Every Movie Cough Project and the Covid-19 Pandemic
In movie-making, humankind has reached a 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? All the Movie Coughs?!
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.
What was an initial idea to create a quick soundboard project with a few movie coughs has expanded into a full-blown archive that aims at categorizing every single expulsion that comes out 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 more 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 and 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 are watching on the screen.
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, which one corresponds to the sound. 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)
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 were seeing 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.
RM: How far into the project did you go until you decided to use the web medium?
JE and ML: It was a natural fit from the start since 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: At first, we were trying to see if we could automate an AI process to do it, but we found it was 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 a really useful and excellent website with a great community that subtitles movies: OpenSubtitles. A lot of our collection is the result of processing subtitle files from that website. We search through tens of thousands (somewhere roughly in the 40 to 50 thousand) of subtitle files 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, but it is usually about ten revisions behind what was actually shot. So it is really hard to try to find the truly canonical one. And 2) so much of the coughs and sneezes are improvisational or added in ADR (automated dialogue replacement) after the fact. But I think there could be something interesting if we could find that body of shooting scripts. That would be a great way to analyze plot importance. Because then you could know: if the coughs and sneezes were in the script, then they are almost always important to the story versus something added more for atmospheric quality.
RM: Was it strange for you experiencing so many coughs since March of 2020, doing this project?
JE and ML: It was definitely, especially diving into it at first. It felt so strange. I think we started only 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.
Interestingly, after a while, we were exposed to this for so long that we became desensitized to it. Then once we began to show it to other people, it was interesting to see people coming fresh to it having that same reaction. So it’s a visceral feeling.
RM: What kind of impact or reactions did you expect or were aiming for from viewers?
JE and ML: We set out initially with the idea 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 this with the Museum of the Moving Image, we talked with Maggie Hennefeld, a professor of cinema studies. She shared thought-provoking ideas about how this plays, how this fits into the history of cinema. And the ideas of contagious laughter, other reactions, and even how society treated movies during the 1918 flu pandemic.
A fascinating example during the early twentieth-century pandemic: movie theaters advertised themselves as having clean, recirculated air that was a safer place to go during the pandemic. This example felt to us so very much at odds with how we’ve thought about the movie theaters over the past year and a half: “Oh, there is nothing more frivolous and dangerous you could do with your time.” The contrast between now and then speaks to the change in how we consume this media: we sit alone and watch these things versus being in a room full of people. And how we shifted our view of experiencing a cough or sneeze, which feels different when you are face to face with a person alone on your laptop versus in a room with others.
RM: How do your expectations compare to the responses that you got from the viewers?
JE and ML: It’s been interesting to see how many people have visceral reactions to being confronted with this many expulsions. They describe themselves as being grossed out, stressed out, or otherwise physically affected by the collection. Maybe we’ve just gotten desensitized to it?
One preliminary finding is that 59% of coughs occur in R-rated movies, but only 4% of coughs occur in G-rated movies!
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, whereas R-rated movies tend to have more coughs. So one preliminary finding is that 59% of coughs occur in R-rated movies, but only 4% of coughs occur in G-rated movies! And that’s a thing that we didn’t think about when we started this project: so many coughs are part of like an action sequence or part of like a horror sequence where people are coughing up dust or being hit or coughing up blood that you rarely notice. 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, whereas 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.
RM: What about the choices an actor might make to represent cough. What could be behind that? Sometimes their cough seems forced, sometimes it looks seamless. Is there something to this?
ML: I think it’s interesting how much coughs become invisible in the movie, often when it’s a seamless part of the performance. There are so many movies where coughing is just seamless. For example, there is one from Paris, Texas with Harry Dean Stanton, where he is walking up to a door, looks somewhere, and lightly coughs, and it just feels like a very natural choice until you visit a site like ours where someone razored that out for you to look at, you never really notice it. There is another world of coughs, like the Moulin Rouge example, which are incredibly spotlit, almost deliberately clumsy foreshadowing moments. That’s an exciting part of the project: 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 notice has become something we are so fixated on, and when a person does it next to you in the grocery store, it becomes so much more present and invasive than it was two years ago.
RM: Did you have any presupposition when you started that was challenged by what you learned by doing the project?
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 also thought that most coughs would be clunky dramatic foreshadowing for a character’s illness. However, it turned out that coughs are often improvisational and very often part of action/horror sequences.
RM: Do you have a favorite cough?
JE: I like this 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 out of context, it’s just so utterly stupid (I mean, I guess it’s kind of stupid in context too).
JE and ML: There is also a clip worthy of mention: one of the oldest expulsions that we have in there is Fred Ott’s Sneeze, which, being filmed in 1894, makes it one of the first motion pictures ever. Interestingly a sneeze was the topic for one of the first motion pictures ever. Even without the context of a pandemic, there is still something visceral and odd about watching people cough and sneeze, which has only become doubly, triply more so in these times.
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, 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 funny 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 Film?
A film’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 is 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 heard coughing in a scene showing a village battered and burnt by an invasion. The cough could be due to illness or due to the irritation caused by the smoke, or both.
Lethal Weapon (1987) – In an aerial view of a road, a cough that is plausibly related to smoking is clearly audible.
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. The resulting cough can be:
Is it a slight cough – clearing of the throat or an out-of-control cough?
Just one cough or multiple coughs?
Is there wheezing in it?
Is it a superficial cough, or are the lungs involved?
Is it a dry cough, or is some phlegm involved?
Is the posture during coughing 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
Is the cough overt, 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.
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 visitor to the website feel uncomfortable. This 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 of associating coughing with imminent death might have trained us to be fearful of being exposed 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.
Museum of the Moving Image – Visit – Calendar – Pandemic Affect: Every Movie Cough Launch Event. Accessed August 11, 2021. http://www.movingimage.us/visit/calendar/2020/10/19/detail/pandemic-affect-every-movie-cough-launch-event
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