Film Sound Design
What Makes Movies Sound So Good?
When you sit down to watch a film, you are immediately bombarded by an introduction that usually contains at least some sound in the background. Sometimes the opening scene includes dialogue, someone doing something or going somewhere, and all the sound effects associated with that activity. Many of these are post production sound elements that were added after the film was shot.
Of course, this is assuming you like to watch talkies, and not silent films. But since the last silent film produced by a major motion picture studio probably came out before the 1930’s, I’m going to assume that every movie you watch has sound in it. So the next time you see a movie, pay more attention to what you’re hearing and how it shapes your view of the scene and the overall story.
Even if you’re watching a foreign film with subtitles and you can’t understand the dialogue, there is a multi-layered soundtrack that is helping you to have a clear understanding of what’s going. The rest of the sound effects and the tone of the music set the stage for the plot and characters.
Sound is often overlooked because, well, you can’t see it. You may not realize what a great deal of time and precision have likely gone into creating and organizing the sounds within a given film, so I’m going to talk a little bit about sound design and the different layers of audio that go into every second of a movie.
This is sound in its most raw form, cinematically speaking. Direct or Production sound is the audio that’s captured at the time of filming; spoken pieces of dialogue, actual sounds from the environment, and anything else that escapes the “quiet on the set” rule. Foley is what is captured with the standard audio rig using a shotgun microphone held above the action and outside the frame.
But if film studios were to just record the production sounds and leave it at that, they’d end up with a movie that feels more like a home video or a reality TV show. Part of the magic of the movies is that sounds surround the viewer, and not the camera. In order to make your viewer feel like they are inside of the reality you’re striving to create with your film, you need to orient those sounds so that they seem as real as possible to the person in the theater chair or on their couch at home.
The sounds of a spring day; birds chirping, children playing in a nearby park, bicycle spokes ticking as cyclists ride by. A bustling city street with its car horns, sirens, footsteps on pavement. These are examples of ambient sound, which is sometimes recorded on set or on location, but it can also be added in later as post production sound.
Ambient noise is essential for selling the idea of a particular environment. If the characters in a movie are supposed to be on a space ship or in a submarine and there is no deep, constant rumble in the background it’s going to sound like they are on a hollywood film set instead of in that particular vessel. So ambience can be a very subtle, yet effective tool in your arsenal.
The element of cinematic magic begins to come to life when you talk about foley sound. Foley sounds are specific and precisely timed effects recorded in a studio during post production – after the initial filming has taken place. These post production sounds add depth and super-realism to a movie. Often objects that make unique sounds are substituted for what is actually making them on the screen: leather gloves flapping as a bird flaps its wings; a fist hitting a piece of steak as a punch lands in a henchman’s gut, a handful of uncooked spaghetti snapping as a bone breaks.
Foley doesn’t have to be recorded in time with your videos. As a matter of fact you can set up to record sound wherever you want, make a bunch of noise and then place each sound effect along the timeline of your video editing software in sync with the footage. It’s a creative way to make sure the thud of a body falling or the sloppiness of a wet kiss can be heard clearly.
With this type of sound you also gain something very powerful; suggestion. You can show an axe being raised above an unsuspecting victim’s head and then cut to a different shot as the sound of the axe falling into flesh is heard. In other words, foley sound allows you to tell your audience what is happening without actually showing it to them.
Among the various types of post production sound, music is perhaps the most effective when it comes to setting the pace and mood of a scene. A slow ballad with strings in a minor key conveys sadness and loss, while an upbeat techno hit with a pounding bass line gets the viewer’s pulse racing during an action scene.
Even in scenes where it sounds like there is music playing in the background, such as during a big party where there are lots of people talking, these are almost always post production sounds. Adding them in later offers continuity between cuts and also makes it easier for the filmmakers to record dialogue during the scene. You should use this method in your filmmaking whenever possible so that you can work with isolated sounds in your post production environment.
Production music ranges from scores composed specifically for a film to songs by popular artists used as a tune that appears on the car radio or alarm clock of a character in the movie. Your videos can take advantage of this kind of ingenuity as long as you pay attention to copyright law and make sure your source of music is being used legally.
How It All Fits Together
Blades of grass sway in the breeze as a steady rumble grows in the distance. Butterflies flit through flower beds in the sunny field. The rumbling gets louder amid the peace of the serene summertime scene. Suddenly, a hundred men on horseback appear over the rise, their screams echoing eerily across the plains as they charge into battle in slow motion. Hoofs pound the earth, kicking up dirt; the manes of the horses and the long hair of the warriors both now sway gently in the same breeze that moves the grass. The look of fear crosses over their dirt-covered faces, but they press on toward the enemy.
This is all just writing, of course, but I’m sure you can imagine or you might have seen a similar sequence take place in a movie. Sometimes silence is used in a slow motion segment to convey a suspension in time, but still the sounds of the men yelling their battle cries, the horses’ hooves hitting the ground, and even the breeze lightly moving across the fields, must be captured and put in place in order to bring the scene to life. When the film finally returns to real-time motion, an epic song of battle might begin to play in the forefront, stirring feelings of tension within your audience.
You can see how choosing the right mix of sounds can turn an ordinary scene into a great one. So don’t overlook the power of suggestion that sound offers in your videos!
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