped around her hands and wrists as she casually waves to her enemy. The sound that really emphasises the weight and strength of this weapon, other than the massive metallic thud when it drops to the ground, is the "whoosh whoosh whoosh" when GoGo starts swinging it through the air (1:30). This a sound we're pretty familiar with when things go flying through our field of vision in film, but the low frequency content and heavy sound of it spinning around her head ads extra emphasis to the weight of the object. Just as GoGo is about to throw the Meteor Hammer at The Bride, the "whoosh" sound effect goes up in pitch and reflects the extra power shes putting into her swing, getting ready to hurl it forwards. This sort of sound is really typical of early martial arts films; every time anybody throws a punch in a fight it's usually met with a really synthetic sounding wind noise to exaggerate the speed of the movement. The speed of this weapon is also exaggerated using the sound of whips flicking through the air every time she swings it towards The Bride. These kinds of sounds can also be heard when The Bride moves her sword for an attack, or even just into attack position. The sound of a sword unsheathing, which again is a popular film trope (swords don't make sound when they're unsheathed), is even used when The Bride simply raises her sword. These kinds of sounds are important because it gives the film maker the option of letting the viewers know that an action is being performed, even if it's off screen. Like the cut at (2:38); we can still hear GoGo swinging her Meteor Hammer around even though she is off screen, this lets us know that she is preparing for an attack.
Dipping back into this topic for a moment, let's look at some of the more, I suppose, ridiculous sounds in this scene, some of which might have gone unnoticed. When The Bride blocks GoGo's attack with a table, the Meteor Hammer goes straight through it and we can see the chain winding out through the hole it has made. If you listen closely, it's almost as though you can hear the sound of a fishing reel being cast, much like the chain is being cast through the table (2:11). You can hear this sound can at about (2:28). This could be very clever foreshadowing; later on in the scene, The Bride dodges an attack from GoGo only to have the chain wrap around her neck, almost as though GoGo was casting out her "fishing line" to try and catch The Bride. As I mentioned earlier, as GoGo plunges through a table at about (2:41) we can faintly make out the sound of bowling pins being knocked over. This is one of the more comical sounds that is used in the fight scene, but for a good reason, as this symbolises the embarrassment she would have felt being bested by someone she had underestimated. Even though no words are being said throughout this fight scene, sounds like this let us know what the character is feeling, or the consequence or reaction to their action. Even though they aren't typically "fitting" because of how outlandish they are, the clever use of over-the-top, non diegetic sounds helps tell the story.
While we're on the topic of non-diegetic sounds, it would be worth mentioning the sounds used for any kind of body movement are heavily exaggerated, just like most martial arts films. Not only does the slightest head movement warrant a "woosh" (2:13), but this isn't all, every time one of the characters jump we hear a sound, once again, reminiscent of The Six Million Dollar Man (2:17). And just like The Six Million Dollar Man, these non-diegetic sounds are used to emphasise the almost super human capabilities of these characters. Even camera movement is emphasised with it's own set of audio (1:44) and (1:55).
A lot of action sequences in film use music to curate the motions of the scene, but as music is a strongly non-diegetic sound, it can often take the viewers perspective out of a scene, and for such an important scene like this, it's important to have the viewer as drawn in as possible.
It's important to mention that there isn't any note worthy use of the stereo field present in this clip. This could be due to the fact that it's a crappy YouTube clip but my point is that the desired effect of the audio still translates. The most important technical aspects of this clip are the timing, and the positional levelling. The sound effects, both diegetic and non-diegetic, are timed perfectly with what is happening on screen, which means they perfectly reflect and compliment what's happening on screen. If you're using sound effects to promote a certain emotion or understanding of an action in a scene like this then timing is crucial. When I say positional levelling, I'm referring to the idea that if something happens far away from the listener, then it's going to be quieter than if it's close. There's also the EQ aspect that comes into play; again, things far away aren't going to have as much clarity as things happening in the foreground. For example; when The Bride jumps across tables to avoid GoGo, a glass falls and smashes on the ground, we can assume that this glass was on the side of the table that we are viewing it from because it's loud, and crystal clear. This might seem like a bit of over kill but if these things weren't taken into consideration, the viewer might feel a bit disorientated.
The use of silence to draw the viewer in matched with the thoughtful use of non-diegetic sound in this clip make it a thrill to watch, and almost completely void the need for music. It just goes to show that thinking outside the box is very much a worth while practice when it comes to doing foley, sound design or even just mixing film audio.
Powell, C. (2018). A Week of Film Reviews: The Art of Sound in "Kill Bill Vol. 1" | Aggie Central. Retrieved from http://aggiecentral.com/2018/11/a-week-of-film-reviews-the-art-of-sound-in-kill-bill-vol-1/
Aldredge, J. (2017). Understanding the Importance of Silence in Filmmaking. Retrieved from https://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/importance-silence-filmmaking-projects/
Diegetic Sound and Non-Diegetic Sound: What’s the Difference? - 2019 - MasterClass. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.masterclass.com/articles/diegetic-sound-and-non-diegetic-sound-whats-the-difference#what-is-diegetic-sound
Marotta, L. (2017). Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1: A Round of Awesome. Retrieved from https://lukeiswatching.wordpress.com/2017/04/07/kill-bill-vol-1-a-round-of-awesome/