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Sound Semiotics

Felipe Martinez Aparicio De la hoz
MSc Sound & Music for interactive games
Leeds Metropolitan University

This paper outlines different aspects of film sound,
specially focused on sound semiotics/symbolism presented
in the movie Wall-E directed by Andrew Stanton.
Author Keywords
Symbolism, semiotics, diegetic, non-diegetic, film audio
The role which sound is to play in films is much more
significant than a slavish imitation of naturalism, for
example: to see a car and add its natural sound [1]
One of the main functions of film audio is to augment the
potential expressiveness of the film [1] In the film Wall-E,
the lack of dialogue is a constant throughout the full the
movie, this makes sound play a key part in representing and
projecting the feelings and moods that are happening in
The main characters of the film, Wall-E and Eve, do not
have human voices or do not speak in a particular language.
Thus another function that sound plays in Wall-e is to
transmit the feelings that these two characters experience
The sounds of Wall-E were created by academy award
winning sound designer: Ben Burtt, who also has worked
for films like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and E.T. The
extraterrestrial. When talking about the sounds he made for
the two main robots, Burtt acknowledges that the idea was
to create the sense of a soul with the sounds of the
characters. The aim was to create the feeling that these
(Wall-E and Eve) were talking machines [3].
In the year 2700, Wall-E is the only inhabitant of the earth.
Humans have abandoned this planet due to the
uncontrollable waste accumulation. The quiet life of this
robot, a garbage collector, is revolutionized when he meets
Eve, an efficient and modern machine sent to look for
traces of life on earth. Eve realizes that Wall-E, has
unknowingly found the solution for the future of the planet.
Since that moment, they undertake an adventure across the
galaxy to save the earth.
The shortest definition of Semiotics is the study of signs
and their role as part of social life [4] Semiotics is
concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign.
Semiotics involves the study not only of what we refer to as
signs in every day speech, but anything that stands for
something else [5]
However, semiotics is not exclusively related visuals signs,
semiotics also includes the use of words, sounds and body
language to communicate and interpret an idea. Semiotics
has been applied to film, theater, medicine, zoology and
other disciplines that involve with communication and the
transfer of information
This is a huge and complex field that has been case of study
for many years [4] In this paper, we are mainly interested in
understanding how semiotic of sounds work and how it is
applied to cinematography to support and enhance the
Semiotics of Sounds
In his book A course in general linguistic, Ferdinand de
Saussure suggests that semiotics unites not a thing and a
name, but a concept and a sound-image. He also divides the
sign into two components, the signifier (or sound-image)
and the signified (concept) [6].
Many aspects of sound are concerned by semiotics. In fact,
listening to the same sound, a number of listeners might
focus on different information that it carries [7]. For
example, listening to a voice through the telephone,
listeners might interpret different moods if they are familiar
with the speaker, this would indicate that sound
interpretation is directly linked to the listeners history.
However, from a wider and general point of view, authors
Z. Eitan and R. Granot, highlight that the way we
appreciate and associate sounds is related to certain sound
and musical parameters that we experienced in everyday
listening, like pitch, loudness and rhythm [10].

Semiotics of Sounds in cinema
The combination of visual and aural elements is essential in
film semiotics. The introduction of sound as a component
of films, forced a restructuring in the making of
cinematography [12]. Elements such as colours, movements
or sounds, help us to interpret, and accept what we are
seeing on the screen [11].
Characters sound
According to Roland Barthes, one of the aims of semiotics
is to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance
and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects and
the complex associations of all these, these constitute, if not
languages, at least systems of signification [8].
As mentioned above, this film has very little dialogue
content, and although the sounds emitted by machines and
robots are not human, they manage to convey the feelings
of the characters [2].
Here is an analysis of main characters sounds:
Wall-E: apart from the visible oxidation of his appearance
as well as his clumsy and forced movements, the sound of
this robot reveals that indeed, he is an old, heavy and
analogue machine.
For example, when Wall-E opens the center of his body to
compress scrap, this produces all kinds of crackling sounds
that only vintage or defective machines would make.
(Video example 00:01:44 )
One could also compare this to the sound that a microwave
or a toaster produce. Using the terms of Ferdinand de
Saussure, the microwave (the signifier) represents low
technology, low cost appliance (the signified).
In this scene, Wall-E shows another function that it is
capable of: playing music from its body. This music,
however, sounds muffle, with not high or low frequencies,
which are common characteristics of antique radios [18].
Later in this same scene, Wall-E encounters a damaged
robot, and decides to take the bands of its wheels, but rather
than hearing a clean and motor, these "new" wheels
generate a sound like an old, heavy and noisy truck.
Despite all these defects, Wall-E has a peculiar
characteristic, which reveals that in fact, he is a friendly and
innocent machine; this characteristic is: his voice.
Wall-Es voice is in a very high pitch; similar to the voice
of a kid or a baby. High pitch voices are commonly used in
animated films to represent good and noble character,
voices are a key aspect when representing the personality of
a character [19] for example, in the movie UP, one of the
evil dogs has a deficiency in its collar which switches its
voice from low to high, making it laughable. (Video
example 00:02:30)

Eve: One could affirm that Eves sounds are almost the
opposite of Wall-es. Her movements are fast, precise and
sophisticated. Eve is an efficient high tech robot and it
sounds are very futuristic [19].
In our society, synthesized sounds are usually associated
with the future; this is mainly because synthesizers were
widely used in early sci-fi films such as The day the earth
stood still, Forbidden planter, Star Wars to represent
futuristic inventions, including robots [20]. In this case
synthesized sounds (the signifier) are indicators of
sophistication and high technology (the signified).
Her voice could be compared to one of the most iconic
robots voice of all time: Star Wars 3-CP0. Even though 3-
CPO has a full of language proficiency, their voices have
similar tonal characteristics, which demonstrate, that Eve is
indeed, a modern robot. (3-CPO Video example 00:03:04)
(Eves voice Video Example 00:05:37)
Throughout the film, Wall-E and Eve only communicate
with each trough monosyllabic words, screams or whispers;
the use of elaborated phrases, expressions or sentences is
very limited. Despite this, both characters manage to talk
to each other and even formulate question, this is achieved,
mainly by the use of body language, but more importantly,
by the appropriate implementation of language intonation.
Intonation is a vehicle for communication, which
sometimes contributes greater meaning than the semantic
content of speech itself. This carries a highly significant
communicative value when conveying emotional states [13]
The use of what is known as linguistic Rise [!] and Fall
[!], is a key factor when asking questions. Questions end in
both rising and falling intonation. If the sentence ends in
falling intonation, the voice tone goes down at the end of
the sentence, this is usually found in questions that begin
with who, what, when (often referred to as wh-questions).
If a sentence ends in rising intonation, the voice tone goes
up at the end of the sentence, typically found in questions
that can be answered with a yes or no *often referred to
as yes/no questions) example: is he coming? Is that your
brother? [14].
In addition, wh-questions that ask for clarification or
restating end in rising intonation, examples: What did you
say? What did you say your name was? [14].
In the film, when Wall-E and Eve meet for the first time,
she asks him for his name after a series of questions that
Wall-E is unable to answer, rather than formulating a
formal question, like What is your name Eve simplifies
this by only saying the word Name, rising the intonation
in the last syllable, as shown bellow:

(Video Example 00:06:07)
In film context, the use of intonation is often apply to non-
human creatures or characters that do not talk in any
particular or elaborate complex sentences, such as
monsters, robots or aliens, for example, in the movie E.T.
The extraterrestrial, E.T. seeks for Elliotts attention by
saying his name rising the intonation in the last syllable.
(Video Example 00:03:44)
Ambient Sounds and other film audio techniques
Besides the aforementioned sound effects, there are other
sounds such as ambient moods or natural phenomena that
are also used in Wall-E to symbolize certain feelings.
In the scene (Video Example 00:04:41) Wall-E encounters
a series of hologram screens that promote an intergalactic
cruiser, these screens generate a significant amount of echo,
which show, that indeed, Wall-E is alone in the planet or at
least, living in an enormous empty place. In films, echo is a
phenomenon typically representative of emptiness, void,
solitude. For example, in the film, A Nightmare On Elm
Street 4, Sheila hears Freddys voice with a considerable
amount of echo, meaning that despite being in a classroom
full of people, she is in fact, alone with Freddy. (Video
Example 00:06: 35)
Another film audio technique that is worth highlighting in
the Hologram screens scene is the use of sound to
contribute to the films story. The holograms are telling the
audience the reasons why humans have, presumably, left
the planet earth. This technique is known as Direct
Narrative Role [16] and it is widely used in many other
films, for example
Another sound that is representative of Wall-Es solitude is
the wind. The wind is a constant throughout the film, but is
mainly heard in the scene (Video Example 00:01:15
onwards).This particular wind has certain characteristics of
a deserts wind: it is strong and it has a very high pitch. In
our society, deserts are associated with vast, empty and
uncomfortable places mainly because their unfavorable
natural conditions [17]. The deserts wind (the signifier)
represents: discomfort, void (the signified).
In fact, the wind becomes less noticeable once Eve is
introduced in the film, which, indicates that Wall-Es
loneliness is over.
One very common film audio technique that is utilized in
Wall-E is: Diegetic and non-diegetic sounds. Diegetic
sounds are sounds which source is visible on the screen, for
example, voices of characters, sounds or music made by
objects in the story. Non-diegetic sounds, on the other hand,
are sounds that do not have a visible source on screen. For
example, narrators commentary or mood music [15].
This technique can be heard in (Video Example 00:00:03)
when the intro music, which comes from an undefined
source, (non-diegetic) changes to be played by Wall-Es
integrated radio (Diegetic).
From the realization of this paper, the following
conclusions were outlined:
Wall-E is a fully animated film, which indicates, that all
sounds were implemented in the post-production process. It
is evident that before integrating any sound, there was a
defined plan and structure of how they (sounds) would
operate within the film.
Implementing sounds at the post-production level is a
common task to carry out, not just animated but all kinds of
films [21]. This is done because there are certain factors
that prevent recording the original sounds of the scenarios
where films take place; some of these factors are, for
example: equipment, crew or traffic noises, cameras
position etc.
Whether the sounds of a movie have been capture in the
original scenario or not, it is almost irrelevant; the key
factor is to chose and implements the right sounds.
Audiences will accept and believe that what they are
hearing is real as long as this is correctly implemented
Understating how sound can contribute the films narrative
is vital for any sound designer or someone interested in film
sound. Wall-E is a perfect example that shows how well
implemented sound can even replace vital elements like
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