Nessa Johnston

Hearing DV Realism: Sound in Millennial Convergence Cinema (1998-2008)

Year: 2015

Keywords: , , , , ,


Edge Hill University
(at time of presentation)

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Dr Nessa Johnston completed her PhD in 2013 at the University of Glasgow, which was funded by the AHRC. Previously she obtained a BA in Drama and Theatre Studies at Trinity College Dublin, an MA in Sound Design for the Screen from Bournemouth University, and has carried out sound design work for short films and theatre. She has had articles published in The Soundtrack, The Velvet Light Trap and Alphaville, and is the coordinator of the NECS Sound and Music in Media Work Group and an associate editor of The New Soundtrack. She currently teaches sound theory, film studies and sound studies at Glasgow School of Art, and will shortly be taking up the post of Lecturer in Media, Film and Television at Edge Hill University.



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At the turn of the millennium, some commentators hailed the advent of new digital video and computer technology as precipitating a ‘digital revolution’ in movie-making. However, this has been discussed and theorised primarily in terms of the image, with no consideration of sound. Adopting a sound-centric perspective, this thesis examines key feature-length works of digital movie-making over a ten-year timespan that share aesthetic and production characteristics, most of which have been critically positioned as a low-budget, digitally-enabled response to a perceived mainstream or precedent. Writing in 2002, Lev Manovich identified these works as a reaction to “the increasing reliance on special effects in Hollywood” (Manovich 2002: 213), and used the term DV realism to position the aesthetics of this cycle of features in opposition to the aesthetics of films heavily reliant upon digital special effects. I argue that the lack of consideration of sound and its earlier digital turn in the 1980s and early 1990s leads to over-emphasis of the ontological shift in image-making from celluloid to digital. Furthermore, the use of digital video to shoot features does not necessarily determine the aesthetics of sound in low-budget DV movies; in spite of this, the feature-length works analysed in this thesis share a stylistic approach to sound that I define as DV realist sound, after Manovich. Attention to the soundtrack demonstrates that DV realist sound design uses the material qualities of location-recorded sound as a means of ‘authenticating’ the images accompanied, as well as sonic characteristics that intertextually reference other media.