In our last video post, we broached the subject of how sound can have an impact in an audiovisual work. Sound design is a vast and complex area. The quality of sound dictates the difference between amateur and professional productions. Things like the atmosphere of a scene, among others, are strongly influenced by sound. But how?
WHAT IS SOUND DESIGN AFTER ALL?
To put it simply, it’s the set of processes involved in the creation of the audio elements of a project (such as movies – where I’ll be focusing on -, theatre, concerts, music, games, etc). But Sound Design is much more than creating a soundtrack. All audio elements which don’t already exist or weren’t recorded on set must be created. When it comes to animated movies, for example, everything has to be created from scratch. And the most important part: all sounds must seem real and flow naturally.
The ultimate compliment to sound designers and mixers and editors is when no one actually notices the work. The reason you want to go unnoticed is that if your work is noticed it’s drawing attention to itself and making people stop thinking about the film. So, it’s oftentimes a subtle, supporting character to the image, but it’s also why it is so often misunderstood.
Ren Klyce, Sound Designer, in an interview for Fast Company
Music plays an important part in a movie’s Sound Design. For example, when it comes to Disney’s classics, the music sets the differences in the mood and the rhythm with which the action of a scene progresses. Not only does the melody change, but so do its tones and instruments. This change gives the scenes the intended atmosphere for that moment.
But when speaking of soundtracks, there’s one that stands out and that we are able to identify as soon as the first chords are played (Titanic doesn’t count!). “Hedwig’s Theme” is, for all of us, Harry Potter’s melody. Composed by John Williams, this track was originally intended to be Hedwig’s (Harry’s owl)theme song, but ended up becoming the saga’s musical icon. It’s impossible not to associate the track with the Harry Potter movies, and it’s interesting to realize how the song became a part of this wizarding world’s identity. “Hedwig’s Theme” was present in all the trailers, which isn’t a common thing to do.
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”’ Trailer (2001)
The magical sound of “Hedwig’s Theme” was achieved by the juction of a celestial melody and a synthesizer. The synthesizer gives the track an electronic musicality, which creates a surreal and magical atmosphere.
Harry Potter is also a great example of the importance of sound effects. There’s a new world to be created. What does a school of witchcraft and wizardry sound like? What sound does a spell make?
In a movie set in the real world, the goal of sound effects is to replicate the sounds in that space… But in Harry Potter we’re in a different world (that doesn’t exist!).
In Hogwarts there are the real sounds, like doors, trains, cars… But then there are other sounds that we don’t know what they are like. And even though we’re in a magical world, the sound effects must always seem real. The audience must believe that that’s really what a spell sounds like. In this case, the challenge is huge: make the audio sound magical, different from everything we’ve heard before and, at the same time, credible. In Harry Potter some of these sounds were created on the computer, others were achieved through Foley, a technique often used in movies.
It’s the technique used to recreate audio elements, during the post-production of a movie. All types of sounds are produced: steps being taken, doors closing, papers flying, glass breaking, breathing, etc. Deliberately, on the set of a movie, only dialogue is recorded and, by recording all other sound elements in a foley studio, a lot of time is saved. But how does it work?
Sounds are recorded individually, while, at the same time, the foley watches the movie. By having the elements recorded separately, it’s easier to edit them in post-production.
A basic example of the benefits of this technique: at a certain moment, one might prefer to have a character’s steps be heard clearly, but we might also want to have that sound become increasingly more subtle, emphasizing another audio element.
Noise vs Silence
When we talk about Sound Design (and about good Sound Design), the intention isn’t to flood the audience with all the sounds that could possibly exist in the scene. The atmosphere must seem real, but it isn’t necessary to highlight elements that aren’t important to the narrative. For example, if we’re inside a house and someone opens the door, we expect to hear the sound of the lock. But if someone’s arrival at the house is unexpected, or if the scene’s climax, the sound will be amplified in order to give emphasis to the action.
But increasing the volume isn’t an universally correct way (if there is such a thing) to give emphasis to a moment. Silence is just as important as noise. In reality, it’s the intelligent combination of both that marks the difference. This video shows how Martin Scorsese takes advantage of silence in his movies. (Tip: on the same channel you’ll find analyses of multiple directors’ cinematography. It’s worth a look!)
In Disney’s movie Frozen, one very important scene is marked by silence: when Hans is getting ready to kill Elsa; the music and the dramatic intensity go as far as they can go. This tension is broken by the sound of the sword breaking when it hits Anna, whom has been frozen. After this, there’s complete and utter silence. We only hear Anna’s last breath. This “deafening silence” leaves the audience feeling restless.
And Sound Design in animation movies isn’t that different…
All the elements are the same as in other movies: soundtrack, sound effects, foley… But it’s the dubbing process that sets them apart. A perfect voice and tone for the characters has to be found. The timing of dialogues is essential to define the balance of all other sound elements.
As for sound effects, it’s necessary to recreate everything, much like a non-animated movie. In Ratatouille’s case, which was set in Paris, it was essential to showcase the parisian atmosphere. Randy Thom, the person responsible for the movie’s Sound Design, explains that they had to record the voices of french people talking, which are subtly heard in the background.
“SoundWorks Collection: The Sound of Ratatouille” – Randy Thom explains the process behind the movie.
Summing it up…
We can’t determine the quality of a movie without taking Sound Design into account. It’s always present, and it’s responsible for transmitting emotions to the audience (that otherwise might not get across). Not only can it change the perspective of a movie, in some cases, it helps us create a sound identity for a movie, characters or places. Going back to “Harry Potter”, it’s more likely for someone to identify its soundtrack than a character (barring the obvious Harry, Hermione and Ron).
We’ll never underestimate the sound guys again, will we?