The prevailing idea about how to do sound for movies is that you paste sound design and music onto the outside of an otherwise almost finished film.  The chances of this working like a charm are not high, though occasionally it does.  The much surer approach is to make sound design and music part of the DNA of the film starting with the writing of the script, and to allow creative ideas in the visual and sonic aspects of the film to inform each other from the beginning.

There are certain kinds of visuals and sequences of visuals which swing doors wide open for sound design to collaborate. They roughly fall into two categories…

Visuals with lots of mystery about them, among which are:

black and white images

slow motion images

distorted images

images with smoke, fog, haze, etc.

dark images, or images with dark quadrants

Dutch angles

images that have a strong element of POV

images featuring a strange looking landscape object

extreme close-ups

extreme wide shots

What these styles have in common is that they hang visual question marks in the air which sound can supply clues for, thereby stimulating imagination.  Basically, the message is to starve the eye to energize the ear, and starve the ear to energize the eye.  Filling the screen with visual information is often not a recipe for great sound.

Visually dynamic shots that allow a sound or set of sounds to evolve, for example:

a wide shot that evolves into an extreme close-up, or vice versa

a shot that traces the movement of something, perhaps an emerging crack in a wall, which moves and grows and evolves

a shot that goes from dark to light, or vice versa … or in-focus to out-of-focus, etc.

a shot in which an object moves through air or space, and changes as it moves

a shot in which a landscape or an object changes in an odd way

What these styles have in common is that they have an arc over time.  That arc can be a powerful metaphor.

When a shot has both dynamics and a sense of mystery it is almost always a playground for sound design.

6 thoughts

  1. Hi Randy, certainly agree very much with the suggestions you posit. I must say, having just finished two graduation films at AUB the significance of suggestive motifs were very influential on the designing for certain scenes.
    I’m wondering, do you ever discuss the character’s inner psyche and how the diegesis of the sound would be impacted with that knowledge? And, if I may, now I know who designed some of my favorite films I must thank you for such great experiences! Certainly, much food for thought when, hopefully, working on films in the future.
    Many thanks!

    1. Hi, Thomas! Yes, it’s important for me to know the mood and the thoughts of each character. That knowledge informs the sound design I do for the environment each character is in. Especially important in a sequence like the very long one in Cast Away on the island where there is no music and no dialog to teach us how the Tom Hanks character is feeling.

  2. Very good point! It has been a while since I saw this film but certainly the scene you’ve mentioned very much stuck in my head. If I may also apologise for the two comments I made, was a little confused not to see them posted. I was wondering how you felt about Solaris and Kris Kelvin being effected by the planet, bringing to form his wife and home along with a myriad of familiar objects and how sound seems to work on several different levels?

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