Binaural Recording And Its Potential In Film by Cameron Caves

As new technology arises, or becomes less expensive, the ability to make new stories (or old stories in new ways) expands. First it was sound film, then color. Handheld cameras changed storytelling, as did digital recording. Every day there is new technology being created, or incorporated into films in new ways. Today I’d like to talk specifically about one type of (relatively) new technology that could be incorporated in new ways, the binaural recording system.

Binaural audio recording is a method of audio recording which uses two microphones placed inside the ears of an artificial head. The effect that this has, when listening to it through headphones, is that the brain processes the audio, and is able to place it in a more specific location. Effectively, audio recorded through a binaural system is “3-D sound.” The effect is more specific than stereo. As a demonstration of the binaural audio recording, I’ve included a link to a “virtual haircut” in the links section of this article. After listening for a few minutes, you should be able to tell why I think the potential of this technology is important. It’s massively immersive. In fact, on YouTube, there are dozens of binaural audio clips that are used for relaxation, studying, entertainment, and...other uses. And while I think that these clips are entertaining on their own, when coupled with video, I think the effect could be maximized. Also, it’s 2015. Everyone is watching films through Netflix, or on their laptop, or with headphones plugged into the Xbox controller. The majority of films are probably watched while the audience is wearing headphones. Implementing a headphone jack into theater seats wouldn’t be difficult either.

When sound film was first invented, it was used only in sections of a feature. Same with color film and 3-D. I agree that there aren’t many films wherein recording the entire feature with binaural audio would be necessary, or benefit the story. Maybe in twenty five years, when filmmakers have grown up watching films with just a few scenes in binaural, the audience, and the market, will be different, and accept binaural recording more. However, currently, there are several recurring film scenes, or tropes, which could be greatly improved by implementation of this technology. The main things that the binaural recording adds are immersion, and, as an extension of that, drama. In every slasher movie there’s a scene where the heroine is hiding from the killer in a closet, then walks out, and is scared by the killer inexplicably appearing behind her. Listening to this scene in binaural has the potential to be terrifying. In every David Fincher directed drama, there’s a scene at a table where the confused protagonist is having a conversation with several antagonists, gradually building up to the protagonist exploding, and yelling at the antagonists. Selecting just a minute of this conversation, prior to the protagonist yelling, could really ramp up the drama and make you feel like you’re literally in the room with them. Or a scene in a science fiction film where a character floats through space could be recorded with a space helmet over the binaural head mic. Or the scene in a romantic drama where the leads have sex for the first time. Selecting pieces of scenes and recording them with a binaural system could really increase the impact of said scenes, and increase the impact of the film as a whole.

However, I’m not sure if the binaural technology will be implemented into the industry anytime soon. For one thing, it’s a technology that isn’t known about by a lot of people; it’s obscure. The other reason is that the technology, as it’s used now, is relatively new, only being used since 1999. The other, main, reason, is that a binaural recording head costs around $8,000. However, I have hope that this technology will be used, and will be used well, in the years to come. And I, for one, am excited, and curious, about what sorts of stories this technology will allow us to tell.