Every Movie Cough Project and the Covid-19 Pandemic

Homo narrans. Fundamentally, humans are storytellers. From ancient times, elders have passed on lessons and morals to the younger generation using stories. Stories become legends, priming the imagination of humans wherever they have lived and thrived. How could this have led to something like Every Movie Cough?

In movie-making, humankind achieves the pinnacle of storytelling. There is no faster way to arouse emotions and channel beliefs around a topic than to present them in movie form.

Homo pestis. The pandemic is one of the events that will shape the way we interact with one another.

This project seeks to fuse the essence of storytelling with social changes arising from the pandemic.

Really? Every Single Movie Cough?!

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to experience all the coughs (and sneezes) that end up in movies straight away? Well, two guys spent the pandemic doing just that, and the results are remarkable. They chronicled every cinematic cough they could find. And have categorized every single one. Painstakingly. And exhaustively.

The initial idea to create a quick soundboard project with a few movie coughs expanded dramatically into something else entirely. It turned into a full-blown archive that characterizes every single expulsion contained in a movie.

The authors, two fantastic multidisciplinary artists, Jason Eppink and Mike Lacher, have collected every instance of coughing or sneezing they could find in movies. They have since unleashed their collection into this pandemic-ridden, cough-uneasy world of the early 2020s packaged in a website format.

Jason and Mike named this website with the slightly silly but increasingly serious title “Every Movie Cough” (EMC for short in this article). This website meets you with a pretty fun and insightful paragraph on its background:

“Since the beginning of motion pictures, filmmakers have trained their cameras at whooping, wheezing, sneezing, sniffling, hacking humans. Some of these expulsions are pivotal to the narrative. Many are purely incidental. But today, they all take on a new significance as vectors for disease. That’s why we believe now is the moment to examine them together in isolation, to see how their depictions vary across history and genre, and to understand how they’re shaped by the lens of the present.”

Every Movie Cough is made possible with visionary support from the Museum of the Moving Image. The EMC website’s archive data has a comprehensive scope that goes back to the early days of cinema, as far as 1894.

Why Would You Ever Do This?

Why would two guys spend the pandemic chronicling every cinematic cough?

Two major factors led to the birth of the idea for the “Every Movie Cough” compilation.

Firstly, after March 2019, the way we used screens changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Jason noticed how the proximity between characters uncannily stood out to him. He then thought, “In this time when we are all more focused on coughs than ever, could we look back at how coughs have been represented in media?”.

And secondly, there was a simultaneous feeling of powerlessness and a sense of urgency to take back control of what we were watching on the screen.

Every Movie Cough – The Game

If you would like to play a game with an incredibly uncomfortable amount of coughs (and sneezes) for these pandemic times, the creators of the EMC website have got you covered:

Every Movie Cough - The Game

This game challenges you by playing a random cough audio-only and then leaving you to guess from a group of four thumbnails of cough videos. One of them corresponds to the sound and is the correct choice. The game proceeds through six rounds and shows the final score at the end.

An Interview With the Creators

We were fortunate enough to get Jason and Mike’s time for an interview.

Interviewees: Jason Eppink (JE) and Mike Lacher (ML)

Interviewer: Rogério Marques (RM)

The Why

RM: How did the idea to make this art project come about? Or, as some would put it: Why Would You Ever Do This?

JE and ML: When the pandemic came to the US, we became acutely aware of the coughs and sneezes we saw while watching movies at home (what else were we going to do?) and wanted to study them in a playful way. The original idea was to make an online soundboard of famous coughs and sneezes from movies. Kind of like how, back when the internet was more fun, you could prank call your friend with Arnold Schwarzenegger quotes.

At first, this project felt like a silly, trivial goal. But, still, the more you spend time sitting with these things, the more you start to think: “Maybe this is interesting how these things are represented.” or “What does the way we represent and think about cough really mean, and how does it affect how we think about wellness and everything beyond that?”. So that is where the idea came from, and we were trying to find as many coughs as possible.

An exciting part of the project is shining a light on this very forgotten, overlooked action of coughing. Coughing in film parallels what has happened to the world in the past year and a half. This action that we all do and rarely noticed has become something that captures our attention so much.

The How

RM: At what stage did you decide to use the web medium?

JE and ML: It was a natural fit from the start. We wanted it to be an archive that could be easily accessible to anyone.

RM: Have you used any algorithms to help you detect coughs/sneezes in films to help expand the collection?

JE and ML: We tried to automate with an AI process at first, but we found it very hard. Given the wide range of coughs in movies would be beyond our meager AI skills to reliably do it.

But we found success in an excellent website: OpenSubtitles. A lot of our collection is the result of processing subtitle files from that website. We sift through massive amounts of subtitle files (somewhere roughly in the 40 to 50 thousand) for words like “cough,” “ahem,” and “achoo.”

RM: Have you thought about checking the movie scripts? I believe there was some conversation about that, and then you turned to the subtitles because they are much more faithful to what happens in a movie.

JE and ML: Yes, it is hard to use movie scripts. There is 1) the challenge of trying to find a proper shooting script. For example, you can find a screenplay for Pulp Fiction. Still, it is usually about ten revisions behind what was actually shot. So it is hard to find the truly canonical one. And 2) most coughs and sneezes are improvisational or added in ADR (automated dialogue replacement) after filming. However, we would love to have access to shooting scripts. With them, we could analyze plot importance. For example, suppose the coughs and sneezes were in the script. In that case, they are almost always important to the story versus something added more for atmospheric quality.

The Impact

RM: What was it like experiencing so many coughs building EMC?

JE and ML: It was definitely, especially at first. We started a few months into the pandemic. Everything was still so new and strange. It was very odd to be sifting through, looking at scripts and seeing clip after clip after clip, and adjusting timecodes and all of that.

We experienced so many movie coughs that we became desensitized. Then once we began to show it to other people, it was interesting to see people coming fresh to it having that same reaction.

RM: What kind of reactions did you aim to get?

JE and ML: We wanted to call attention to this often-overlooked element of movies. We imagined the reactions would be mainly along the lines of “why would you ever do this?”

When we launched, we talked with Maggie Hennefeld, a professor of cinema studies. She commented how this fits into cinema history and how society treated movies during the 1918 flu pandemic.

For example, movie theaters claimed to recirculate air, portraying themselves as safe places during the pandemic. Thus, entirely at odds with our perception of movie theaters during the pandemic of our days.

The contrast between now and then highlights the change in how we consume this media: we tend to watch alone and less in a room full of people.

We also shifted how we experience coughs: they feel different face to face with a character on your laptop versus on a big screen.

RM: What kind of reactions did you get from viewers?

JE and ML: It’s been interesting to see how many people have visceral reactions when confronted with this many expulsions. They describe being grossed out, stressed out, or otherwise physically affected by the collection.

We found that 59% of coughs occur in R-rated movies. In contrast, only 4% of coughs occur in G-rated movies!

The Discovery – Part 1

RM: Have you found any surprising patterns by doing this compilation?

JE and ML: Since we have categorized every cough in our repository by year, director, genre, rating, some interesting data analysis has been possible.

We have thus found that sneezes are way more prevalent in lower-rated, like G-rated movies, PG-rated movies tend to have more sneezes. But, in contrast, R-rated movies tend to have more coughs. So one preliminary finding is that 59% of coughs occur in R-rated movies. Still, only 4% of coughs occur in G-rated movies! We were surprised that so many coughs are part of an action sequence or a horror sequence. For example, you rarely notice where people are coughing up dust or being hit or coughing up blood. So that’s interesting: sneezes are much more family-focused, whereas the coughs seem much more adult-oriented.

You also see a lot more coughs in more dramatic movies that seem like actors make choices to add in coughs in the middle of their acting sequence. In contrast, the sneezes tend to be more of a scripted moment played for comedic effect.

One thing we’ve been trying to do is if we can find patterns for how these expulsions serve the plot. We recently tried to look in the runtime of the movie where coughs happen. It is a pretty scattered distribution. You can see coughs rising in number towards the end of the movie. Our hypothesis is related to climatic action sequences – there is going to be more coughing. But I think knowing more of what prompts a cough: is it coming from illness? Is it coming from impact? Is it coming from drowning? I think that’s all fascinating stuff that would require more analysis of the dialogue and context around it. Whereas right now, our data is limited to just the moment of expulsion.

Sneezes are much more family-focused, whereas the coughs seem much more adult-oriented.

The Discovery – Part 2

RM: What could be behind the choices an actor makes to represent cough?

ML: It’s interesting how coughs can be invisible in a movie when they’re a seamless part of the performance. In many movies, coughing is just seamless. For example, in Paris, Texas, Harry Dean Stanton walks up to a door, looks somewhere, and lightly coughs. It just feels like a very natural choice, and you don’t notice it.

By contrast, in Moulin Rouge, coughs are incredibly spotlit, almost deliberately clumsy foreshadowing moments.

RM: Did you have an assumption that turned out untrue?

JE and ML: We thought the number of sneezes and coughs would be much more even. It turns out 93% of expulsions are coughs, and only 7% are sneezes!

We assumed most coughs would be clunky dramatic foreshadowing for a character’s illness. However, many coughs are improvisational and integrated into action/horror sequences.

Let’s Play Favorites in Every Movie Cough

RM: Do you have a favorite cough?

JE: I like one from the Borat sequel because [SPOILER ALERT] it was the first time I’d seen coughing related to Covid-19 on screen.

ML: I’m really partial to this clip of Chris Evans holding himself coughing from Avengers: Endgame because it’s just so utterly stupid.

JE and ML: There is a clip also worthy of mention: one of the oldest expulsions we have is Fred Ott’s Sneeze from 1894. It is one of the first motion pictures ever, and, interestingly, a sneeze was the topic for it. Even without the context of a pandemic, there is still something visceral and odd about watching people cough and sneeze, which has only intensified in these times.

The Future of Every Movie Cough

RM: Are you planning future developments for EMC? Can you go into that?

JE and ML: Now that our collection is pretty big, we’ve been doing some data analysis. Essentially, we are trying to understand more what kinds of movies tend to have coughs and sneezes and what might motivate them.

RM: Have you considered including new features? For example, a counter displaying how many coughs the visitor has been exposed to while browsing Every Movie Cough?

JE and ML: An Exposure Count is a fun idea! We’re open to any ideas about how to share our amazing collection of coughs and sneezes with the world.

What Does Cough Represent in Movies?

A movie’s production team generally makes characters cough for two main reasons: 1) The foreshadowing cough and 2) The background cough.

The Foreshadowing Cough

This cough occurs so frequently that it is considered a cultural trope. A character starts coughing discreetly and then progressively coughs more aggressively until the character dies some scenes later.

Cough is frequently used as a narrative device to signal that a character is ill, will only get progressively worse, and then will die. However, the cinematic use of cough surprisingly contrasts with the frequent use of cough by the human body to rid it of some irritating substance.

Three notable examples of the foreshadowing cough:

Alien (1979) – John Hurt’s character Kane starts coughing and in pain shortly before the growing alien lodged in his cavity kills him by ripping through his rib cage.

Moulin Rouge (2001) – Nicole Kidman’s character Satine coughs several times during the story, denoting deteriorating health due to a tuberculosis infection, which leads to her death.

Contagion (2011) – Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Beth Emhoff gets exposed to a deadly virus that causes a global disease outbreak. Her cough after being exposed to the virus visibly foreshadows her death.

The Background Cough

Less important coughs are employed to reinforce a context of illness or decay to the viewer.

A few examples of background cough

Tristan and Isolde (2006) – People are coughing in a scene showing a village battered and burnt by an invasion. The cough could be due to illness, the irritation caused by the smoke, or both.

Lethal Weapon (1987) – A cough plausibly related to smoking is audible in an aerial view of a road.

1917 (2019) – Coughing is often heard in the background, likely to represent the effects of the pandemic virus raging the world at that time.

How do Actors Cough?

When they need to portray cough, actors first try to figure out the qualities of the cough that are more appropriate for the scene. Several decisions can influence the resulting cough:

  • Is it a slight cough – clearing of the throat or an out-of-control cough?
  • Just one cough or multiple coughs?
  • Does the cough include wheezing?
  • Would it be a superficial cough, or are the lungs more involved?
  • How productive is it? Is it a dry cough, or is some phlegm involved?
  • How is the posture during coughing? Is the character straight, or is it associated with bending over forward?
  • Is the cough from something irritating the airways – irritated cough, or is it from swallowing something the wrong way? – Choking cough
  • Does the character cough overtly, or is the character trying to hide the cough?

And then usually actors imagine the physiological sensation of feeling a tickle in the back of their throat, and the cough comes naturally.

Every Movie Cough Lessons Regarding the Covid-19 Pandemic

Although the repeated use of cough as a harbinger of death in movies could be a factor of anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic, maybe we should be thankful for this trope.

“Every Movie Cough” has a “play all” mode. It generates an experience that nowadays might make a website visitor feel uncomfortable. This visceral effect is likely due to our collective trauma of suspecting any cough is related to Covid-19.

Dry cough is the second most common symptom for Covid-19 and is also one of the primary ways the virus moves from one person to another. Decades worth associating coughing with imminent death might have trained us to fear exposure to coughing for a good reason.

Author: Rogério M. – Linkedin

Rogério is a Biochemist with experience collaborating with healthcare professionals, artists, and software developers to deliver the best possible science communication content.

References

  1. Museum of the Moving Image – Visit – Calendar – Pandemic Affect: Every Movie Cough Launch Event. Accessed August 11, 2021. weblink
  2. Weaving S. Friday essay: coughs on film and the fine but deadly art of foreshadowing. The Conversation. Accessed August 11, 2021. weblink
  3. Medlife Crisis. Doctor Reacts To CONTAGION (2011) – Did It Predict Coronavirus? Accessed August 11, 2021. weblink
  4. Epstein A. Movies have trained us to be suspicious of every cough. Quartz. Accessed August 11, 2021. weblink
  5. Every Movie Cough. Accessed August 11, 2021. weblink
  6. Augmented Actor. How to Act a Cough – Choose Your Own Adventure Acting Class. Accessed August 11, 2021. weblink
  7. Alimohamadi Y, Sepandi M, Taghdir M, Hosamirudsari H. Determine the most common clinical symptoms in COVID-19 patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Prev Med Hyg. 2020;61(3):E304-E312. doi

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