When we praise the sound design in a given film we almost always applaud the amount of “detail” when we describe its accomplishments. There seems to be a consensus that making sure nearly everything that could make a sound DOES make a sound is a good thing. This is dumb. When we admire the mere number of details in a movie’s soundscape we’re basically saying that the sound designers and editors weren’t lazy. That’s placing the bar very, very low.  By the way, the same thing seems to happen when we praise a film’s production design or costumes. The more baroque and ornate the furnishings the more likely they are to be considered first rate. What really matters is the nature of the details, not the number of them, don’t you think?  In fact, it’s often the case that choosing to make only one or two “details” audible in a sea of possible sound sources is the most powerful choice.  The often praised Omaha Beach battle sequence from Saving Private Ryan is a case in point.  What makes it sonically special is mainly how FEW sounds we hear during key moments, and their extraordinary quality.  And when I use the word “quality” I don’t mean that the sounds are necessarily super hi-fi.  I mean that they have a strongly evocative set of qualities in that context.  I’ll ramble on the notion of context in another blog.



9 thoughts

  1. great article Randy! Richard King has a great anecdote which sides directly with this- as he once said that in his track for “Master and Commander” The Director, Peter Weir, said the the details in the sounds in the sounds of the naval battles actually reduced the apparent scale of the scale of the battle- a quite interesting perspective in a time when the conventional wisdom was in providing every possible nuance to the scenes.

  2. Well, congrats for this initiative !
    I have the feeling it’s gonna be a good place to share thoughts about story-telling soundscapes (without systematically falling into musical considerations.)
    There is so much subtlety in “regular” and “simple” sound depending on the situation they’re in… And the time that have to exist and imprint on the listener’s mind.
    But it’s not always what directors ask us for…
    Too many things to say in so little time…
    Actually, even students tend to choose complex stories with too much to tell against simpler and probably better ones in terms of “sound-timing-efficiency”
    Could that be that people tend to forget that a sound relies on time to exist when a picture doesn’t ?


  3. (Might have lost comment by lingering too long away from computer. Attempting to rewrite now.)

    This is a wonderful argument for a deeper aesthetic appreciation of film sound. You wouldn’t comment on a symphonic performance by saying “the orchestra played all the notes,” or a play with “the actors remembered all the words.” We are in the early days of good critical writing about film sound, and it’s a generation or more after the evolution of film criticism itself. We have to consider the experience of film sound tracks in the context of their production, editing, mixing, and exhibition; so consequently the various crafts of making film sound invite unique and new kinds of assessment. In the early internet “newsgroup” that Randy administered, we had thoughtful comments from Charles Maynes, Vanessa Ament, Claudia Gorbman, Jay Beck, and others who write well about the art, not the tools. This forum is a necessary renaissance of that idea. Well done, Randy.

    1. Professor Stone,

      I appreciated your comparison to the actors remembering their lines and the orchestras playing all of the notes. I think inherent in the title of a “sound designer” (even though that title is a debated one) is to do just that – to design a space. To simply fill in every single sound that could be made within earshot of the production mic or within the frame is to simple color by number or equivalent to tracing over a picture. There is little to no creativity in doing so. In my opinion, and I think that Randy would agree, the job of any sound designer, and I’m specifically thinking of the mixer in this case, is to guide the listeners ear towards what is important for the emotion of the narrative. In a way we are forcing the Gestalt theory of the cocktail effect onto the listener. In doing this the mixer essentially does what our brain naturally does anyways by filtering out extraneous details so that more important details can be fully perceived and thus captured in our brains. Lastly, this allows for room to enter into the psychology of the characters on screen. By pulling away from the sounds of the environment we give the opportunity to focus on the state of mind of the character and to further impress their emotional state onto the audience, to create sympathy, and to elevate the performance of the actor.

      If a person is having an emotional breakdown on a sidewalk in NYC it would not be effective to simply hear every single footstep, every car by, every ambient dog bark, siren, or air, if we are given the opportunity narratively to instead deal with the abstract or hyper-focused sounds such as their breathing, their pulse, their flashbacks, etc. to show their state of mind.

      I enjoyed the post, Randy and Professor Stone, and thanks so much! Can’t wait to continue reading.

  4. Excellent points, Randy. This reminds me of the post sound professionals who occasionally tout having an enormous amount of tracks of sound design on a film, when most of us learn early on that people typically only hear 2 things at one time. Maybe I’m missing something, but often times using a few effective sounds are more impressive, require less management in the mix and also having 100 tracks of sound effects just sounds like poor project management and probably could be comped into a more manageable, lower track count. I guess it’s all subjective. Good article, though.

  5. This applies to far more than just film sound. Jobs was right to say that “simple can be harder than complex”, but it can be a difficult lesson to learn. The less you have, the more important every single thing becomes. Throw everything you have at the wall just because you can and you might get art, but you’ll probably just make a mess.

    Contemporary pop albums are a well-worn but still useful example. As Dylan famously noted, “they have sound all over them”. We often forgot the importance of silence, of contrast, of negative space. When telling a story, if you mention everything, how will your audience know what’s important? If all things are equally significant, nothing is, and the work becomes meaningless. The art of omission IS the art.

    Ultimately, saying the right thing at the right time will always be preferable to saying everything possible. They don’t give out Pulitzer’s for word count, and no one ever got a date reciting “the big book of pick up lines”…

  6. So I’ve been thinking about this very topic for awhile, and by my way of thinking the role of the sound designer/filmmaker is to make the kinds of choices of brain normally makes in our everyday life. We don’t pay attention to every sound in our world, we focus our attention most often subconsciously, on particular sounds. When we watch a film we hear the entire world, and the choices made by the sound team direct our attention to an action, a character, an atmosphere, an emotion – they do the filtering job our brain normally does.

  7. Some folks dream of going to Disney World, or to the Moon… I dream of working alongside Randy Thom, from beginning to completion, on one project. Think of all the priceless knowledge you would gain!

    “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” – Aristotle

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