I love to watch film critique YouTube videos, but I found that they were lacking in talking about anything other than cinematographic or storytelling elements of film. Film scores are covered in droves, but that is not the only element that makes up the sound of films. I thought I would deconstruct different sound design elements (including the musical aspects), and share some of my favorite examples in the meantime.
Sound Design Concept
The way a film sounds is more than just the music. Yes, the soundtrack is a big element, but how that layers with the dialog and sound effects creates at atmosphere that can either compliment or juxtapose the visuals. In Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) directed by Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone’s score is sparse and haunting when following our harmonica stranger, and through the sound effects the outlaw gang is viscerally antsy swatting flies while the creaking of the rusty windmill cycles on. In more emotional scenes the score becomes more orchestral. Altogether we get a picture of a dusty, crude landscape with a variety of characters who pass through, either fitting in or standing out. You can almost close your eyes and still get the same experience as the film itself (not to belittle the beautiful landscapes). This is what sound can do.
Generally when people think about film soundtracks the music is the first thing that pops up. There are tons of lists and many arguments over the best original scores and best soundtracks. Everyone knows at least one film composer’s name or has a favorite film soundtrack. The Lord of the Rings series directed by Peter Jackson has a gorgeous orchestral score that compliments his epic masterpiece at every move. Here is Howard Shore’s composition introducing the industrial Isengard and Gandalf’s escape.
Now that the score is composed, how does it fit in with what is going on screen. Is it in the world of the film (diegetic) or is it purely for the audience’s emotional benefit? Music mixing is similar to its non-film counterpart, but the stylistic choices are made to benefit visuals instead of being in its own sealed world. This example is from The Blues Brothers (1980) directed by John Landis and with John Strauss as the music editor. Here we have the lines blurred between the in world music and the idealized version of the music, and while we are sometimes fully in Cab Calloway’s head, we also are following our two protagonists’ antics.
Nearly every composition in film begins with a “sketch”, or a melody idea. From there it needs to be fleshed out: counter melodies added, harmonies assigned to various instruments, and motifs added representing characters or moods. John Williams is a master of this, so here is the main theme to Harry Potter in different incarnations. Think about why different instruments were used or why the mood changes between films.
Location Sound vs. ADR
Location sound is sound that is recorded on set during the main shooting of the film. The main focus is dialog, but other sounds such as background noise are recorded too. This scene from Hugo (2011) directed by Martin Scorsese is shot as a long take that winds through the set, and following close behind the camera is the boom operator capturing the relevant conversations, all without making any sound themselves. What a dance it is.
ADR stands for automatic dialog replacement. When location sound is filled with unwanted noise, then the actors come in during post-production and re-record their lines with the same diction and cadence as before. Voice-acting and narration can are similarly recorded. In this scene from Glory (1989) directed by Edward Zwick, there is no way on a windy beach that that dialog would be legible. Instead the dialog is edited to fit the idea of the scene, with the chant loud and the dialog quietly personal.
Sound Mixing vs. Sound Editing
Sound mixing and sound editing are two categories that are usually paired together during Awards Season. Either the same film wins both, or judges cannot decide between two films and divy up the awards to two close contenders. They are really two different animals, which is why they are two different departments on larger film productions.
Sound mixing is how different components of sound relate to each other in the same period of time: their stereo image or panning (where in the room are these sounds playing), and their volume (how loud or quiet these sounds are to each other). There is more to it than this, but for the layperson this is sufficient for understanding. Dunkirk (2017), directed by Christopher Nolan and with the sound mixing done by Mark Weingarten (and a whole crew of sound effects recording mixers and mix stage engineers). has great examples of sound mixing. In this first scene we have the first dogfight which is mainly sound effect driven. The pilot starts confident and focused and he only hears the sounds in his cockpit and the sounds from his radio, but as the other plane evades and the light shines in his eyes we feel tension as the sound effects get quieter and the musical drone tones grab our attention. This balance is restored at the end of the fight and draws our attention to the silence from the radio.
The next example, while also a dogfight, starts with a different balance of tension and focus, and the balance between the music, ambience, and sound effects changes to reflect that. Note how the two scenes feel different, even though the basic structure of the scenes are similar.
Sound editing is where sound design elements are placed in time and how they interact with each other chronologically. This is where comedies and horror films shine with their play on action and reaction. Get Out (2017), directed by Jordan Peele and with sound supervising editor Trevor Gates (and a crew of sound effects editors) is a mix of both of these and relies on a sound cue as a particular character’s calling card. The scene I chose is the introduction of this cue, and it is the amount of sound verses silence that shows the initial tension in the scene. Then when the spoon scraping the teacup is revealed as the “focus point,” then the sound effects are under the control of the hypnotist and not the real world.
Sound effects are what make the visuals feel real in a film. A good sound effect often goes unnoticed, but a bad sound effect is jarring and unsettling. Comedy and horror, once again, bring attention to sound effects when playing with expectations. Snatch (2000) directed by Guy Ritchie and Sound Design by Matthew Collinge already brings attention to the incompetent thieves, the sound is just icing on the cake. With the diamond invisible, how can the audience keep track of it? The dog has an idea.
Sound effects do not just have to be for gags or scares, they can be the score in their own right. In The Godfather (1972) directed by Francis Ford Coppola and sound effects editing by Howard Beals, the already perfect score was not used in this key scene. Instead all of the tension felt in the main character is manifested by the diegetic sounds of the train.
There is a subcategorization for sound effects, and that is foley. These sounds occur when the actors interact with the scene, they are footsteps and body movements. Early foley artists were referred to as “steppers”, although that term was not one of endearment. Foley effects can show intimacy between characters, like in the bath scene in The Handmaiden (2016) directed by Chan-wook Park and Jung-ho Lee as the sound effects editor (part of a relatively small sound department). This scene is of the two main characters realizing their growing affection for each other, which we feel through the little sounds of the sucking of the lollipop and bath water splashing. The real subtlety is from the thimble rubbing on the tooth.
There are many other films that I enjoy the sound on, and I want to share them all. I might get to that eventually. Hopefully this answered your questions on film sound.