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Sound Decision: The Da Vinci Code

Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code has courted controversy since its first inception. Most of the fuss is a response to the work’s themes and thesis – it is based on speculations about the life of Jesus Christ and Brown’s suggestion that there are secrets held by various sects within the Catholic Church which would rock contemporary Christian belief. However, since it was classified last month there has also been some discussion in the national press about whether the BBFC asked for the soundtrack to be cut. Here we explain all.

Date 25/06/2006

The answer is one related to semantics. The BBFC did suggest that the work would not necessarily receive a 12A if it maintained some strong sound effects, but it did not ask for any cuts to the film’s score or incidental music, as suggested by some reports.

Occasionally the BBFC is asked to look at a film before all the effects and credits are finalised in order to give the distributor some idea of what classification the film is likely to receive (these are termed as Advice Screenings).  This can be particularly useful in cases where companies are looking for a particular classification but where there are some elements that they feel might push the film into a higher category.

In the case of The Da Vinci Code, the BBFC was asked to look at an unfinished version of the film some two months before its intended release.  The distributor was keen to obtain a 12A certificate for what was expected to be a popular film, based on a phenomenally successful novel, but was concerned that some of the violence might be too strong for that classification.  At 12A the BBFC does permit moderate violence, provided that it doesn't dwell on detail, such as injuries or blood. 

Following an initial viewing by BBFC examiners, it was thought that certain scenes in the film carried quite a strong impact that might just nudge the film into 15 territory.  However, when the scenes in question were looked at very carefully, it was obvious that little detail was in fact seen on screen.  For example, many of the blows occurred below frame or the moments of impact were not explicitly seen. What was creating the impression of strong violence was in fact the loud and realistic sound effects, including sounds of bones breaking, rather than anything that was actually being shown.  The sound intensified the action and made the violence seem far stronger than what you could actually see.

Therefore, instead of asking for visual cuts to be made (because, visually, there was nothing to be removed), the Board suggested that if the sounds of the more violent moments were reduced the film would be more likely to receive a 12A classification. 

In particular, we asked for a scene in which a man is kicked, (below screen, so no impacts are seen), to be quietened down and for a scene in which two men's necks are broken, (the angle from which the scene is shot does not make the neck breaks particularly explicit), to be reduced.  Once the reductions to the sound levels had been made, the scenes seemed to carry less of an impact and, in the case of the neck breaking scene, it was no longer even obvious that necks were being broken now that the 'cracking' noises had been removed.  With these changes made, the BBFC agreed that the scenes were acceptable within the context of the narrative, now that they no longer dwelt on the detailed sounds of violence being inflicted. 

It is unusual for the BBFC to make changes that only alter the sounds of a film as any sounds we ask to be removed normally accompany violent action.  However, The Da Vinci Code provides a rare example of a case where reducing the sounds of violence can reduce the impact of a scene, maintaining its excitement and tension but reducing the emphasis on the infliction of injuries.

Another film in which the sound editing was discussed at advice was Christopher Nolan’s 2005 prequel Batman Begins. The film was first viewed for advice when the sound mix was incomplete. The distributor was advised that in order to avoid a higher rating than 12A "care should be taken with the final sound mix so as not to play up the sound of blows and to avoid more bone crunching sound effects" in a number of scenes in order to achieve the desired 12A certificate.

Because examiners did not advise the distributors to reduce any of the sound effects, as the sound mix was incomplete at the time of the viewing, this film was passed 12A with no cuts made.

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