“Sound is 50 percent of the moviegoing experience.” –George Lucas
“The truth is, for me, it’s obvious that 70, 80 percent of a movie is sound.” –Danny Boyle
“Sound is fifty percent of a film, at least. In some scenes it’s almost a hundred percent. It’s the thing that can add so much emotion to a film. It’s a thing that can add all the mood and create a larger world. It sets the tone and it moves things. Sound is a great “pull” into a different world. And it has to work with the picture – but without it you’ve lost half the film.” –David Lynch
Regardless of percentage, sound is a crucial part of your movie; in their heyday, even silent films were screened with specific musical accompaniment. Sound is also an often neglected topic for early filmmakers. Every semester I view student projects with good cinematography, creative visuals, wise editing choices, then audio that distracts from all of these. For many filmmakers it seems as though once we finally get a clear grasp on visuals, we suddenly realize there is another world we haven’t considered. I’m not crazy enough to suggest a comprehensive guide to sound design is possible in one blog post, and I don’t have the knowledge to do it anyway, but here I will provide a few simple tips that helped introduce me to the missing half of my films…
I break the basic components of film sound into:
- Dialogue: Characters speaking to one another, or to themselves.
- Ambient Sound: The “background noise” – sometimes it’s simply “white noise” (that hissing sound that fills all rooms), often it adds emotion or tension (i.e. the sounds of heavy traffic and honking, rainfall, or birds chirping in spring).
- Foley / Sound Effects: Any sound an object makes, from footsteps to car engines to lazer guns. Sometimes it’s easy to assume what sound an object would make, othertimes you may have fun inventing the sound (especially for fantasy/sci-fi).
- Music/Score: A simple strike of a piano, or an elaborate Hanz Zimmer score – music can fill your soundscape with extra emotion. Music can be a powerful way to subconsciously influence the mood of your scene.
Although sound decisions can be made all the way through the editing stage, you should start thinking about the sound in your film early, just as you would storyboard the visuals. Here are steps you can take at each stage:
- Research: Watch films (or scenes) with your eyes closed. Yes, it seems absurd at first. First try this with scenes you’re familiar with, then try “watching” one you haven’t seen. Listen to what exists around the dialogue. You will likely notice quick music transitions or a score that carries the whole scene. If there is no music, you will almost always hear ambient sound – even if you thought the scene was “silent.”
- Ask: What sort of sound will your scenes require? Can sound save you production hassles and help you “sell” the scene, or will sound gathering be a hassle in itself? Imagine your elaborate dinner scene with the chaotic ambiance of a busy restaurant in the soundtrack while two characters eat in the corner. Your audience will never suspect the scene was shot after-hours or in the dressed-up corner of your apartment.
- Ask: When will you be able to avoid capturing sound on set? It’s easy to replace the sound of an establishing shot of a sunrise, so when you’re on location you only have to focus on visuals. It’s much trickier to replace sound from a heavy dialogue scene.
- Some sound, especially dialogue, may be recorded in production along with the picture. Even if you plan to dub your dialogue (ADR), good production sound is needed as a reference.
- Use an external microphone (not the camera’s mic) so you can position it close to what’s most important and away from potential camera noise. This could be as simple as a boom mic or lavaliere on your talent, or as complex as a mixing board with several inputs.
- Notify cast and crew know if you’re recording sound, with a simple “Quiet on the set!”
- If a shot has no dialogue, but you’re recording sound anyway, position the mic towards what’s important (e.g. nearby traffic or a man’s footsteps)
- Don’t forget to record “room tone” – a clean recording of ambient noise on set that you can use later to fill in gaps where other sounds have been removed.
- ADR: Re-dubbing dialogue is a common practice in Hollywood, but it’s not for the faint of heart. This tricky process requires matching the natural feel of your location, authenticity of your talent’s performance, and the timing to match their lips on screen.
- Foley: Adding or enhancing sounds that would’ve occurred naturally, but aren’t captured in your raw footage with enough intensity, is called “Foley.” You may record your own sounds, or pull from outside sources. I often pull from, and post sounds to Freesound.org for others to enjoy.
- Music: This topic could use its own post, but for the time being let me note that a shift in music indicates a shift in the scene. This shift can be from one type of music to another, from music to silence, or from silence to music. Larry Jordan and Norman Hollyn do a fantastic job explaining music as a transition in this lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-IKKcrkprY
I’ve reached the maximum length I’m comfortable with for a post, but this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. You may have noticed, I didn’t touch on equipment in this post… yes, I am intentionally avoiding that topic. My hope for the independent filmmaker is that this launches a new quest to discover the world of sound and its impact on the films you watch, and the films you create.
Sites I like:
Download/Upload Sound Effects:
I also recommend browsing Archive.org; although organization there can be confusing, there are some great public domain resources in audio as well as other media.