The Gift of Room Tone

FYI

Dec 31, 2020

As an editor for Criterion, I’ve been lucky to work over the past four years on the supplemental interviews on our disc releases and the Criterion Channel. At the start of 2020, I had an idea that it might be fun to do something with all the footage of room tone I’ve accumulated. For those who aren’t familiar with film and video production, “room tone” is the ambient sound of a space typically captured at the end of a shoot. Editors think of it almost like the mortar between bricks: if I’m cutting together different takes, creating an artificial pause, or eliminating a speaker’s “ums” and “ahs,” I need to layer in that sound to make sure the final result is seamless. Room tone is something that can’t really be faked, because each space has its own ambience, and it’s very hard to re-create once you’ve left.

One of my influences for this little project was the portrait photography of Philippe Halsman, who shot over a hundred covers for Life magazine in the 1950s and ’60s. At the end of every session, he’d ask his subjects to jump so he could photograph them in midair. He believed this strategy—and his subjects’ loss of physical control in the process of jumping—revealed unique aspects of their personalities. It struck me that there was something similar about the footage I was piecing together. Capturing room tone requires our interview subjects to sit quietly for thirty to sixty seconds, and of course when you ask a bunch of people to do the exact same thing, they’ll all end up doing it differently. As you’ll see, some are very playful while others are more meditative; some close their eyes, and some look around the room or check their phones. 

Everything included in this video comes from interviews conducted for Criterion Blu-ray and DVD editions or Channel programs we put out this year, so there are some moments that were shot before the start of the pandemic and many others that were shot during it. I wanted to share this as a holiday thank-you not just to our audience but also to our very brave and professional production crew around the world, whom you’ll see at various points wearing masks as they hold color cards or microphones. Room tone is essentially the crew’s gift to an editor; by recording it, they’re making my work easier. With that in mind, I’m sending this out as my gift to them.

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