Pick a character in your script. What can we invent for her to hear that will tell us something about her? How might her perception of that sound, or memory of that sound change from early in the story to late in the story? What can that change tell us about who she has become? Can we do anything visually that will help channel the story through her ears?
I am a film sound designer and sound mixer. The term sound design is not very well defined, and still somewhat controversial. Unfortunately, most people even inside the film community think that the only thing sound designers do is manufacture sound effects for science fiction and other fantasy films. This is the narrowest possible definition of sound design work, and it reinforces another lamentable stereotype about sound, which is that the process of doing sound work for film is mainly an engineering job rather than an artistic job. Though we in sound use technology, and who doesn’t these days, most of our time is spent making artistic decisions. Before I play a prospective sequence of sounds for a director I’ve typically made and implemented a couple of hundred artistic decisions about those sounds.
Sound design as a term is controversial for the same reasons that “production design” was controversial seventy years ago. For his work on Gone With The Wind, William Cameron Menzies became the first person to receive a production design credit instead of an art direction credit. Many of his fellow art directors thought he was trying to make himself seem more important than he was by taking this new credit in 1939, trying to self aggrandize. The same thing has often been said about people who call themselves sound designers. It took at least forty years for the controversy about the “production design” credit to cool down. The sound design title has been around for about that long, and I’m happy to say it doesn’t raise as many eyebrows as it once did in the Hollywood film sound community.
I want to offer to you a broader, more comprehensive and inclusive notion of sound design. The central point I want to make to you contradicts all of the conventional wisdom about the way sound works as a storytelling tool in film. The approach I’m about to propose has never been taught in any film school or school of sound design. But like so many theories that once seemed radical, and are eventually taken for granted, I think the evidence to support this theory of film sound design has been sitting in plain view for a very long time. Further, the theory and the workflow it implies are not limited to film sound, but more or less equally applicable to all the storytelling crafts.
The central assumption of this approach is the uncontroversial idea that a film’s script, the film’s initial storytelling plan, shapes the film. Ask anyone inside or outside the filmmaking community whether the script shapes the film, and they will of course say yes. What is radical about the theory I propose is the subtly pervasive degree to which the script shapes the film in my view, and the implications that has for workflow within and among all the crafts.
Film characters inhabit a visual world and a sonic world. Those whose job it is to design the visual parts of that world have plenty of opportunities to provide feedback to the director and colleagues in other crafts while it is still possible for their input to affect creative decisions in the other crafts. The sound designers have few if any such opportunities. Considerations relating to sound are almost always deferred until late in post-production because it is assumed that only decisions that relate to the visual aspects of the film are crucial early on, and that sound will follow the visual like a loyal soldier. The result of this delay integrating sound design into the storytelling is that the options in sound become narrower and narrower, fewer and fewer over the course of production as decisions are made and implemented in the other crafts until, by the time it is supposedly “time for sound,” sound finds itself in a creative straight jacket, and can often play little more than a remedial or cosmetic role.
The controversial, some might say revolutionary, others might say crazy idea I want to express to you, and substantiate with some examples, is that sound design should not be and cannot be something that only happens in post-production. The doors to successful sound design need to be opened in the script, and kept open through actual collaboration between sound and the other crafts all the way from pre-production to the end of post-production.
Sound design is powerful as a storytelling tool in part because it can be stealthy. Sound sneaks into the side door of one’s consciousness, and goes straight to the heart. Stealth is an asset, but also a liability for sound. For millions of years our ears have been the guardians of sleep, alerting relatively weak creatures like us at night to possible danger. Our brains have become expert at interpreting sound in emotional terms. At the same time we find it difficult to be analytical about sound. We often don’t notice the effect it has on us. The result is that sound tends to get little respect, despite our long history of relying on it.
Hollywood has misunderstood and underestimated the importance of sound in films through most of its history. It has ignored the power of sound design to enrich characters and story. Even when it pays lip service to the importance of sound, it fails to take practical steps to make sure sound is a full collaborator.
Yet there have been wonderful exceptions to this theme among American filmmakers, most of them rebels unwilling to perpetuate the status quo in any area of film storytelling. Some of the films of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, William Friedkin, David Lynch, Martin Scorcese, George Lucas, Carrol Ballard, Francis Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow, Stephen Spielberg, and Jim Cameron come to mind. Each of these directors has produced one or more films that did take sound seriously enough to allow it to influence the script and the way the film was shot. Sound design was in the DNA of these movies; it was not merely a decoration quickly pasted onto the surface of the film at the end of the process. Great sound design in film cannot be applied cosmetically; it must be built into the basic structure of the movie, beginning with the screenwriter.
In screenwriting classes there is virtually no talk about the storytelling potential of sound. Most writers simply don’t think about how they can open doors to their characters’ souls by using their characters’ ears in creative ways. To the degree that writers think about sound at all, what they think about is having a direct, visceral effect on the audience with sound: the gunshot, the explosion, the space ship’s engine, the ghostly wail, the jail door clanking shut, etc. What they don’t realize is that the most powerful way for the audience to hear those sounds is through the ears of the film’s characters, and that familiar everyday sounds can have as big an emotional impact as a T-Rex roar.
Giving The Camera Ears
Great sound sequences are usually POV sequences, and that POV can either be the point of view of a character or of the camera itself. I think of the minute-long shot early in The Revenant in which the camera moves upstream just inches above water flowing over the roots of trees. We are not aware until very late in the shot that what we are seeing and hearing might be the pov of a person. The landscape of ever changing rippling water and the trunks of trees moving past in this shot evoke the deepest elements of nature itself, and the shot allows sound, invites sound, to be expressive, stylized, and naturalistic at the same time. Emmanuel Lubezki is known for this kind of cinematography. The dynamic flow of objects and surfaces is one of his signatures, especially in close-up and long shot, both of which tend to engage the imagination, including the sonic imagination, more than medium shots do. In this case the cinematographer truly did some screenwriting for sound.
We spend too much time worrying about the 5.1 channels, 7.1 channels, or a hundred channels of sound in the movie theater, but not nearly enough time discovering how to “channel” sound through the characters on its way to those speakers and to the audience. In order for sound to be “channeled” in that sense the scene and the film need to be designed with sound in mind. The structure of the scene needs to take into account the character’s ears, or perhaps the camera’s ears. The writer needs to create a pair of ears for the character, or for the camera, and give the character opportunities to use them, or fail to use them, and thereby tell us something interesting and useful about him/herself.
The director Carroll Ballard, working with the great sound designer Alan Splet, created one of the most iconic sound films ever when they made The Black Stallion. The first half of the film, beginning on a ship at sea then on a deserted island, is a tour de force not only in terms of sound design but also in terms of what cinematography, blocking, production design, and editing can do to open doors for sound design. When the boy first encounters the horse on the beach it is as sublime a mingling of the aural and the visual as I can imagine. The sound is constantly informing the visuals, and visa versa. Dynamic range in the mix is like that of a Beethoven symphony. It’s a dance of sound and picture that Ballard had an essential grasp on when he shot it. There is no way it could have turned out so well otherwise. And the magnificent locations they used in Sardinia were a natural for inspiring the evocative ambiences that the boy and the horse swim in.
Why don’t filmmakers use sound as a reason to choose a particular location for a scene to be shot? After all, specific locations have specific sounds, and the way our characters react or don’t react to those sounds will help to inform us who they are. Here is a hypothetical example I sometimes use:
Let’s say we have a story that revolves around the people who work in a steel mill. The mill is a monstrous sounding place that you can hear roaring from far away. A creative screenwriter or director might think… “Why not stage a party scene in the house of one of the people who works in this mill? Perhaps the house is more than a mile from the mill, but the glow of the furnaces at night and the brutish sounds around the clock are nonetheless quite perceptible, often even overpowering from that distance. Some of the people at the party are locals, and some are visitors from another town. The visitors are horrified at the roar of the mill, but the locals don’t even notice it anymore because they have become to used to it.” That dichotomy can produce drama, comedy, or a mix of the two, depending in which way the filmmakers want to take it. This is an example of using the ears of the characters in a powerful storytelling way. The characters’ perception of the sound of the mill will serve as an amplifier, making it even more emotionally powerful to the audience than it would have been if they had experienced the sound from that distance without “listening to it through the characters’ ears.”
Specific doors need to be opened to allow this scenario to happen. First, the location needs to be chosen or designed based on the premise that it is far from the mill. Second, the characters need an opportunity to hear the mill during the scene. If there is nonstop dialog in the scene, or if the musical score is constantly loud, that opportunity won’t occur.
It would not occur to most screenwriters to use sound in this way. So, even if they described a scene in someone’s house within earshot of the mill it’s very unlikely that they would think to write dialog to set up and take advantage of this sonic pathway into the story.
The radical idea I want to put in front of you is this: Someone who thinks creatively in terms of sound and story should be used as a resource during writing or re-writing on many films. Someone with intuition about those sonic pathways into the story is needed very early in the process. Usually it will not be the screenwriter because we are talking about a skill set most writers don’t possess. Writers need all kinds of help. Sonic help is crucial, at least for certain kinds of stories.
Thinking about sound design during production can also be enormously helpful. Let’s say we have a scene between two guys, very angry at each other, sitting on opposite sides of a table in a bar. One is tying his shoe, and has his foot resting on the edge of the table. The other guy pulls a pistol, and points it at the shoe-tying fellow, who stops tying his shoe, but his foot remains, pressing against the table edge. The scary sound we anticipate hearing in this scenario is the gun firing. A potentially more shocking sound, because it is unanticipated, might be the screech of the table legs as they scrape across the floor, pushed by the force of the increasingly nervous guy’s foot on the edge of the table. That sound could serve to relieve the tension in the scene, since it would initially scare both the guys, then possibly amuse them because in a way it takes the place of the gunshot, or it could serve as the precursor to the gunshot, making the blast even scarier when it happens.
The Storytelling Jobs of Sound
Sound design can:
indicate a geographical locale
describe the geography of a scene
help define a character
help clarify the plot
connect ideas, characters, places, images, events
heighten realism, or diminish it
heighten ambiguity, or diminish it
draw attention to, or away from, a detail
indicate a change in time or location
smooth otherwise abrupt transitions
emphasize a transition for dramatic effect
describe an acoustic space
affect mood: startle, soothe, make comedic, mysterious, scary
It’s often the case that a sound will perform several of these functions simultaneously, but doors need to be opened in the script. One of the best examples I can think of is the first film I had an opportunity to work on as an assistant.
The original script for Apocalypse Now was written by John Milius. Though it did contain many of the moments the movie is famous for, like the dialog line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” the surfing theme, and the Heart Of Darkness inspired structure, in some key ways the first drafts of the script are very different from, and I would say less powerful than the final versions of the script, which were revisions written by the film’s director, Francis Coppola. The biggest overall difference has to do with point of view. Milius’ script is a more straightforward war film. At some point Coppola decided that filtering the action through the drug and rock n roll influenced minds of certain key characters, all young American soldiers, would open the door to a more evocative, compelling and in some ways more accurate narrative of the U.S. soldier’s experience in the Vietnam war. This change also opened the door fully to Walter Murch, and allowed him and his team to use sound design as powerfully as it has ever been used in any film. The highly subjective point of view Coppola established in the script, and made concrete in the way he shot the film, rendered a playground for sound in which Murch crafted hundreds of ways to have fun.
The beginning of the movie is a useful prism through which to view the differences between the Milius approach and the Coppola approach. Here is a wonderful irony: In the Milius script the film begins with a quiet scene in a swamp, which quickly ignites into a gun battle. There are specific references to sound effects in Milius’ text, but the sounds it refers to are straight forward and somewhat banal. The Coppola script mentions no sound at all except the rock n roll song “The End” by The Doors. On the other hand, the stylized visual images Coppola describes suggest highly eccentric and powerfully evocative sounds, heard as if through the haze of a fever dream. So, and here’s the irony, the script that talks less about sound turned out to be most sound-friendly script.
The message I hope you take from this comparison is that specific references to sound effects in a script don’t necessarily mean that the script is “sound conscious.” As a sound designer, what excites me much more is a script that plays with time, space, and point of view in interesting ways. That kind of script is much more likely to be a playground for sound design, and there is no better example of that than Apocalypse Now.
Young, inexperienced and student sound designers are usually mainly curious about how sound effects are made, and they’re obsessed with technology used to manipulate them. As one gets older and more experienced the “how” question becomes less interesting, and it is replaced by “why.” Why this sound instead of that sound? Why any sound at all in a given moment? When the time comes to fabricate a sound the “how” question always arises, of course, but the “why” question continues to be the more important storytelling question. For example, the first sound we hear in Apocalypse Now, even before the music, is a helicopter. The story of how this sound was made is an interesting one, but the question of why this particular sound was used is far more interesting I think, and certainly more crucial to the story.
The helicopter sound is ghostly. Though it definitely evokes a helicopter, it doesn’t sound like an ordinary, naturalistic helicopter. Why that very eccentric sound, which doesn’t immediately tell the audience it is unambiguously a helicopter? The audience isn’t likely to ask this question to themselves as they screen the sequence for the first time, but the answer nevertheless seeps into them over the next couple of minutes of the film without ever coming into their conscious minds.
We see the Martin Sheen character, Captain Willard, is in his hotel room, drunk… hallucinating… dreaming… and apparently remembering the images saw in the opening of the film, which were introduced over a black screen by that haunting, stylized, Moog synthesized helicopter thump. It is right for the helicopter to have this odd, dreamy sound because that is the way HE hears it in his own mind, in his memory and imagination. So, what we in the audience are listening to is not so much a helicopter as it is Captain Willard’s brain remembering a helicopter. That sound is telling us more about the character perceiving it than it is telling us about the object being perceived. Voila! Sound informs character, sound design as storytelling tool.
Notes on the relationship of music and sound design:
The great sound sequences in film are almost always dominated by one category of sound at a time. The responsibility may be passed back and forth during a well- designed sequence, but in any given moment the music, sound effects, or dialog is preeminent. The most common mistake made in designing and mixing the sound for these sequences is to attempt to give equal prominence to all categories at all times.
When I’ve done the sound for scenes in which a huge monster of some kind first appears I’ve often been asked to give it the same feel as the scene from Jurassic Park where the T-Rex arrives. When I point out that there is no musical score in that Jurassic Park scene (brilliantly sound designed by Gary Rydstrom) the director often behaves as if that were a minor point, and goes on to say that of course the similar scene in his film will have musical score. I then press the issue as far as I think I can get away with, but the final scene often winds up with enough sound effects to blunt the power of the music, and more than enough music to blunt the power of the sound effects.
It often happens during the final mix of a film that a sequence will be played with dialog, sound effects, and music; and then someone will suggest playing the scene without music. Inevitably the consensus in the room will be that the scene is more entertaining with music. There are often at least a few problems with this conclusion. First, if a final decision is made to mix the scene without music then the audience in the movie theaters will never have been presented with the option of music, and will be much less likely to feel “something is missing.” Second, each element… dialog, music, and sound effects… are mixed in relation to each other. Simply dropping one of them to see what the remaining sounds feel like stacks the deck against those sounds. They need to be remixed, and perhaps re-edited, in order for it to be a valid comparison. Third, the assumption that every scene and every moment should be made as “entertaining” as possible is not only false, it is often self-defeating. The result of non-stop music and non-stop sound effects is that they make the entire movie experience less entertaining. They become like wallpaper. Every moment’s abundance of sound becomes an anesthetic that dulls the senses, and precludes the freshness of stylistic dynamics. Having music in one scene will often undercut the emotional impact of the music in the following scene, just as having non-stop, densely populated sound effects in every scene will lessen the impact of the sound effects when they are really needed.
Once again, early collaboration among the sound crafts, and between them and the visual crafts, will help to insure that the creative ammunition gets fired in a useful order rather than simultaneously.
I began working on the first How To Train Your Dragon film about three years before the film reached the movie theaters. My work was not continuous over that whole period, but in brief, usually two or three day bursts spread over pre-production, production, and post-production.
Before the animation process began the film’s producer and directors asked me to do some speculative sounds for the vocalizations of the dragons in the movie. Animators are accustomed to creating face and mouth and body images based on an audio recording of a person vocalizing. So we thought that they might be inspired similarly to create the visuals for a dragon partially based on sounds the dragon might make. “Toothless,” the hero dragon in the movie, was the first character I worked on. He was especially challenging because his “performance” needed to include a huge range of emotions, from comedic to lovable to frightening.
All of the Toothless vocalizations are recordings of real world creatures. There are elephants, whales, walruses, leopards, and humans, mainly me. The principal challenge is to use recordings that are immediately identifiable as animals (not a human pretending to be an animal), but to also provide the necessary range of emotions. As is typical, no single animal was adequate to do what we needed to do dramatically with Toothless. The next challenge is to make reasonably seamless transitions or segues between all of these diverse elements so that in the end it sounds like one creature. We do lots of pitch changing in order to make this happen, and we do a huge amount of experimenting with trying different combinations of sounds, and different sequences of sounds, until it flows the way we want it to.
You might say that this early collaboration in animation is another form of screenwriting for sound. I have no doubt that early collaboration, beginning in pre-production, is the most important improvement we can make in film sound at this time. It far outweighs any new technology that will arrive. If we can continue to find ways to talk about sound and experiment with sound earlier in each project, the films will sound better. Storytelling will improve. Movies will be deeper, more powerful, and more entertaining. Because sound really is half the experience, but only if we take the steps to make it so.