The Creative Use of Sound Effects in Portlandia
Portlandia, in case you haven’t seen it, is a sketch comedy television show from Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen and Wild Flag’s Carrie Brownstein. The show, as the name implies, features the city of Portland, Oregon in all of its hipster-laden glory, and as the saying goes: “Keep Portland Weird.” Although Fred and Carrie occasionally play themselves on the show, they often play highly-exaggerated (yet strangely familiar) versions of Portlanders.
Portlandia’s unpredictable style is enhanced through edgy editing techniques. The short sketches sometimes even take on the form of an over-the-top advertisement (e.g. “Put a Bird On It“). The unpredictable and absurd nature of Portlandia also opens the door to creative and rather unconventional sound editing.
One editing technique used frequently in Portlandia sketches is repetition (e.g. “No You Go“). In more conventional television and film, sound designers often go to great lengths to ensure there is no discernible repetition in the sound effects and dialogue. However, in this case, the repetition matches the quirky editing perfectly, and becomes something entirely new. This “stutter editing” actually begins to take on a somewhat musical aesthetic.
The sketches of Portlandia often exhibit a musical sensibility, resulting in sound effects that take on a more metaphorical role as opposed to a literal depiction of visual cues (e.g. “Small Hatchback“). This is perhaps because of Carrie and Fred’s musical backgrounds. This is not a new concept, as historically sound effects have played a metaphorical role in comedy which dates back to the Looney Tunes era. And while Treg Brown introduced more realistic sound effects into the fantasy world of Looney Tunes for greater comedic effect, Portlandia uses more fantastic sound metaphors in a realistic setting.
When I watch Portlandia (and Looney Tunes), I am reminded of how emotionally powerful sound is. We spend our entire lives subconsciously associating certain objects and actions with sounds. As sound designers, we should use this cause-effect relationship to our advantage. This is the key to the affective nature of sound effects in Portlandia. Many times, my first instinct is to design realistic sounds, and while realism is important for the spectator in suspending a sense of disbelief, too often this realistic approach is taken without first giving thought to “outside the box” metaphorical sounds. These are the sounds with the potential to make scenes funnier, more dramatic, or hyperreal, and the use of metaphoric sound is a very effective technique in taking the spectator into the subjectivity of a character or scene.
And after all, Portlandia just wouldn’t be as quirky or off-beat without the use of the sound metaphor. For a better understanding of the sound metaphor, read this classic essay from sound designer/editor Walter Murch: http://transom.org/?p=6992