© by Randy Thom
The biggest myth about composing
and sound designing is that they are about creating great sounds.
Not true, or at least not true enough.
What is Sound Design?
You may assume that itís about fabricating
neat sound effects. But that doesnít describe very accurately
what Ben Burtt and Walter Murch, who invented the term, did on
"Star Wars" and "Apocalypse Now" respectively. On those
films they found themselves working with Directors who were not
just looking for powerful sound effects to attach to a structure
that was already in place. By experimenting with sound,
playing with sound (and not just sound effects, but music and
dialog as well) all through production and post production what
Francis Coppola, Walter Murch, George Lucas, and Ben Burtt found
is that sound began to shape the picture sometimes as much as
the picture shaped the sound. The result was very different
from anything we had heard before. The films are legends,
and their soundtracks changed forever the way we think about film
What passes for "great sound"
in films today is too often merely loud sound. High fidelity
recordings of gunshots and explosions, and well fabricated alien
creature vocalizations do not constitute great sound design.
A well-orchestrated and recorded piece of musical score has minimal
value if it hasnít been integrated into the film as a whole. Giving
the actors plenty of things to say in every scene isnít necessarily
doing them, their characters, or the movie a favor. Sound,
musical and otherwise, has value when it is part of a continuum,
when it changes over time, has dynamics, and resonates with other
sound and with other sensory experiences.
What I propose is that the
way for a filmmaker to take advantage of sound is not simply to
make it possible to record good sound on the set, or simply to
hire a talented sound designer/composer to fabricate sounds, but
rather to design the film with sound in mind, to allow soundís
contributions to influence creative decisions in the other crafts.
Films as different from "Star Wars" as "Citizen Kane," "Raging
Bull," "Eraserhead," "The Elephant Man," "Never Cry Wolf" and
"Once Upon A Time In The West" were thoroughly "sound designed,"
though no sound designer was credited on most of them.
Does every film want, or
need, to be like Star Wars or Apocalypse Now? Absolutely not.
But lots of films could benefit from those models. Sidney Lumet
said recently in an interview that he had been amazed at what
Francis Coppola and Walter Murch had been able to accomplish in
the mix of "Apocalypse Now." Well, what was great about that mix
began long before anybody got near a dubbing stage. In fact,
it began with the script, and with Coppolaís inclination to give
the characters in "Apocalypse" the opportunity to listen to the
world around them.
Many directors who like to
think they appreciate sound still have a pretty narrow idea of
the potential for sound in storytelling. The generally accepted
view is that itís useful to have "good" sound in order to
enhance the visuals and root the images in a kind of temporal
reality. But that isnít collaboration, itís slavery. And
the product it yields is bound to be less complex and interesting
than it would be if sound could somehow be set free to be an active
player in the process. Only when each craft influences every
other craft does the movie begin to take on a life of itís own.
A Thing Almost Alive
It is a common myth that the
time for film makers to think seriously about sound is at the
end of the film making process, when the structure of the movie
is already in place. After all, how is the composer to know
what kind of music to write unless he/she can examine at least
a rough assembly of the final product? For some films this
approach is adequate. Rarely, it works amazingly well.
But doesnít it seem odd that in this supposedly collaborative
medium, music and sound effects rarely have the opportunity to
exert any influence on the non-sound crafts? How is the
Director supposed to know how to make the film without having
a plan for using music?
A dramatic film which really
works is, in some senses, almost alive, a complex web of elements
which are interconnected, almost like living tissues, and which
despite their complexity work together to present a more-or-less
coherent set of behaviors. It doesnít make any sense to
set up a process in which the role of one craft, sound, is simply
to react, to follow, to be pre-empted from giving feedback to
the system it is a part of.
The Basic Terrain, As It Is Now
Many feature film directors
tend to oscillate between two wildly different states of consciousness
about sound in their movies. On one hand, they tend to ignore
any serious consideration of sound (including music) throughout
the planning, shooting, and early editing. Then they suddenly
get a temporary dose of religion when they realize that there
are holes in the story, weak scenes, and bad edits to disguise.
Now they develop enormous and short-lived faith in the power and
value of sound to make their movie watchable. Unfortunately
itís usually way too late, and after some vain attempts to stop
a hemorrhage with a bandaid, the Directorís head drops, and sound
cynicism rules again until late in the next projectís post production.
What follows is a list
of some of the bleak realities faced by those of us who work in
film sound, and some suggestions for improving the situation.
If a script has lots of references
in it to specific sounds, we might be tempted to jump to the conclusion
that it is a sound-friendly script. But this isnít necessarily
the case. The degree to which sound is eventually able to
participate in storytelling will be more determined by the use
of time, space, and point of view in the story than by how often
the script mentions actual sounds. Most of the great sound
sequences in films are "pov" sequences. The photography,
the blocking of actors, the production design, art direction,
editing, and dialogue have been set up such that we, the audience,
are experiencing the action more or less through the point of
view of one, or more, of the characters in the sequence.
Since what we see and hear is being filtered through their consciousness,
what they hear can give us lots of information about who they
are and what they are feeling. Figuring out how to use pov,
as well as how to use acoustic space and the element of time,
should begin with the writer. Some writers naturally think
in these terms, most donít. And it is almost never taught
in film writing courses.
Serious consideration of
the way sound will be used in the story is typically left up to
the director. Unfortunately, most directors have only the
vaguest notions of how to use sound because they havenít been
taught it either. In virtually all film schools sound is
taught as if it were simply a tedious and mystifying series of
technical operations, a necessary evil on the way to doing the
On the set, virtually every
aspect of the sound crewís work is dominated by the needs of the
camera crew. The locations for shooting have been chosen
by the Director, DP, and Production Designer long before anyone
concerned with sound has been hired. The sets are typically built
with little or no concern for, or even awareness of, the implications
for sound. The lights buzz, the generator truck is parked
way too close. The floor or ground could easily be padded to dull
the sound of footsteps when feet arenít in the shot, but there
isnít enough time. The shots are usually composed, blocked, and
lit with very little effort toward helping either the location
sound crew or the post production crew take advantage of the range
of dramatic potential inherent in the situation. In nearly
all cases, visual criteria determine which shots will be printed
and used. Any moment not containing something visually fascinating
is quickly trimmed away.
There is rarely any discussion,
for example, of what should be heard rather than seen. If
several of our characters are talking in a bar, maybe one of them
should be over in a dark corner. We hear his voice, but
we donít see him. He punctuates the few things he says with
the sound of a bottle he rolls back and forth on the table in
front of him. Finally he puts a note in the bottle and rolls it
across the floor of the dark bar. It comes to a stop at
the feet of the characters we see. This approach could be played
for comedy, drama, or some of both as it might have been in "Once
Upon A Time In The West." Either way, sound is making
a contribution. The use of sound will strongly influence
the way the scene is set up. Starving the eye will inevitably
bring the ear, and therefore the imagination, more into play.
Finally, in post, sound cautiously
creeps out of the closet and attempts meekly to assert itself,
usually in the form of a composer and a supervising sound editor.
The composer is given four or five weeks to produce seventy to
ninety minutes of great music. The supervising sound editor
is given ten to fifteen weeks toósmooth out the production dialogóspot,
record, and edit ADRóand try to wedge a few specific sound effects
into sequences that were never designed to use them, being careful
to cover every possible option the Director might want because
there "isnít any time" for the Director to make choices before
the mix. Meanwhile, the film is being continuously re-edited.
The Editor and Director, desperately grasping for some way to
improve what they have, are meticulously making adjustments,
mostly consisting of a few frames, which result in the music,
sound effects, and dialog editing departments having to spend
a high percentage of the precious time they have left trying to
fix all the holes caused by new picture changes.
The dismal environment surrounding
the recording of ADR is in some ways symbolic of the secondary
role of sound. Everyone acknowledges that production dialog
is almost always superior in performance quality to ADR. Most
directors and actors despise the process of doing ADR. Everyone
goes into ADR sessions assuming that the product will be inferior
to what was recorded on the set, except that it will be intelligible,
whereas the set recording (in most cases where ADR is needed)
was covered with noise and/or is distorted.
This lousy attitude about
the possibility of getting anything wonderful out of an ADR session
turns, of course, into a self fulfilling prophecy. Essentially
no effort is typically put into giving the ADR recording
experience the level of excitement, energy, and exploration that
characterized the film set when the cameras were rolling.
The result is that ADR performances almost always lack the "life"
of the original. Theyíre more-or-less in sync, and theyíre
intelligible. Why not record ADR on location, in real-world places
which will inspire the actors and provide realistic acoustics?
That would be taking ADR seriously. like so many other sound-centered
activities in movies, ADR is treated as basically a technical
operation, to be gotten past as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Taking Sound Seriously
If your reaction to all this
is "So, what do you expect, isnít it a visual medium?" there
may be nothing I can say to change your mind. My opinion
is that film is definitely not a "visual medium."
I think if you look closely at and listen to a dozen or
so of the movies you consider to be great, you will realize how
important a role sound plays in many if not most of them.
It is even a little misleading to say "a role sound plays"
because in fact when a scene is really clicking, the visual and
aural elements are working together so well that it is nearly
impossible to distinguish them. The suggestions Iím about
to make obviously do not apply to all films. There will never
be a "formula" for making great movies or great movie sound.
Be that as it may........
Writing For Sound
Telling a film story, like
telling any kind of story, is about creating connections between
characters, places, objects, experiences, and ideas. You
try to invent a world which is complex and many layered,
like the real world. But unlike most of real life (which
tends to be badly written and edited), in a good film a
set of themes emerge which embody a clearly identifiable
line or arc, which is the story.
It seems to me that one element
of writing for movies stands above all others in terms of
making the eventual movie as "cinematic" as possible:
establishing point of view. The audience experiences
the action through its identification with characters. The
writing needs to lay the ground work for setting up pov
before the actors, cameras, microphones, and editors come
into play. Each of these can obviously enhance the element
of pov, but the script should contain the blueprint.
Letís say we are writing
a story about a guy who, as a boy, loved visiting his father at
the steel mill where he worked. The boy grows up and
seems to be pretty happy with his life as a lawyer, far
from the mill. But he has troubling, ambiguous nightmares
that eventually lead him to go back to the town where he
lived as a boy in an attempt to find the source of the bad dreams.
The description above doesnít
say anything specific about the possible use of sound in
this story, but I have chosen basic story elements which hold
vast potential for sound. First, it will be natural to tell the
story more-or-less through the pov of our central character.
But thatís not all. A steel mill gives us a huge palette
for sound. Most importantly, it is a place which we can
manipulate to produce a set of sounds which range from banal
to exciting to frightening to weird to comforting to ugly to
beautiful. The place can therefore become a character, and have
its own voice, with a range of "emotions" and "moods."
And the sounds of the mill can resonate with a wide variety
of elements elsewhere in the story. None of this good stuff
is likely to happen unless we write, shoot, and edit the
story in a way that allows it to happen.
The element of dream in the
story swings a door wide open to sound as a collaborator.
In a dream sequence we as film makers have even more latitude
than usual to modulate sound to serve our story, and to
make connections between the sounds in the dream and the
sounds in the world for which the dream is supplying clues. Likewise,
the "time border" between the "little boy" period and the
"grown-up" period offers us lots of opportunities to compare and
contrast the two worlds, and his perception of them. Over
a transition from one period to the other, one or more sounds
can go through a metamorphosis. Maybe as our guy daydreams
about his childhood, the rhythmic clank of a metal shear in the
mill changes into the click clack of the railroad car taking him
back to his home town. Any sound, in itself, only has so
much intrinsic appeal or value. On the other hand, when
a sound changes over time in response to elements in the larger
story, its power and richness grow exponentially.
Opening The Door For Sound, Efficient
Sadly, it is common for a
director to come to me with a sequence composed of unambiguous,
unmysterious, and uninteresting shots of a location like a steel
mill, and then to tell me that this place has to be made
sinister and fascinating with sound effects. As icing on
the cake, the sequence typically has wall-to-wall dialog which
will make it next to impossible to hear any of the sounds I desperately
throw at the canvas.
In recent years there has
been a trend, which may be in insidious influence of bad
television, toward non-stop dialog in films The wise
old maxim that itís better to say it with action than words
seems to have lost some ground. Quentin Tarantino has made
some excellent films which depend heavily on dialog, but heís
incorporated scenes which use dialog sparsely as well.
There is a phenomenon in
movie making that my friends and I sometimes call the "100% theory."
Each department-head on a film, unless otherwise instructed, tends
to assume that it is 100% his or her job to make the movie work.
The result is often a logjam of uncoordinated visual and aural
product, each craft competing for attention, and often adding
up to little more than noise unless the director and editor do
their jobs extremely well.
Dialogue is one of the areas
where this inclination toward density is at its worst. On top
of production dialog, the trend is to add as much ADR as can be
wedged into a scene. Eventually, all the space not occupied
by actual words is filled with grunts, groans, and breathing (supposedly
in an effort to "keep the character alive"). Finally the
track is saved (sometimes) from being a self parody only by the
fact that there is so much other sound happening simultaneously
that at least some of the added dialog is masked. If your
intention is to pack your film with wall-to-wall clever dialog,
maybe you should consider doing a play
Characters need to have the opportunity
When a character looks at
an object, we the audience are looking at it, more-or-less through
his eyes. The way he reacts to seeing the object (or doesnít
react) can give us vital information about who he is and how he
fits into this situation. The same is true for hearing.
If there are no moments in which our character is allowed to hear
the world around him, then the audience is deprived of one important
dimension of HIS life.
Picture and Sound as Collaborators
Sound effects can make a scene
scary and interesting as hell, but they usually need a little
help from the visual end of things. For example, we may
want to have a strange-sounding machine running off-camera during
a scene in order to add tension and atmosphere. If
there is at least a brief, fairly close shot of some machine which
could be making the sound, it will help me immensely to establish
the sound. Over that shot we can feature the sound, placing
it firmly in the minds of the audience. Then we never have
to see it again, but every time the audience hears it, they will
know what it is (even if it is played very low under dialogue),
and they will make all the appropriate associations, including
a sense of the geography of the place.
The contrast between a sound
heard at a distance, and that same sound heard close-up can be
a very powerful element. If our guy and an old friend are
walking toward the mill, and they hear, from several blocks away,
the sounds of the machines filling the neighborhood, there will
be a powerful contrast when they arrive at the mill gate. As a
former production sound mixer, if a director had ever told me
that a scene was to be shot a few blocks away from the mill set
in order to establish how powerfully the sounds of the mill hit
the surrounding neighborhood, I probably would have gone straight
into a coma after kissing his feet. Directors essentially
never base their decisions about where to shoot a scene on the
need for sound to make a story contribution. Why not?
Art Direction and Sound as Collaborators
Letís say weíre writing a
character for a movie weíre making. This guy is out of money,
angry, desperate. We need, obviously, to design the place
where he lives. Maybe itís a run-down apartment in the middle
of a big city. The way that place looks will tell us (the
audience) enormous amounts about who the character is and how
he is feeling. And if we take sound into account when we
do the visual design then we have the potential for hearing through
his ears this terrible place he inhabits. Maybe water and
sewage pipes are visible on the ceiling and walls. If we
establish one of those pipes in a close-up it will do wonders
for the sound designerís ability to create the sounds of stuff
running through and vibrating all the pipes. Without seeing
the pipes we can still put "pipe sounds" into the track, but it
will be much more difficult to communicate to the audience what
those sounds are. One close-up of a pipe, accompanied by
grotesque sewage pipe sounds, is all we need to clearly tell the
audience how sonically ugly this place is. After that, we only
need to hear those sounds and audience will make the connection
to the pipes without even having to show them.
Itís wonderful when a movie
gives you the sense that you really know the places in it.
That each place is alive, has character and moods. A great
actor will find ways to use the place in which he finds himself
in order to reveal more about the person he plays. We need
to hear the sounds that place makes in order to know it.
We need to hear the actorís voice reverberating there. And
when he is quiet we need to hear the way that place will be without
Starving The Eye, The Usefulness
Viewers/listeners are pulled
into a story mainly because they are led to believe that there
are interesting questions to be answered, and that they, the audience,
may possess certain insights useful in solving the puzzle.
If this is true, then it follows that a crucial element of storytelling
is knowing what not to make immediately clear, and then devising
techniques that use the camera and microphone to seduce the audience
with just enough information to tease them into getting involved.
It is as if our job is to hang interesting little question marks
in the air surrounding each scene, or to place pieces of cake
on the ground that seem to lead somewhere, though not in a straight
Sound may be the most powerful
tool in the filmmakerís arsenal in terms of its ability
to seduce. Thatís because "sound," as the great sound editor
Alan Splet once said, "is a heart thing." We, the
audience, interpret sound with our emotions, not our intellect.
Letís assume we as film makers
want to take sound seriously, and that the first issues have already
1) The desire exists to tell
the story more-or-less through the point of view
of one or more of the characters.
2) Locations have been
chosen, and sets designed which donít rule out sound as
a player, and in fact, encourage it.
3) There is not non-stop
Here are some ways to tease
the eye, and thereby invite the ear to the party:
The Beauty of Long Lenses and
There is something odd about
looking through a very long lens or a very short lens. We
see things in a way we donít ordinarily see them.
The inference is often that we are looking through someone elseís
eyes. In the opening sequence of "The Conversation" we see
people in San Franciscoís Union Square through a telephoto
lens. The lack of depth of field and other characteristics
of that kind of lens puts us into a very subjective space.
As a result, we can easily justify hearing sounds which may have
very little to do with what we see in the frame, and more to do
with the way the person ostensibly looking through that lens FEELS.
The way we use such a shot will determine whether that inference
is made obvious to the audience, or kept subliminal.
Dutch Angles and Moving Cameras
The shot may be from floor
level or ceiling level. The frame may be rotated a few degrees
off vertical. The camera may be on a track, hand held, or
just panning. In any of these cases the effect will be to
put the audience in unfamiliar space. The shot will no longer
simply be "depicting" the scene. The shot becomes part of
the scene. The element of unfamiliar space suddenly swings
the door wide-open to sound.
Darkness Around the Edge
Of the Frame
In many of the great film
noir classics the frame was carefully composed with areas of darkness.
Though we in the audience may not consciously consider what inhabits
those dark splotches, they nevertheless get the point across that
the truth, lurking somewhere just outside the frame is too complex
to let itself be photographed easily. Donít forget that
the ears are the guardians of sleep. They tell us what we
need to know about the darkness, and will gladly supply some clues
about whatís going on.
Extreme Close-ups and Long Shots
Very close shots of peopleís
hands, their clothing, etc. will tend to make us feel as though
we are experiencing things through the point of view of either
the person being photographed or the person whose view of them
we are sharing. Extreme long shots are wonderful for sound
because they provide an opportunity to hear the fullness or emptiness
of a vast landscape. Carroll Ballards films The Black Stallion
and Never Cry Wolf use wide shots and extreme close-ups wonderfully
Raging Bull and Taxi
Driver contain some obvious, and some very subtle uses of
slow motion. Some of it is barely perceptible. But
it always seems to put us into a dream-space, and tell us that
something odd, and not very wholesome, is happening.
Black and White Images
Many still photographers feel
that black and white images have several artistic advantages over
color. Among them, that black and white shots are often
less "busy" than color images, and therefore lend themselves more
to presenting a coherent feeling. We are surrounded in our
everyday lives by color and color images. A black and white image
now is clearly "understood" (felt) to be someoneís point of view,
not an "objective" presentation of events. In movies, like
still photography, painting, fiction, and poetry, the artist tends
to be most concerned with communicating feelings rather than "information."
Black and white images have the potential to convey a maximum
of feeling without the "clutter" of color.
Whenever we as an audience
are put into a visual "space" in which we are encouraged to "feel"
rather than "think," what comes into our ears can inform those
feelings and magnify them.
What Do All Of These Visual Approaches
Have In Common?
They all are ways of withholding
information. They muddy the waters a little. When
done well, the result will be the following implication: Gee folks,
if we could be more explicit about what is going on here we sure
would, but it is so damned mysterious that even we, the storytellers,
donít fully understand how amazing it is. Maybe you
can help us take it a little farther." That message is the
bait. Dangle it in front of an audience and they wonít be
able to resist going for it. in the process of going for it they
bring their imaginations and experiences with them, making your
story suddenly become their story. success.
We, the film makers,
are all sitting around a table in pre-production, brainstorming
about how to manufacture the most delectable bait possible, and
how to make it seem like it isnít bait at all. (Arenít the
most interesting stories always told by guys who have to be begged
to tell them?) We know that we want to sometimes use the
camera to withhold information, to tease, or to put it more bluntly:
to seduce. The most compelling method of seduction is inevitably
going to involve sound as well.
Ideally, the unconscious
dialog in the minds of the audience should be something like:
"What Iím seeing isnít giving me enough information. What
Iím hearing is ambiguous, too. But the combination of the
two seems to be pointing in the direction of a vaguely familiar
container into which I can pour my experience and make something
I never before quite imagined." Isnít it obvious that the microphone
plays just as important a role in setting up this performance
as does the camera?
Editing Picture With Sound
One of the many things a film
editor does is to get rid of moments in the film in which "nothing"
is happening. A desirable objective most of the time, but not
always. The editor and director need to be able to figure
out when it will be useful to linger on a shot after the dialog
is finished, or before it begins. To stay around after the obvious
"action" is past, so that we can listen. Of course it helps
quite a bit if the scene has been shot with these useful pauses
in mind. Into these little pauses sound can creep on itís
stealthy little toes, or its clanking jackboots, to tell us something
about where we have been or where we are going.
Walter Murch, film
editor and sound designer, uses lots of unconventional techniques.
One of them is to spend a certain period of his picture editing
time not listening to the sound at all. He watches and edits
the visual images without hearing the sync sound which was recorded
as those images were photographed. This approach can ironically
be a great boon to the use of sound in the movie. If the
editor can imagine the sound (musical or otherwise) which might
eventually accompany a scene, rather than listen to the rough,
dis-continuous, often annoying sync track, then the cutting will
be more likely to leave room for those beats in which sound other
than dialog will eventually make its contribution.
Music, dialogue, and sound
effects can each do any of the following jobs, and many more:
a mood, evoke a feeling
a geographical locale
a historical period
otherwise unconnected ideas, characters, places,
images, or moments
realism or diminish it
ambiguity or diminish it
attention to a detail, or away from it
changes in time
otherwise abrupt changes between shots or scenes
a transition for dramatic effect
an acoustic space
action or mediate it
At any given moment in a film, sound
is likely to be doing several of these things at once.
But sound, if itís any good,
also has a life of its own, beyond these utilitarian functions.
And its ability to be good and useful to the story, and powerful,
beautiful and alive will be determined by the state of the ocean
in which it swims, the film. Try as you may to paste sound
onto a predetermined structure, the result will almost always
fall short of your hopes. But if you encourage the sounds
of the characters, the things, and the places in your film to
inform your decisions in all the other film crafts, then your
movie may just grow to have a voice beyond anything you might
So, what does a sound designer
It was the dream of Walter
Murch and others in the wildly creative early days of American
Zoetrope that sound would be taken as seriously as image.
They thought that at least some films could use the guidance of
someone well-schooled in the art of sound in storytelling to not
only create sounds but also to coordinate the use of sound in
the film. This someone, they thought, would brainstorm with
the director and writer in pre-production to integrate sound into
the story on the page. During shooting that person would
make sure that the recording and playing-back of sound on the
set was given the important status it deserves, and not treated
as a low-priority, which is always the temptation in the heat
of trying to make the daily quota of shots. In post production
that person would continue the fabrication and collection of sounds
begun in pre-production, and would work with other sound professionals
(composers, editors, mixers), and the Director and Editor to give
the filmís soundtrack a coherent and well coordinated feeling.
This dream has been
a difficult one to realize, and in fact has made little headway
since the early 1970s. The term sound designer has come
to be associated simply with using specialized equipment to make
"special" sound effects. On "THX-1138" and "The Conversation"
Walter Murch was the Sound Designer in the fullest sense of the
word. The fact hat he was also a Picture Editor on "The
Conversation" and "Apocalypse Now" put him in a position to shape
those films in ways that allowed them to use sound in an
organic and powerful way. No other sound designers on major
American films have had that kind of opportunity.
So, the dream of giving
sound equal status to image is deferred. Someday the Industry
may appreciate and foster the model established by Murch.
Until then, whether you cut the dialog, write the script, record
music, perform foley, edit the film, direct the film or do any
one of a hundred other jobs, anybody who shapes sound, edits sound,
or even considers sound when making a creative decision in another
craft is, at least in a limited sense, designing sound for the
movie, and designing the movie for sound.
© Randy Thom 1999
to earlier version