Most of us who make commercials believe that the visuals are the most important part.

This is because the visuals are the most obvious part.

Which, of course, is why visuals are what wins awards.

Which, in turn, is why we care more about visuals.

And so on.

We act as if sound was merely there to decorate the pictures.

But actually, when we do this we’re only operating in one dimension.

This happens because the sound is the part we don’t notice.

But in the real world (the world outside awards juries) it often it has a bigger effect than the part that we do notice.

When my children were small they’d sometimes watch scary movies on TV.

Sometimes they’d get really frightened.

Because I didn’t want them to get nightmares, I’d just turn the sound off.

Then let them watch for a while with no sound.

So they could see what was scaring them was their imagination.

Which is where sound works.

You now what, horror movies aren’t nearly so scary without sound.

Kubrick was one of the few directors that understood sound.

That’s why he’d use it as a counter-point for the visual.

Not just to decorate it, but to amplify it.

Take Clockwork Orange.

The part where the thugs kick a tramp to death in the underpass.

Not just to the grunts and thumps you’d expect.

Or even a violent heavy-metal track.

But instead, they kick him to death to the lyrical melody ‘Singing In The Rain’.

Because it’s the opposite of the visual it makes it so much more powerful.

Like the marines at the end of Full Metal Jacket.

Marching away from death and destruction and a ruined city.

But not to the Rolling Stones singing, “Paint it Black”, as you’d expect.

They’re all marching off singing The Mickey Mouse Club Theme Tune.

Trained killers joining together in an innocent children’s song.

That was Eisenstein’s theory of film.


Sound can change what we’re looking at.

The BBC showed the same footage twice, of the burning oil wells of Kuwait after the first Gulf war.

First they showed the footage with Chris Rea’s “Road To Hell”.

Then they showed it with Mozart’s Requiem.

Totally different experience.

One track made the visuals graphic and exciting.

The other track made them a sad, timeless comment on mankind.

When I was at college in New York, there were two public broadcast channels.

One on radio (WBAI), the other on TV (Channel 13).

They were both viewer/listener sponsored, so there were no commercials.

Consequently they could be more experimental.

One time I remember they showed a two-hour film by an experimental animator called Fred Mogubgub.

They played one soundtrack on the TV against the picture, and a totally different soundtrack on the radio.

Then every 10 minutes they’d remind you to switch from one to the other, to see how it changed the pictures you were watching.

It was a great lesson in how sound can dictate vision.

How our imagination can dictate what we see.

Over here, Channel 5 did a similar thing a few year’s back with London Live 94.9 FM.

They showed a football game between (I think) Spurs and Liverpool.

Channel 5 broadcast the serious commentary to go with the game.

London Live 94.9 FM broadcast a commentary from two Australian comedians, watching the game live on a TV in the car park outside the stadium.

The commentary on the radio added way more to the game than the TV commentary, which was just decoration for the visuals.

They only did it the once but, if I could, I’d watch every game that way.

“How stupid does that goalie feel missing a sitter like that?”

“Yeah, and look at that haircut, what a wally.”

“Hey mate, your whole family’s watching and you just blew it.”

It actually made watching it on TV a better experience than going to the game.

Finally, to prove how important sound is, find someone who’s not in advertising.

Ask them what they remember about Hovis advertising.

I bet it won’t be Ridley Scott’s fantastic camera work they talk about.

I bet they start to whistle or hum a snatch of Dvorjak’s New World Symphony, played by a colliery brass band.

And that ran 30 years ago.

It’s not the visuals that the public take off the screen, and get passed into the language.

It’s the sound.

Sound was viral long before YouTube.