Doctoral studies

Mart Sander’s doctoral thesis experiments with manipulating audience through cinematic universe

Mart Sander, who defended his doctoral thesis at the Baltic Film, Media and Arts Institute of Tallinn University, studied the role of the score in films and how manipulating it can result in a new cinematic universe.

Mart Sander

Film is an art form whose strength lies in the ability to manipulate the viewer's perceptions. Even the Soviet dictator Lenin suggested that the art of cinema, when masterfully handled, can manipulate the masses more powerfully than any other symbiosis of art forms. Cinema has been a powerful weapon under various ideologies and regimes, serving as a brainwashing tool without the viewer even realising they are being manipulated

Watching a film is not an isolated experience – it is a symbiosis of our expectations and experiences. The art of cinema has accompanied us since we were born, and as a result, we understand that the laws of film differ from those of reality. When we enter a cinema, we embrace the rules of the film world and they don’t surprise us. On the contrary, if an element unique to the art of cinema were missing from a film, we would feel uneasy.

Music has always been a part of films. During the silent film era, the score was performed by live musicians, but with the introduction of sound films, it became an integral part of the film as a soundtrack. The film score, or accompanying music, became more powerfully embedded in the viewer's subconscious as the means of expression in visual language evolved.

However, film score is not present in “real life”. Our feelings and thoughts are not accompanied by a soundtrack. A kiss between two lovers seldom happens to romantic violin passages, evil plans are not accompanied by low pulsating sounds, nor do loud dissonant chords play when we get startled. What is both possible and necessary in film, would be fantastical in real life.

For this reason, we tend to think of film score as something that illustrates and comments on the visuals appearing on screen. The most common explanation is that film score supports and reinforces the film's narrative (image and text). It subconsciously confirms to us that we are on the right track, that our understanding of events is correct and that everything is fine in the cinematic universe.
But what if this devoted companion of the pictures began to rebel against its standing and decided to intervene in the storytelling? To what extent could a film's aural elements, heard through its soundtrack, compete with its visual elements? How could it manipulate the viewer's interpretation of the film as more than a one-time experiment?

Film score has been studied for less than half a century. Today, the score of a film, its characteristics, placement in the cinematic universe and multiple uses have been meticulously categorised. Even so, I was able to identify a gap in which my research could fit, resulting in a comprehensive overview of the principles of using film score across various film genres, as well as the history of film score.

In my doctoral thesis, I combined two specialities in which I have empirical experience: music and filmmaking, to which I have added the perspective of a scientific researcher of arts. For the experimental part of my research, I created an innovative cinematic universe in which the rules are purposefully skewed and the visual and aural elements are off-balance. This creative component of this research consisted of four short films, each depicting a different cinematic universe governed by “exotic laws of nature”. From the perspective of the researcher, creating these films necessitated extensive analysis, from the conception of the idea to the production process, audience reception and self-analysis. As a result of this creative project-based doctoral research, I believe that through both the theoretical and creative components, I was able to challenge several notions about the rigidly illustrative nature of film score and, if only slightly, enrich the ever-evolving art of cinema.

Mart Sander defended his doctoral thesis “Soundtrack of life: diegetic score as a synoptical metanarrative” on 17 June. The thesis was supervised by Teet Teinemaa, guest lecturer at Tallinn University, and Liina Keevallik, PhD. The opponents were Benjamin Winters, UK Open University senior lecturer, and Michael Pigott, docent from University of Warwick.