(Not) Teaching The Elephant Man

Liz Greene


In semester one of 2015-2016 I taught a module on Sound Design to Multimedia postgraduate students at Dublin City University, Ireland. This was my second time teaching this module to postgraduate students. The module structure that I designed included lectures, seminars, practical workshops and tutorials with a range of topics covered—listening practices, acoustic ecology, sound walking, writing for dialogue, miking, sound editing, sound mixing, sound art, music for film, synchrony and diegesis, and silence and noise. In the second year, I set two assignments, firstly, a sound walk, which was to be completed individually, and secondly, two versions of a film soundscape, which was a group exercise. The module encompassed theory, history, and practice of film sound with practical assignments and a written critical reflection. The group assignment explicitly had a research focus, although the students were not informed of the nature of this research component until they submitted their projects. My goal here was to withhold a discussion of the research implications of their work until the submission date so as not to bias their approaches.

The research component for their group assignment stems from a question that arose from my archival research into Sound Mountain, a sound effects library that houses the sound work of the late Alan Splet and his partner Ann Kroeber. During my research I uncovered some significant information about the production process of The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980). Splet worked as the sound designer on the film, and there are notebooks of the sounds he and Kroeber created for the project. I listened to all of the digitised files for The Elephant Man in Pro Tools, a digital audio workstation (DAW), and heard the collaborative work of Splet and Kroeber with David Lynch for the film. On one file you can hear all three of them involved in the recording of a clock tower for a hospital scene.[1] This surprised me at the time, as I was not aware that Lynch had worked so closely on the soundtrack for the film. In the archive I also found an interview with Splet (on location for Blue Velvet [David Lynch, 1986]) explaining that there was an alternate soundtrack created for The Elephant Man by the English post-production crew.[2] I followed up on this finding and interviewed Kroeber and Lynch about it. Neither of them claimed to remember what this alternate soundtrack sounded like, but both confirmed it existed and referred to it as “traditional,” or, what one might expect from a period film. I was curious to know what this “traditional” soundtrack would have sounded like.

Inspired by my fascination with this mysterious alternative soundtrack, I developed an assignment that encouraged my students to explore sonic possibilities in The Elephant Man. I asked them to create two soundtracks for a particular scene from the film: a traditional “non-Lynchian” version, and also another version, an homage to a different auteur.[3] The scene shows Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) walking away from the hospital, through cobbled streets, market spaces and on to a back alley where he meets Bytes (Freddie Jones). I chose this specific scene due to the variety of potential sounds and spaces that the students could draw from. We discussed some examples of film directors with a specific style such as Wes Anderson, Jane Campion, Francis Ford Coppola, Ken Loach, Lucrecia Martel, and Martin Scorsese.

The students were required to work in groups of three or four (there were six groups in total) to produce two soundtracks that included Foley, dialogue through ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement), sound effects, and Atmos (ambient sound). The two versions could include music, but they needed to provide an original score and not use pre-existing score or source music. The students were allowed to argue or “pitch” against any of these parameters. I offered group tutorials where the students had to convince me, for generic or auteurial reasons, why they needed some of these parameters removed. This meant they needed to research carefully the choices they wanted to include. These tutorials offered flexibility within the brief. Each group promised to work in secrecy and not to share their work with other teams. I wanted the students to explore some original research into the soundtrack, asking them to try out some “traditional” and non-traditional practices in sound design. In week 12, the final week of the semester, we screened their work and critiqued it as a class group.

Most of the group tutorials were concerned with the inclusion of source music for the auteur version of the scene. The students were able to convince me of the necessity for music for each version of their films. The consequences of adding source music to the soundtrack was interesting, illustrating that the students were more readily able to determine a director’s style in terms of music than through sound design. This is understandable due to the nature of source music being more “audible” than sound design. For their auteurial homage, the groups chose Wes Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock (two groups), Quentin Tarantino, and John Woo.

In our closing discussions, I disclosed the production history of the film, showing the students the audiovisual essay I had made on the topic. We discussed how their soundscapes could operate to fill a gap in film sound history, offering a speculative alternative to the released film. We questioned whether we would have heard something similar to these six “traditional” soundtracks if David Lynch had lost final cut of his film. Although not explicitly setting out the research agenda of the assignment, the tasks I set required an engagement with film sound theory and history through practice. The quality of work produced and student engagement with the assignment went beyond my expectations. Prior to creating this assignment, in other sound design modules, I have set students the task of recreating the sound for a sequence from La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962), the opening scene of The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998) or creating sound for GoPro footage. These assignments have always generated creative projects, but this research-led project on The Elephant Man, while not explicitly teaching the film, produced in my experience the most insightful learning for the students.

The period or “traditional” versions of The Elephant Man scene were fairly similar to each other—many included the sound of horses’ hooves on cobble stones, footsteps, music, clocks, industrial machinery, trains, birds, a man whistling and dialogue. Some groups chose to use spatialisation between interior and exterior spaces, some groups did not. What is most evident from these examples is the consistency of approach in all six projects, which can be audioviewed here: Group 1, Group 2, Group 3, Group 4, Group 5, Group 6.

The auteur versions contain some similarities, particularly between the two groups that chose an homage to Hitchcock (birds featured prominently in both of these versions). Group two’s Hitchcock version provides a percussive score to the sound of the workmen digging and pounding whereas Group five’s Hitchcock version initially gives close detail to specific sounds as Treves walks through the streets and then changes tone to a musical score when he approaches the home of the elephant man. The Coppola and Anderson examples both contain voice-over, but the content and delivery of these forms of narration are so different that the similarities end with the choice to use voice-over. Group two’s Hitchcock version and the Coppola example both contain original scores. The Anderson and Tarantino versions used music as a driving force of the soundtrack, which is appropriate to both filmmakers aesthetic style, and yet the music yields such different results here. The Woo version offered a Kung Fu inspired soundtrack, which was voiced by Chinese friends of the student group and contained extensive use of sound effects.

In not teaching The Elephant Man and allowing the students to learn through a hands-on approach, accessing the film and playing with potential options within the soundscape, I had actually enabled a significant engagement with the text itself. Some groups noted in their reflective text that they had closely looked at the film without the sound turned on, determining what sounds needed to match what was seen on screen. In doing so, they potentially got close to what may have been the approach to the alternate soundtrack by the English crew for The Elephant Man. By this I mean, the students and English crew had no access to the director’s intentions and unlike Splet and Kroeber, they did not work collaboratively with the director but instead tried to read the film for what is visually represented, creating a version of what a soundtrack should sound like.

Group 1 wanted to get at what Mary Ann Doane describes as “the material heterogeneity of the medium.”[4] Their Woo version of The Elephant Man is created with an understanding of transnational sound design practices through research into Woo’s filmography and Kung Fu films in general. They did not precisely lip-synch their dialogue, instead they chose non-synchronization, offering a nuanced reading of ADR and an understanding of specific national post-production practices as well as generic conventions in the Martial Arts film.

In the post submission screenings, all groups commented on how exciting it was to have a secret project that they did not share with the rest of the cohort. When shown the audiovisual essay I made about the production processes of The Elephant Man, the students were shocked by the audacity of the English crew in creating another soundtrack for Lynch. We discussed final cut, directorial vision and production contexts in the USA and England in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were not sure why I had chosen this film until this point, but offered insights into the difference between Splet’s sound design and their own “traditional” approaches, indicating the rich soundscape that Splet offers to Lynch’s world. Their practice-based research offered variations on the soundtrack, which enriched their understanding of the text, the paratext, the process of sound design, transnational cinematic practices, generic conventions, auteurial intent and collaborative processes.

I have taught sound design to communications students, film and television students and multimedia students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels for ten years. I have often set an assignment that requires the replacement of one soundtrack with another, but what was most rewarding about this exercise was the fact that the assignment required the students to do research that was self-guided and significant in its outcome. The “traditional” soundtracks produced and the approach taken by the students, I would speculate, mirrors a process that was undertaken during the production of The Elephant Man. There are six original “traditional” versions offered here that may sound something like what was produced by the English post-production crew.



I would like to thank the following students for their enthusiastic input and generosity of spirit on the module CM555 Sound Design in 2015-2016 and for agreeing for their work to be discussed and accessed online: Darcie Bateson, Tara Dennehy, Derek Egan, Eoghan Fearon, Mary Fleming, Janina Franck, Jamie Hooper, Dónal Kennedy, Sarah MacSweeney, Ronan Martin, Brendan McElroy, Stephen McKenna, Patrick McKeon, Harry Moylan, Jane Quigley, Thomas Quinn, Paul Scannell, Sabrina Schuschke, Serena Tobin, John Valentine, and Sophie Walker.


Liz Greene is a Senior Lecturer in Filmmaking at Liverpool John Moores University. She is the co-editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Sound Design and Music in Screen Media: Integrated Soundtracks (2016). 



[1] I have written about this research on The Elephant Man in “The Labour of Breath: Performing and Designing Breath in Cinema,” Music Sound and the Moving Image 10:2 (Autumn 2016): 109-133.

[2] I had previously created an audiovisual essay on this production process, using the scene I asked the students to recreate.  This audiovisual essay was an assignment I completed whilst attending the National Endowment for the Humanities, Scholarship in Sound and Image, at Middlebury College, Vermont, USA in June 2015.

[3] I created a vimeo channel where all of the projects discussed here can be accessed.

[4] Mary Ann Doane, “The Voice in Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space,” Yale French Studies Cinema/Sound 60 (1980): 35.



The Cine-Files, issue 13 (Fall 2017)