by Randy Thom
A Movie For Sound
Let's say the director walks up to you,
the production sound mixer, and says
that he/she wants to brainstorm with you about ways to develop a
story idea using sound. What would your
reaction be? Obviously you would
faint and have to be revived with smelling salts, but I'm talking
about after that, when you're fully conscious
The cinematographer, production designer,
and editor have analogous conversations
with the director all the time. The composer sometimes
has similar discussions, but usually way too
late for the music to function
as anything better than a nicely applied decoration to a fait
|What I propose is that the way for
a filmmaker to take advantage of sound
is not so much to hire a Sound Designer to fabricate sounds, but
rather to design the film with sound in mind.
A good first step is to try to become
more aware of the ways sound can function
in a movie. Most directors who like to think they appreciate
sound still have a pretty narrow idea of the
potential for sound in storytelling.
They basically think that it's useful to have "good"
sound in order to enhance the visuals.
But that isn't collaboration, folks!
It's essentially 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 it's
It is a commonly accepted 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 doesn't it
seem odd that in this supposedly collaborative
medium, music and sound effects
rarely have the opportunity to exert any influence on the
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 doesn't 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.
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, 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 it's usually way too late, and
after some vain attempts to stop a hemorrhage
with a bandaid, the director's
head drops, and sound cynicism rules again until late in the
next project's post production.
Basic Terrain, As It Is Now
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
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 isn't 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 tell us an
enormous amount about who they are and what
they are feeling. Figuring out
how to use pov, as well as how to use acoustic space and time,
should begin with the writer. Some writers
naturally think in these terms,
most don't. And it typicallhy isn't 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 haven't
been taught it either. In virtually all film schools sound is
taught as if were simply a boring and tedious
series of technical operations,
a necessary evil on the way to actually doing the good stuff.
Why not include composers and sound designers
in pre-production discussions
about ways to approach storytelling?
On the set, virtually every aspect of the
sound crew's 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 aren't in the shot, but there isn't 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 don't 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. Unfortunately, sound isn't given this sort of
chance very often.
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 to --
smooth out the production dialog--spot,
record, and edit ADR--and try to wedge a few specific sound
effects into sequences that were never designed to use them.
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.
If your reaction to this is "So, what do you
expect, isn't 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 closely look 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. Film makers dream of creating those
The suggestions I'm about to make obviously
do not apply to all films. There
will never be a "formula" for making great movies or great movie
So, paying more attention to sound, what
does that mean? Like everything
else in film, it begins with the writer.
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. Nearly all of the great sound
sequences in movies have a strong element
of pov. 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
Let's 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
The description above doesn't 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 exploitation.
First, it will be natural to
tell the story more-or-less through the pov of our central
character. But that's 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, 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.
The imaginative use of time, space, and
point of view, along with efficient
and sparse dialog in a screenplay will tend to determine the
degree to which sound can be a collaborator.
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
The Door For Sound, Efficient Dialog
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 it's better to say it with
action than words seems to have
been forgotten. Quentin Tarantino has made some excellent films
which depend heavily on dialog, but he's incorporated
scenes which use dialog sparsely
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 usually 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 instead
of a film.
Characters need to have the opportunity
to listen. Each character in a movie,
especially each of the principal characters, is like a filter
through which the audience experiences the
events of the story. 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 doesn't 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 dimension of HIS life.
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
for Sound, Camera
and Microphone as Collaborators Instead of Master
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
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.
Let's say we're writing a character for a
movie we're making. This guy is
out of money, angry, desperate. We need, among other things, to
design the place where he lives. Maybe
it's 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
where he lives, which will tell us even more about him. Maybe
water and sewage pipes are visible on the
ceiling and walls. If we see the
pipes it will do wonders for the sound designer's ability to create
the sounds of stuff running through and vibrating
those 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 grotesque 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.
Direction and Sound as Collaborators
We need to design sets which have the visual
elements to suggest the sounds
we want in our palette.
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 tiny 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 line.
The Eye, The Usefulness Of Ambiguity
assume we as film makers want to take sound seriously, and that
the first issues have already been addressed:
desire exists to tell the story more-or-less through the point
of one or more of the characters.
been chosen, and sets designed which don't rule
as a player, and in fact, encourage it.
||There is not
are some ways to tease the eye, and thereby invite the ear to the
The Beauty of Long
Lenses and Short Lenses
There is something odd about looking through
a very long lens or a very short
lens. We see things in a way we don't ordinarily see them.
The inference is often that we
are looking through someone else's eyes. The way
we use the shot will determine whether that inference is made
obvious to the audience, or kept subliminal.
Dutch Angles and
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, 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. Don't 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 what's going on.
Raging Bull and Taxi Driver
contain wonderful uses of slow motion. Some
of it is very subtle. But it always seems to put us into a
dream-space, and tell us that something odd,
and not very wholesome, is happening.
Do All Of These Visual Approaches Have In Common?
The conscious use of visual ambiguity
is what they 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,
don't 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 won't 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.
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 isn't bait at all. (Aren't
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
What I'm seeing
isn't giving me enough information.
What I'm 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
it obvious that the microphone plays just as important a role in
setting up this performance as does the camera?
© Randy Thom
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