February 13 2015

Telling stories with sound: an interview with Dr Mariana Lopez

It has been a busy couple of weeks at Open Creative Communications with production getting underway for the next edition of Optometric Quarterly – the podcast we produce which educates optometrists on exciting new advances in all things ocular.

Last week, we made our way to Cambridge, the home of Anglia Ruskin University – as the sign points out as you pull into the station. We were there to pay a visit to Dr Mariana Lopez, a postdoctoral researcher at the Cultures of the Digital Research Institute (CoDE), part of Anglia Ruskin University. We arrived with Dr Sue Blakeney, Clinical Advisor to the College of Optometrists, to grill Mariana on her research into what she has termed ‘audio films’.

anglia ruskin

Mariana’s background is in sound design and has she worked on an exciting project at the University of York, studying and recreating the acoustic conditions in which the York Mystery plays would have been performed. Her interest in how best to represent and create spaces with sound has led her to consider how the modern sound design technologies and techniques might be used to create a new form of entertainment for the visually impaired.

In our interview she was incredulous at the lack of creative attention paid to producing audio description, which currently accompanies, but does not perhaps enrich, cinematic experiences for the visually impaired. She asks why, given the vast advances in audio technology over the last few decades, there has been little or no attempt to improve these practices.  Harnessing the power of surround sound, Mariana has been designing immersive experiences, where spaces and narrative are communicated using sounds. Dialogue is supplemented with echoing internal monologue, sound markers, and all sorts of powerful effects; she is creating an innovative sonic vocabulary that takes its cue from the visual language of cinema.

So far she has produced a short ‘audio film’ based on the Roald Dahl story, 'Lamb to the Slaughter'. People responded well to the story, and were able to follow the plot, despite its unexpected twists. (Spoiler alert: the protagonist kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb.) The challenges came in trying to make the unusual, somehow recognizable – both in terms of identifying specific sound effects, and identifying and understanding the conventions of the new form. As she pointed out, we understand the visual conventions of cinema because we are accustomed to them. Establishing a new form requires the same process of working with audiences to forge new links in their minds.

janet leigh psycho

When Janet Leigh’s character was killed off early in Hitchcock’s Psycho, film–goers were shocked by the challenge to convention

Since speaking to us, Mariana’s research has been picked up by the mainstream media and we wish her luck with gaining funding to carry out further research on a larger scale. It seems to us that she’s highlighted an area with real potential. Traditionally sight has been privileged over other senses in Western culture, but we hope to see exciting developments that perhaps challenge this hierarchy. Mariana’s research seeks to reveal (note the etymological connection to sight in this word, in its evocation of the act of unveiling) the potential for sound to tell similarly powerful stories.






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