In this thread I am going to try to explain the fundamentals of sound design. Sound Design is the most esoteric of the film arts and the least well understood by the public, the vast majority of filmmakers and even by some who market themselves as a Sound Designer. For this reason, virtually all new, no, micro and low budget filmmakers either aren't aware that sound design actually exists, misunderstand what it is or even consciously avoid it.
In this thread I will try to explain what sound design really is, what it is not, why it is so fundamentally important to modern filmmaking at all budget levels and how you can change the way you approach your filmmaking to include sound design. Hopefully by the time I'm finished you will also appreciate why I've posted it in the Pre-Production forum rather than the Post Production forum.
While I've already posted some of the information in other threads which I'm going to include here, I thought it would be good to put it all in one place, expand on it, make it more cohesive and to create a useful resource. I'm even going to post and go through a scene of a project I worked on, to provide a practical example of what I'm talking about. It's going to take time and effort to cover all this so I'm going to spread it over several posts in this thread rather than one single long post.
/me bookmarks this thread. Thanks, really looking forward to what you have to say! While sound is something I'm very interested in getting right, I have to admit its an area I've probably neglected most at this point in my studies.
Sound Design is not Foley, Sound FX Design, Dialogue Editing or processing and mixing the output from all these sound departments (even if all these departments are in fact the same person in the case of no budget films). Neither is it the act of editing the sound and/or choosing which sounds work or sound right. Although sound design includes all of these audio crafts it is far more than even of all of them combined.
What is Sound Design:
It's actually extremely difficult to pin down exactly what sound design actually is. The closest relative to sound design is orchestral music composition. In fact, when asked to give a brief answer to the question of how to "do" sound design Randy Thom, one of the world's great sound designers, said; "If you want to know how to do sound design, go and listen to the Mahler Symphonies"! He said this because the basic principles of sound design are identical to the basic principles of orchestral music composition. Instead of violins, trumpets and other instruments in the orchestra, the sound designer's instruments are the all the possible sounds (including the dialogue) which could be present in the various scenes, plus a few abstract sounds which may be appropriate.
Ultimately, Sound Design is concerned with the shape of a film. Like a good example of just about any art form, a good film has shape; peaks and troughs in the pace of the film to keep the audience intrigued and "on the edge of their seats". A good piece of orchestral music is one which sometimes uses just a few individual instruments, sometimes combines different groups or sub-groups of instruments and uses the contrasts this presents with the full orchestra playing to create both emotional responses and the perfect balance of pace and energy with periods of respite to generate excitement and entertainment. A good piece of orchestral music isn't one which uses just a sub-group of instruments all the time or has all the instruments of the orchestra playing as loud as they can all the time to try and make it exciting because this would achieve the opposite, the lack of difference and contrast would make the piece boring! This is why Randy Thom quoted Mahler, Mahler was a master of changing moods and pace through the use of contrasting instrumentation; sometimes rapidly, sometimes gradually, sometimes shockingly and sometimes subtly. BTW, if you're interested, I would recommend Mahler's 5th Symphony.
Sound Design then is the act of integrating the sound with the other film arts to generate emotional response, pace and shape.
Why is Sound Design so Important?
There are a number of answers to this question, I'll try and go through some of them:
1. While there are many examples of great "in your face" sound design, the majority of sound design work is intended to be perceived sub-consciously. This is the great strength and power of sound design as a film making tool: It can bypass the logic and intellect areas of the brain and can be aimed directly at the audience's sub-conscious, thereby offering an incredibly powerful and effective method of manipulating the audience's emotions and perceptions! This explains what I said earlier about audiences and many filmmakers not understanding or appreciating sound design, most of the time audiences are not supposed to even be aware sound design is happening, let alone understand it!! An obvious example of a great "in your face" sound design would be Saving Private Ryan. There are countless examples of excellent but subtle sound design. For no other reason than it's been mentioned here several times before but never for it's clever sound design, 12 Angry Men. In fact, ...
2. Pretty much every film you or the public would regard as great also had great sound design, this is NOT a coincidence. Pretty much every director in the last 60 years or so who you or the public would consider great, is a master at using sound design as a story telling tool, this also is NOT a coincidence!
3. The complaint most people have in general with low budget indie films is that nothing much seems to happen, they are uninteresting and boring. Most indie filmmakers would say that's because the script wasn't good enough. While that may be the case, they are probably missing the obvious, poor pacing! A lack of shape, not enough climaxes or energy to contrast with slower paced scenes and/or anti-climatic climaxes. The filmmaking tool which is so closely related to shape and pacing should therefore be a particularly important tool to the low budget filmmaker but if anything the opposite is true?
4. The fact that so many no/lo budget filmmakers have so little understanding of sound design and employ it so poorly or not at all, presents a fantastic opportunity to stand out from the crowd for those who do!!!
Last edited by AudioPostExpert; 01-02-2013 at 04:44 PM.
It's actually extremely difficult to pin down exactly what sound design actually is........
Originally Posted by AudioPostExpert
Ultimately... Sound Design... is the act of integrating the sound with the other film arts to generate emotional response, pace and shape.
This is exactly what sound design is. See? That wasn't so difficult, was it?
All of filmmaking is about generating an emotional response in the audience. This is something many indie filmmakers do not understand, or, if they do understand, forget about once they become involved with the technical aspects of making the film.
As I harp upon so frequently, filmmaking is about communication - communicating with your backers (even if it's just the loan of a piece of gear, or someone letting you use their house as a location), communicating with your cast, communicating with the production crew, communicating with the post team and, what filmmaking is really all about, communicating with your audience.
The sound of the film is integral to the entire process of filmmaking, not an afterthought when shooting has been completed. The characters inhabit a sonic world, not just a visual world. As a director you need to preplan that sonic world in addition to the visual world.
Sounds affect us on a "subconscious" level every minute of the day, even when we sleep; it is the only sense we can never truly turn off. And that is a part of the problem for fledgling filmmakers; only the obvious sounds register "consciously" and all other sounds are "ignored." Yet the "unheard" sounds in our environment supply us with a multiplicity of information on a subliminal level. When applied to sound-for-picture (and quite a few of the other filmmaking crafts) the filmmaker already knows what is happening in the film, but we forget that the audience does not. Our job is to fill the gaps - to provide information - in a subtle way. One of my favorite filmmaking dictums is "Filmmaking is the art of the invisible; if anyone notices your work, you haven't done your job correctly." Sound design is one of the most subtle of filmmaking crafts.
This is exactly what sound design is. See? That wasn't so difficult, was it?
No, it wasn't so difficult but while that definition might be exactly what sound design is, it's far too vague to define precisely what sound design is. That definition for example does not differentiate sound design from sound editing and mixing and that difference is what confuses many filmmakers, even some who call themselves a sound designer and is fundamental to employing sound effectively.
Anyway, I've got some time over the next day or so and I'm going to start on the next instalment a little later.
I have a question could you expand on the term diagetic sound it was passed on to me by someone and I'm thinking its basically sound design?
All sound (inc. music) in film can be described as either diagetic or non-diagetic. It is a term used mainly in academia, although it is starting to filter it's way into mainstream film makers vocabulary. A diagetic sound is one which you hear in the soundtrack AND see in the visual images, a non-diagetic sound is one which you hear in the soundtrack but do not see in the visual images. A non-diagetic sound could for instance be the sound of birds singing, dogs barking or traffic noise in the background of the soundtrack to give the impression of a time, place or emotion but we can't actually see any dogs, birds or traffic in the movie.
Originally Posted by TheArtist
This is all super interesting but while i understand what you mean, it really does next to nothing into actually making me able to "design" sound. I hope you're gonna get there at some point.?
Yes, I'm working on that now and will start to post in a little while! I appreciate you want to get to the juicy parts (!) but the great danger is that by focusing on the obvious juicy parts you'll end up missing the whole point of what sound design really is and therefore never really understanding what's it's for or how to use it to it's full effect. Sound Design is a holistic film art, it is not about designing sounds, that's "Sound FX Design" which is only one part of Sound Design, not Sound Design itself, as my posts so far have tried to explain. An analogy, knowing how to operate a camera is essential to cinematography but good cinematography is much more than just knowing how to operate a camera.
At the bottom of this post is a link to a video clip for you to download. Can I please ask you to NOT click that link BEFORE you've read the rest of this post. I believe it's important for me to explain a bit about this clip, then why I've chosen it and lastly how I would like you to watch it for the first time:
Although many millions of people have seen the film this clip is taken from, there's little chance you'll recognise it. If you do, I would ask that you don't post that information here publicly. Although I don't believe the production company would object to me posting it, as it's being used for educational purposes and is probably covered by fair use, it is copyrighted and I don't own that copyright!
I could (and have in the past) used the Omaha Beach Landing Scene from Saving Private Ryan to explain some sound design principles here on indietalk because it's such a fantastic example and many are familiar with it. However, from a lo/no budget filmmaking point of view it's a poor example because it's not representative of the type of scene most here usually make. The example we're going to look at is from a film which by indietalk standards is still high budget but this particular scene takes place entirely in a single small room and is one of the main climaxes in this section of the film. The difficulty facing the filmmakers was how to inject pace, energy and tension into this scene to make it powerful and climatic, when all we've got to work with is a relatively innocuous single room and no hard action. This is exactly the same difficulty faced so frequently by no/lo budget filmmakers and is therefore in my opinion a much more appropriate and useful example. The other advantage is that as I worked on this scene, I'm privy to exactly what was done and why, whereas with Saving Private Ryan I am to an extent just making educated guesses.
The clip you are about to see is the entire scene, the frame before and the frame after are cuts to different sceens. The first thing I would like you to do (after you finish reading this post) is to watch the scene through in it's entirety, from the point of view of the audience. By that I mean not to be looking at what was done and why; the edits, acting, makeup, camera angles or even though we are discussing it, the sound. Actually, this exercise is probably the most important lesson you could learn from this thread. It's very difficult to separate oneself as a filmmaker from the technicalities of how a film or scene has been created and many times more so if you are the one who's put the time and effort into creating it! However, without this ability to be objective; to view the film from the audience's perspective, your chances of making a film to which an audience can relate and feels involved in, is massively reduced. If you are only able to view this scene as a filmmaker, the chances are that you won't feel emotionally involved and the scene won't work for you as intended.
To help you view the scene as an audience would, before you watch the clip you need to know it's background, the story as the audience (you!) knows it at this point: A particularly warped serial killer is on the loose, their female victims are horribly tortured and mutilated before eventually having their throats cut and are left to bleed out. Of the 3 victims so far, one (a street hardened prostitute) has miraculously survived. The audience (you!) saw the victim being picked up and dumped and are aware what was done to her and that she survived but you have not seen her for sometime because the police have been unable to get to see her for many days due to her critical condition. While the investigation to this point has thrown up various suspects and surprises, there is not currently any hard evidence or other reliable witnesses, so the testimony of this victim could be crucial...
OK, just before I get into the fine details of what was done and why, I want to emphasise that what we are going to be doing is looking at one part of sound design. All this example demonstrates is the use of sound design for one scene, what's far more important is how this one scene combines, compliments and contrasts, with all the other scenes to make what is hopefully an exciting, entertaining and therefore a good film. So while this scene may represent a good example of sound design at work, we can't say just from this snippet if the sound design for the film was good. Just wanted to be clear!
Sound Design an Analysis
OK, so I realise you're seeing it in isolation so it's difficult to put it into context but I hope you'll agree that it was quite a dramatic and powerful scene and therefore probably succeeded in it's goal of creating one of the film's points of climax. I don't want to make out sound design was entirely responsible for the dramatic impact of this scene. If the acting, script or editing were terrible, no amount of clever sound design would have made the scene anything other than maybe marginally better than terrible. What the sound design has done is taken a good scene and manipulated the audience into experiencing the scene rather than just watching it dispassionately. By involving the audience we have hugely enhanced their emotional response and hopefully created entertainment. So what did we do and why?
00:00 The dialogue at the beginning is very quiet almost inaudible. The first few words are not essential to the story, so to give us the opportunity to use contrast we start very quiet, we also have a little Foley, a monitoring machine beeping, no background ambience SFX but quite a high level of room tone (RT). This last is a compromise, our dialogue is going to jump in level soon and we don't want the RT to jump with it because it will sound too obvious an unnatural. As an aside, this was made over a decade ago and the noise reduction tools we had then were not as efficient as we have now.
00:08 Just before this cut we introduce some quiet breathing sounds of Marilyn (the victim) to focus the audience's attention on her and help carry us across the cut. Michael's dialogue jumps up in level and becomes more present, to make the scene feel more intimate, supporting the close up. We also add, very low in the background some very distant indistinguishable noises as Marilyn opens her eyes. These noises are swamped in reverb reminiscent of a hospital, school or other large hard surfaced interior building. This is very subliminal but it's as if upon waking Marilyn becomes aware that she's in a hospital. The heart monitor sound and RT continue absolutely unchanged, to maintain continuity across the cut.
00:14 A Marilyn breath takes us across the edit, the background sounds also continue but are not a loop. The introduction of some Foley for the pen on the paper at higher than realistic levels, draws the audience's attention to Pat, what she's doing and maintains some some sonic interest beyond the dialogue. Another Marilyn breath takes us across the next edit although there were none during the scene itself. We're only just starting to build the tension and the breathing sounds are going to be one of the elements we use to do this, so we need to establish the breathing sounds but not overplay our hand at this point.
00:20 The note taking Foley takes us across this cut along with Marilyn's breath, Heart Monitor and RT also unchanged. At 00:25 a bit too much of a hole is filled with some (non-diagetic!) Foley steps in the corridor outside (EQ and our hospital reverb) which also adds depth and perspective to the mix, reinforces our sonic location.
00:37 Slight, almost imperceptible rise in Michael's dialogue level again, even more present and intimate, now we can even hear the lip smacks but still not his breaths, we've still got a way to go. We've had some quiet moans from Marilyn and we can hear her breathing more frequently now, we're building shape. Slight push on the word "Marilyn", a subliminal ring of the bell to start the fight sort of thing.
00:47 I can't tell you how many different buzzer sounds we went through until we found the exact sound the director wanted!
00:54 More happening and a pushing up of the levels of background "hospital" sounds, to increase the pace a little. Marilyn's breathing is also gradually ramped up until constant, with some more frequent quiet moans. Pace an energy getting higher all the time, with the buzzer, dialogue, background FX creating many layers of sound until...
01:16 Ramp up Marilyn's breathing a significant notch but we've still got further to go. Let's have a little contrast, take the pace down a notch or two and create some shape rather than just trying to make the whole thing relentless. So we drop the background sounds right down low again but we don't want it to be obvious so we maintain everything else and use the ramped up Marilyn breathing to hide what we've done.
01:28 OK, break over! Let's ramp those hospital backgrounds up again. From here we gradually increase the speed of Marilyn's breathing, the frequency of her moans, very slightly increase the volume and subtly introduce the sound of Michael's breathing until...
02:20 Now we can hear Michael's breathing constantly (in addition to Marilyn's) and it's quite heavy and fast. BTW, using breathing sounds is an old sound design trick, so old in fact you have to be careful not to cross the line into cliché and the audience becomes too consciously aware of what you're doing. This trick works at a physiological level, if you hear someone breathing fast or heavily your breathing will speed up in response. It's assumed this response is an ancient automatic defence mechanism to increase the metabolism ready to respond to danger. We want to create shape and respite at this point again though, so we cut Marilyn's breathing completely and the background FX. Now we got somewhere to go at...
02:35 We really need to ramp up the tension here, so let's bring Marilyn's breathing back in, even higher in level and more present than before, we'll also wring the last ounce of pace and drama out of that buzzer sound. At 02:43 some coat rustling Foley brings Pat into the scene and as we really starting to rock, Pat's dialogue becomes more present and louder and her breathing is also gradually ramped up. By...
03:13 We're throwing everything we've got at it, the full orchestra is blasting away and the buzzer should be on fire by now! But, we don't want to lose impact by doing to much of the same thing so we're going to change things, create another change of pace. That heart monitor sound which has been going on incessantly for so long that we've become oblivious to it is going to be changed and the very fact that we're changing something we've grown so accustomed to is going to sound quite shocking. By ...
03:20 We've cut out all the breathing sounds, background SFX and all we're left with is the dialogue, new heart monitor and RT. Now we're almost back to where we started, so we can build it up all over again. It's like we're playing with and teasing the audience, I love this job!
03:34 A pen click piece of Foley starts the ball rolling again. First with Marilyn's breathing and then the dialogue when it comes in is not so loud or present as it was before. What we want to do with Marilyn's breathing, have it slower and quieter to start with so we have somewhere to go, doesn't really marry up with the visual images of Marilyn but shape and pace trump perfect sync, unless that lack of sync takes you out of the scene (which it might do now you are aware of it!). BTW, all of Marilyn's sound (breathing, moaning, etc.) was ADR for the whole scene, we needed far more flexibility with these sounds than the production sound would have given us.
04:00 By now Marilyn's breathing has worked it's way back up to being quite loud and present. The over-hyped pen on blanket Foley really draws your attention to what Marilyn is doing. It was decided to not put in some serious groaning from Marilyn in the CU at 04:03, we've still got to get to the the big peak and a very low level hard straining sound worked well. Meanwhile the 2 tone really annoying heart monitor is doing it's job well to maintain tension and pace. Wish I could take credit for designing that one!
04:18 The completely over the top Foley of pen ripping through the paper adds to the impression of the strain and effort Marilyn is putting into this interview. We tried hard to communicate Marilyn's outrage at what had been done to her and small details like making the sound of the pen ripping through the paper as angry and violent as possible all adds to the manipulation of the audience's perception and involvement in the emotions of the characters.
04:29 We're really starting to cook again now! Marilyn's breathing is at warp 9. We cut in an extra line (from an alt take) here, where Michael says "was there a zig-zag on the back door of the van" because the picture and the script left too much of a hole and lost momentum. When the picture goes to full screen we want more impact from the dialogue at that point so we left the level of the extra line lower and less present. We also go into smoking the buzzer SFX again for a while and now we're at full tilt.
04:44 We drop back on the use of the buzzer here and also pull back on Marilyn's breathing, to create a bit of contrast and bring in the most extreme straining and gasping sounds we've got for Marilyn. We've been at the peak and the drama we're trying to create is to help the audience experience the depth of Marilyn's emotions. We want the audience to feel that Marilyn is almost prepared to kill herself in the extremity of her efforts to give the police information to help catch the perps. We also push Michael's dialogue both times he says "yes" to emphasise the importance and accomplishment of Marilyn's evidence.
There's more details than I've listed above but this should give you a reasonably good idea of what we did and why. In the next instalment we'll start to look at what you can do to start implementing sound design principles into your own projects.
Last edited by AudioPostExpert; 01-03-2013 at 02:51 PM.
The example we're going to look at is from a film which by indietalk standards is still high budget but this particular scene takes place entirely in a single small room and is one of the main climaxes in this section of the film. The difficulty facing the filmmakers was how to inject pace, energy and tension into this scene to make it powerful and climatic, when all we've got to work with is a relatively innocuous single room and no hard action. This is exactly the same difficulty faced so frequently by no/lo budget filmmakers and is therefore in my opinion a much more appropriate and useful example. The other advantage is that as I worked on this scene, I'm privy to exactly what was done and why, whereas with Saving Private Ryan I am to an extent just making educated guesses.
I haven't yet read the entire post but I just want to mention that I'm getting a hard-on just by reading this.
Didn't have time to observe the video, but am planning to follow this thread thoroughly. I stopped at the context... but looking forward to the exercise later tonight. Already thinking of ways to communicate better with my viewers.