Industrial Media 1-3

After I have read Jeffrey Ruoff’s Conventions of Sound Documentary, I have gained a general cognition of the utilisation of sound in documentary. Before, although I have indistinctly noticed the differences between documentaries and Hollywood films, but I never know the reasons caused the differences. Jeff clearly mentioned in his article; comparing to Hollywood cinema, the documentary films:

…characters lack clear motivations, speech may be inaudible in parts, lighting haphazard and variable, camera movements follow actions with difficulty, sound spaces differ radically between scenes, microphones accidentally appear in the image, jump cuts disrupt continuity, and questions remain unanswered. (Ruoff, J, 1993)

Ruoff clearly distinguished the differences in sound between Hollywood films and documentary films, which the Hollywood filmmakers intend to only record location sound compares to the lack of location-recorded sound in documentaries. Most importantly, Rick Altman pointed out, and Ruoff quoted, Hollywood is a system in which fidelity is sacrificed in favour of the more narrativelly central dimension of intelligibility.(Ruoff, J, 1993)

Nevertheless, for the rare location sounds in documentaries, the lack of clarity makes documentary sound tracks are more difficult to follow than sounds in real life. This is because most of them were not recorded under optimal conditions such as equipments in Hollywood’s studio. So only listening to the sound from an observational documentary without watching the screen could be a difficult experience.

Ruoff also went thought the techniques of conducting an interview, which only has interviewee directly talking to viewer in a documentary. By maintaining eye contact and giving visual feedback while the subject is talking. An interesting fact which brought up by Errol Morris in Ruoff’s article: Listening to what people were saying wasn’t even important…but it was important to look as if you were listening to what people were saying. (Morris, E, 1988) Morris even thinks that the former could interfere the latter.

Lastly, Ruoff mentioned the recorded music appears frequently in observational documentaries because the filmmakers will not obliged to pay copyright fee if they record the music on location, because the filmmakers can prove that they are using a musical segment as a social document. (Ruoff,J, 1993) Therefore, this became another convention in documentary.


Jeffrey Ruoff, Conventions of Sound in Documentary. Cinema Journal, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Spring 1993). 24-40.


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