By Ruochen Zhao | 19 June 2019
In this audio-visual essay, Ruochen analyses the music and sound used in Baby Driver (2017) – in particular, what theorist Amanda McQueen has identified as the concept of ‘Sonic Intensified Continuity’ used by (director) Edgar Wright in films such as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs the world. This audio-visual essay was submitted as a final assignment for the course, “Music on Screen”, and received distinction mark. A glossary of terms can be found below.
What is a video essay/audiovisual essay?
Some definitions describe video essay/audiovisual essay as works of criticism that mix language (or text) with images (in terms of re-edited clips or single-frame screenshots) and sounds (music, voices, sampling from film soundtracks).
A more radical definition explains an audiovisual essay as the creative montage of pieces of pre-existing film/media works in order to create a new work that carries, expresses or embodies a critical idea.
Source: Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin, The Audio-Visual Essay in Teaching and Research Conference, May 2015.
Diegetic Sound: “sound whose source is visible on the screen or whose source is implied to be present by the action of the film. e.g. voices of characters, sounds made by objects in the story, music represented as coming from instruments in the story space ( = source music)”.
Non-diegetic Sound: “Sound whose source is neither visible on the screen nor has been implied to be present in the action: e.g. narrator’s commentary, sound effects which is added for the dramatic effect, mood music”.
Trans-diegetic music: music scores that can be heard by both the characters in the film world and the audience from the non-diegetic realm.
Pre-audiolized sounds: from an interview with the sound designer and the director of Baby Driver, describing how they shot certain scenes playing an audio file that they pre-produced as background so that the actors and filmmakers can both hear it, act and film the action accordingly, to make sure every action captured on screen for that scene can be on beat.
About the audiovisual essay
I decided on this topic for my final assignment of “Music on Screen”, an optional course I took in the last semester that studies the aesthetic of music on film, television, videogames, webpages, apps etc. I found that in the film Baby Driver (2017), the pre-audiolized sounds combine with trans-diegetic music and rendered diegetic sound (police sirens, engine revs, car skids, break locks, drifting sounds, gunshots, dog barks, trains, ATM) as a unity. The sounds stylishly integrate with the action and match and synchronize with the image cutting like a symphony. Such satisfying congruence has been amply attempted in many movie trailers for the purpose of promotion, but it is rarely majorly used thematically in feature cinema films. So I decided to produce a piece that interrogates the unique sonic design in Baby Driver.
In my audiovisual essay I demonstrated my research findings, interrogating the relevancy of sonic intensified continuity in Baby Driver. “Sonic intensified continuity” is a model proposed and established by Amanda McQueen for contemporary film sounds analysis. This model is inspired by Bordwell’s concept of visual intensified continuity. Intensified continuity is “an intensification of established techniques. It is traditional continuity amped up, raised up to a higher pitch of emphasis” (Bordwell 120). This audiovisual essay leads the audioviewer through first “intensified continuity”, then into “sonic intensified continuity”, and finally examines how Baby Driver offers an intensification/exaggeration of this approach – arguably taking it beyond its logical limits, and in the process perhaps leading to a reclassification of the film’s genre as musical rather than crime caper.
In specific, this audio-visual essay suggests that in Baby Driver (2017), the sound and image are not just working in “tandem” (termed by McQueen), but the synchronisation – in which the diegetic (in film) source sounds are scored with the trans-diegetic pop songs as a sonic unity – are interrelated with the onscreen motion and actions to function in “triurnal” (a term I invented by myself). This unique triurnal approach is achieved through an exaggeration compared to the rhythmic characteristics in Wright’s previous movies. This is achieved in such a way that not only the central character, “Baby”, but also the supporting characters are rhythmically constructed, or “musicalised”, in multiple scenes to provide the movie’s audio-visual aesthetic without damaging the typical style of cinematic narration. The movie has characters who seem to bring forth music in some way or identify with it in a particular way. Particular characters do perform music using other means such as body movements. This aesthetic enables characters to undertake almost super-human feats in the same way that when people perform in musicals, they go from talking to singing to highlight and express their emotions. This power of the movie’s aesthetic may further imply a challenge to the notion of the genre – in the way that Baby Driver can be understood as a metamorphosed musical and not merely as a crime-comedy.
Ruochen Zhao (b. 1997) is a curator/director based in Edinburgh. His 2018 short film The Bunny, a satirical thriller, has won several awards. He is a graduate of the University of East Anglia (BA Film & TV Studies). He completed MSc Film Exhibition and Curation in the University of Edinburgh in August 2019. He is also a co-curator and producer for Restricted, a public event (16th March 2019, Edinburgh) exploring ideas of classification and censorship of sex on screen in the digital age. IMDb page: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8668416/
Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It Story and Style in Modern Movies. University of California Press, 2006.
Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin, The Audio-Visual Essay in Teaching and Research Conference, May 2015.
Edited by Clara Ng and Ailish Woollett