Michael Lee Simpson
WHAT IS SOUND DESIGN? AN INTRO TO SOUND DESIGN IN FILM
Without sound design, film would be a bland medium. A character would walk into a room, and you wouldn’t hear footsteps. Crickets wouldn’t chirp on a summer night. The patter of rain in a forest would cease to exist. Mood, atmosphere, and tone are vital components for compelling films, and sound complements the visual as much as the visual complements the sound. No longer considered a solely visual medium, a film’s viewing experience is not complete without the pivotal role of sound. Here’s how the aural magic happens.
What is sound design?
Sound design is every piece of audio in a film—including dialogue, sound effects, ambiance, score, and soundtrack—combined to create the film’s soundscape. Think of a horror movie; imagine watching it on mute and not hearing the ominous score, creak of the floorboards, or the main character’s panic breathing. Not the same, right?
“Sound design is one of the main reasons why any film ‘feels big,’ ” explains writer-director and sound designer Sam Medina (“The Latency,” “D.O.E.”). “Sound design makes your film come to life.”
Essential elements of sound design
Sound design is a broad medium comprising various factors that all play into the process of creating a cohesive sound. That said, there are several non-negotiable elements of great sound design:
1. Ambiance: Ambiance refers to an environment’s overall atmosphere. Background noises like a slight breeze or falling leaves provide information without overloading the audio. It’s often the most subtle sound element that sets a scene.
2. Dialogue: The actors’ words are one of the things that make a movie a movie. Sound designers record dialogue during principal photography with boom mics or lapel microphones (placed on the actors), or using automated dialogue replacement (ADR) in the postproduction stage.
3. Sound effects: Footsteps echoing on pavement, paper tearing, rockets launching, basketballs dribbling on a court—all of these are audio effects. Often serving as another layer of ambiance, audio effects can range from sounds we hear daily to UFOs blasting into space.
4. Foley sounds: Foley sound effects are recorded during postproduction on a soundstage. Foley artists watch the film’s footage and use various materials to recreate specific sounds (the sound of an actor’s hand brushing against a jacket, for example).
5. Voiceover: Written in the script as “VO,” a voiceover is the narration from a character you hear offscreen—usually a commentary of the scene or story. Morgan Freeman, the most recognized narrator in history, famously pre-records his lines in a studio. The sound designer usually leads the recording of the voiceover, which is added to the scene during the editing process. “Million Dollar Baby,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” and “March of the Penguins” are examples of heavily narrated films.
6. Music. This is where the composer and sound designer collaborate. Of course, music is also a sound; it’s a significant part of filmmaking. The composer’s score and sound designer’s massive audio compilation (ambiance, dialogue, foley sounds, and everything that makes up the film’s sound design) are pieced together to produce a harmonious track.
From preproduction to postproduction, creating and applying sound to a film is a tedious process. Varying from project to project—often depending on the budget—sound design involves these five steps.
1. Hiring the sound production crew. The on-set crew of the sound department includes the production sound mixer (head of the sound team), the boom operator (responsible for microphone positioning), and the utility sound technician (assistant to the production sound mixer and boom operator)—all active during principal photography. The postproduction crew includes the dialogue editor (focusing solely on dialogue), sound editor (involved in editing sound effects), and re-recording mixer (responsible for combining and leveling audio tracks organized by the sound editor).
2. Capturing audio during production. It is the production sound mixer’s responsibility, usually with the help of a team of boom operators and sound assistants, to record all the sound on set. This includes dialogue and room tone.
3. Assembling audio in the editing room. This is where the sound editor compiles and tweaks all of the best audio—including dialogue, ambient noise, and sound effects—into a cohesive whole to pair with the visuals. This is also the stage of the process where the team records any additional audio needs, such as ADR and foley.
4. Sound mixing. The re-recording mixer takes the sound editor’s build and adjusts the individual tracks so they fit together seamlessly. This involves balancing audio levels and frequencies, so that all of the sound is working in tandem. The background chatter at a restaurant, for example, plays beneath the dialogue instead of drowning it out.
5. Film scoring. This part of the process involves more than just the composer. The music department also consists of a music supervisor and editor. While the composer produces the score, the music supervisor oversees all phases of the scoring. The editor is in charge of compiling, mixing, and synchronizing the music.
To achieve the essential elements of sound design, you first need to master several techniques:
Mixing: Editing audio, matching levels, adding ambiance, layering effects, etc.—all to create a comprehensive sound design where each piece of audio works in tandem with the whole.
Sampling: Incorporating audio from other sources.
Recording: Using pre-recorded sounds (such as foley) in postproduction.
Modifying effects chains: Editing software offers a wide range of tools for processing original audio files. These tools—reverb, distortion, delay, compression, audio equalization (EQ), vibrato, and flanging—create various effects.
Underscoring: Laying the film’s score beneath dialogue to emphasize a scene’s intentions and tone.
“The way I sound design is by layering different electronic sounds and processing them with effects to mangle and transform them,” says composer Sid De La Cruz (“Hell on the Border,” “Songs of Little Saigon”). “Sounds can [be] a bit bland [but] once they are layered, processed, and sculpted, they take on a new life.”
Where do sound designers fit into the crew?
Sound design is a team effort and usually consists of a sound designer leading a crew of audio engineers, supervising sound editors, music editors, dialogue editors, and composers to bring the art form together.
“As a composer, working with sound designers involves a kinship between sound designer, director, and composer,” says Colin Aguiar (“Life of Pi,” “The Good Dinosaur,” “We Were Tomorrow”). The exact hierarchy depends on how hands-on the director is. “When a director involves themselves in the process, it tends to be outcome-oriented, where the sound designer and myself work toward the vision the director has in mind.”
Oftentimes, the sound designer and composer are working the closest, going back and forth to ensure the audio, dialogue, and music are working together. “The benefit of trading notes is that, as a team, we can either decide to create a moment that’s either music-dominated or SFX-dominated or even a blend of both,” says Aguiar. “On other occasions, we might give the director many options that are only decided upon during the overall sound mix. Either way, it’s highly collaborative and a lot of fun.”
Films with great sound design
“The Birds” (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock famously didn’t use a score for this 1963 horror-thriller, relying entirely on audio effects to complement the visuals. Chirping, tweeting, clawing, and flapping is the core of the suspense rather than the birds themselves. The uncertainty of their whereabouts before flying onscreen—attacking the characters after their presence looms on an auditory level—is what makes the horror classic so famous. It heightens the viewer’s anxiety about the unknown and emphasizes the power of sound in the horror genre.
“Saving Private Ryan” (1998)
Sound designers Gary Rydstrom, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson, and Ron Judkins, all of whom won an Academy Award for best sound effects editing, used more than the gunfire and explosions you’d expect from a large-scale war epic. They focused as much on the impact of bullets hitting flesh, the rounds fired, the sound of dirt raining from the sky, and a clever balance of score, silence, and audio.
Another Oscar-winning film hailed by critics and audiences for its extraordinary sound design, Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi drama unfolds like a fairytale with a sea of eerie noises. Led by Sylvain Bellemare, the sound team used the natural ambient sounds of New Zealand for the foley sound technique. After recording the activity of native birds, they tweaked the pitches and manipulated the sound into alien voices.
David Lynch’s surrealist horror film shocked viewers upon its release in 1977. Lynch wrote, directed, edited, composed, and crafted the sound design for this surrealist horror. His method to unnerve audiences beyond body horror was to create a haunting, dreamlike environment. Because “Eraserhead” was initially a student film, few resources were available for pre-recorded sounds, so the crew relied almost entirely on foley—microphones placed inside plastic bottles, blowing air, and screeching industrial sounds accompanied by an ominous soundtrack.