The brackets frame the sound. The brackets appear in subtitles to online videos. You select the subtitle option because you have no knowledge of Japanese or of Persian or of Polish, or because the actors’ British accents are simply too thick for your American ears, even in contemporary police dramas devoid of period linguistic idiosyncrasies, or because you’re keeping the volume down so as not to antagonize the neighbors.
Bracketed sounds can be diegetic or non-diegetic. That is to say, they can be on-screen sounds, like the squeak of a car’s break, or they can be apart from the scene’s physical activity, like the score’s musical theme associated with the entrance of a threatening anti-hero. Either way, bracketed sounds are not dialogue. Dialogue appears unadorned by brackets. Dialogue appears simply as text on the screen, occasionally preceded by a character’s name and a colon to provide narrative guidance. The only dialogue that gets bracketed is dialogue that serves a purely non-verbal purpose, dialogue that cannot be comprehended, dialogue that isn’t dialogue but is, instead, emotive sound: [mumbling], [whispers], [unintelligible sobbing].
Brackets tell you what the director is saying, not what the characters are saying. Brackets, however, are not decoder rings. They only go so far as to what they divulge. The brackets don’t explain the British class system to you. There’s no reference for an American viewer when the cut-glass enunciation is meant to signify a specific upbringing, or when regional utterances, from Cornwall to Glasgow, easily set the British viewer’s imagination while leaving unknown voids for those of us who haven’t lived in the culturally prolific island kingdom, or in one of its more longstanding colonies.
So much happens in a given moment of video, even a “silent” one, which is to say: a moment free of human speech but still intruded upon by sound. Only so much can be detailed between brackets. What’s left out is worth taking note of.
These two screenshots, by way of example, are from different episodes from the TV show Travelers, a solid time-travel series newly streaming on Netflix and created by Brad Wright. (If you are a fan of time travel stories, as I am, Travelers is at least as recommended as Continuum, with which it shares actors if not a timeline, and 12 Monkeys.) In both shots birds are, we’re told, chirping. It may or may not be meaningful that both shots focus on the same character, named Trevor, who, at the risk of giving too much plot away, is something of an old soul. Both shots are at the start of a new scene. In the first, Trevor is riding his bicycle home. In the second he is teaching meditation to its mostly unlikely novitiate, his mean-girl girlfriend. In the first, what’s missing from the bracket is the score’s drone, the sense of dread infused into the scene with just a few threatening sine waves. Perhaps the meditation scene, which appears later in the series, intends to reference the earlier one by presenting the birds free of their droning encumbrance. The hearing-impaired viewer will never know the difference, and the everyday viewer is left to wonder.
There is, true, only so much room on the bottom of the screen. More than a line of text is inelegant, and reading time might surpass a given sound’s appearance if the text’s overseer is inattentive to the chores at hand. Still, editorial decision-making only goes so far as an excuse for contextual excision.
What both sets of chirping birds have in common is that they are almost certainly sonic elements added from a library of recordings to flesh out the given scene during post-production. In other words, one might surmise, the bracketed sounds in a film or TV show aren’t what are “in” the scene so much as what was added to the scene.
This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 31, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.