Sound Design: How Sound Helps Tell Your Visual Stories

Every scene in a film has carefully crafted sound design to represent what is going on. They represent the scene’s location and the actions of characters.

As part of the editorial team for a recently-completed  feature film, I worked closely with UK Assistant Editor Amar Ingreji. Ingreji has been working in the film industry for over 11 years. He’s been the assistant editor on films such as “London Has Fallen” (2016) and “The Mummy” (2017). One of his main tasks was editing the sound for the scenes. I had an opportunity to sit down with him and ask him a few questions about sound design.

Sound design and atmosphere

Before diving into the nuances of the sound design for a particular project, it’s important to understand the material. Ingreji tells us that a good way to prepare to edit sound for a production is to read the script. After that, you should figure out where the scene is set and what some of background sounds might be. Also figure out what action is happening in the scene. This way you can actually start pulling in sound effects and atmospheres that you might need to build the scene.”

Music and dialogue alone are not enough to construct the world of your film.

The dialogue and background music usually come to mind first when considering sound design. While these are certainly vital in driving the plot and character development, they are only the most obvious elements in a production’s sound design. Your scene needs much more subtle manipulation of sound to feel complete. Music and dialogue alone are not enough to construct the world of your film.

Background and atmospheric noises are essential

The background and atmospheric noise tells the audience where the scene is taking place. Although these sounds are usually quiet, they are essential to a scene. Why? Because they appeal to the audience on a subconscious level. Without them, the scene will feel unnatural to the audience. Without them, the realism of the scene taken away and it stands out to the viewer, even if they aren’t sure why.

If the scene is taking place on a busy street, the background noise should be that of a busy street. There should be sounds of people talking, car horns and the light sounds of engines revving. If the scene is in a forest, the background noise would be of blowing wind, leaves rustling and many animal sounds. It would feature anything that will inform the audience of where the scene is set.

The sounds of action sound design

The next part of sound design is telling your audience what the characters are doing. You do this through the use of action sounds. These include the more subtle sounds from character clothing, items they might be holding or any contact they make with other characters or objects.

In an action scene, like a fight scene, there would be the sounds of cloth movement and impacts. Sound designers will go through a fight scene carefully to make sure all of the hits and impacts sound right. This could mean making some hits louder than others, or even combining two or more hit sounds to make the impact seem heavier to viewers. All of these combined together will bring the audience into the scene and make it seem more realistic. Ingreji looks for realism in his sound effects selections: “Personally, I like going for effects that sound real. It’s always nice to have wild tracks and be able to use real sounds as a lot of libraries become quite dated or the sound quality of them is degraded. The thing to do is make sure that the sound effects that you put down aren’t a distraction from the screen.”

Objects are the same

The same applies to character interactions with objects. If a character picks up a wrench, the sound designer will add the sound of a hand touching metal. Using a cellphone or computer would also be accompanied by the sounds of digital beeps and clicks of buttons. These might not be sounds that people register in reality, but not having them will make scenes stand out.

These additional sounds are often very quiet and subtle and are generally used in quieter dialogue scenes. A good use of sounds like these are found in the typical “lonely guy at a bar” scene. Imagine a that character sits at a bar and orders something. Then as the bartender goes off screen viewers hear a very quiet sound of him preparing that order. That is good use of action sounds.

Your audience will notice if actions sounds are missing

Although the audience may or may not pick up on this, these are small sound elements. Not having them in your scenes will make them feel incomplete.  The scene will lack the audio information needed to portray the actions and settings of that particular scene. Ingreji explains further: “In dialogue scenes, you’re looking to build a sense of the place that the characters are in so you want subtlety in those moments. It isn’t like an action scene where the visuals need to be amplified with sound effects; for quieter scenes you’re just building sound that suits the scene best and what you’re trying to achieve with it.”

The right sound effect becomes even more important when the action it corresponds to is happening off screen. If one character goes off screen and picks up their coat from the back of a chair, the sound designer will add the quiet sounds of the coat being picked up and the door opening and closing. This assures the audience that the character has left the room.

Action sounds are great for action and horror

This technique is often used to great effect in horror or action scenarios. It allows the audience to use their imaginations. Imagine two characters walk into a dark room out of frame. Then all that the viewers hear is the sound of a blade being drawn, followed by stabbing sounds and screaming. The audience will still know what is happening. However, they’ll also individually interpret the scene and therefore will experience it in a unique way.

Sound design in practice

Sound design isn’t just important to making a scene realistic, it is also used as a storytelling device. The combination of elements such as dialogue, sound effects, and atmospheres help to support the story the filmmaker is telling. Sound design not only informs viewers where a scene is taking place and what is happening in it. It also informs them of how they should be feeling while watching that scene. The clever sound design can leave audiences feeling uneasy, scared, happy or any other emotion you may want in your scene.

Given the power of sound design, we asked Ingreji what he thinks is the most important thing to consider when editing sound. He told us, “An important thing to keep in mind is, what is the scene trying to achieve? What is the point of the scene? Is it something that is trying to have a visceral impact? Is it a drama scene? Then, you work and build your sound around that. Sound design is only a part of what’s happening in the scene, so you have to learn where it fits in with what’s going on.”

Acquiring your sounds

Most editors will have pre-recorded sound effects and atmospheres that can be used during the edit stages of a project. However, in many larger projects, the director will want specific or more unique sounds to be used. That means some sounds will need to be recorded from scratch. The way in which these sounds are recorded depends on what type of sounds they are.

Location sounds

Location sounds are recorded in order to represent where the scene is taking place. So for these, a sound op will go around each location and record the various sounds that accompany it. Usually a sound op will go around a location and record sounds that will likely be heard during the scene. That includes: floorboards squeaking, doors creaking, any items or objects moving/being used, any sound emitting objects such as large clocks or electrical appliances and any other sounds that are native to that location. By doing this, the editing team will have the exact sounds needed for the scene. Therefore, they’ll be able to make it as realistic as possible for the audience.

Foley sound design and sound effects

Foley is the reproduction of sound effects that are used in post-production to add realism to a scene. This form of sound work is very specific. It takes a wide range of equipment and techniques to be done right. The way in which Foley artists create sounds like this is by watching a specific scene with the audio removed. Then they perform the sound effects while watching the screen for timing. Foley artists stand on a Foley stage, which is an area with a range of possible surfaces and props in a specialized sound studio with a large preview screen. The actions that can be performed can include walking, running, rubbing clothing, breaking objects, handling props and jostling people, all while carefully watching the screen to make sure that the sound effects are appropriate to the vision.

Foley artist creating sound effects while carefully watching the screen to make sure that the sound effects are appropriate to the vision.
Foley artist creating sound effects while carefully watching the screen to make sure that the sound effects are appropriate to the vision.

What is ADR and why do we use it?

During the filming of a project with dialogue, there will always be a microphone used to capture that audio, but there are times when the dialogue isn’t always recorded clearly. This can be due to louder background sounds, or if something is muffling the actor’s speech.

In cases of unusable dialogue, the actors will be called in to do an ADR session. ADR stands for Automated (or Automatic) Dialogue Replacement, which is used for dialogue that cannot be salvaged from the production tracks and therefore must be re-recorded. Once the actor re-records his dialogue on a clean track, it’s added to the scene in the edit and made to match the footage. Although ADR exists as a solution to bad production audio, many filmmakers will try to avoid using it, especially if the audio is added to a direct shot of a character speaking, as this is often difficult to sync up correctly.

Editing sound

Many editors will prefer to edit the sound for scenes within their editing software of choice, whether it is Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer or something else. They create multiple audio tracks and will layer the required sound effects according to the how they should be applied to that scene. However, if there needs to be some audio mixed into one track that is then layered to the edit, such as an atmospheric track, then this audio will be edited using external software like AVID Pro Tools or Adobe Audition CC.

Avid Media Composer's sound design
Avid Media Composer

Conclusion

Adding solid sound elements to your project is a good way to make your work more professional. It also adds realism to your scenes. But many sound designers go through a lot of trial and error before learning the correct techniques. So how does someone who is new to sound design make sure they do a good job?

Ingreji had this to say: “I think it’s just a matter of working on it. You show it to the people you’re working with and ultimately the director will have the final call on what works and what doesn’t. A good thing to keep in mind is that the nature of the project determines what kind of sounds are being used and that you shouldn’t be making it clear to the audience that sound effects are being used. If the people you show your scene to can’t tell that it’s had sound design done to it, then you’ve done it effectively.”

Great sound design develops you visual story without showing anything

Effective sound design allows you to paint a vibrant picture of a cinematic scene all without having to show your audience a single thing. If neglected or handled improperly, it can make a scene lack realism and leave audiences feeling uneasy. At worst, it can become too distracting and draw focus away from the story. During my talk with Ingreji, he  explained the methodology behind his sound design:

“Filmmaking is still a visual medium. The sound shouldn’t distract from the story; it’s there to serve the story. The sound shouldn’t draw away from the narrative or keep it from moving forward. Always make sure that your sound works with the visual rather than the two battling for the attention of the audience.”

Many people consider sound design the unspoken hero of film. Clever sound design can bring the audiences into a scene and envelop them in the world they see on the screen, and if done correctly, they will never even know it.

Antonio is always looking for new ways to expand his filmmaking knowledge, from cinematography to editing, there is always something new he is trying to learn. Now with feature film work under his belt, he is ready to share the knowledge he gathered with the world.

Antonio Pavlov
From freelance video work, to feature films, I aim to learn as much as I can about the industry and grow my skills as I go along.For the past 6 years I have been writing, shooting, editing, and even compositing visual effects as a freelancer, and now I have moved into the world of feature films with two major motion pictures under my belt.With every project I learn something new and I always look to share that knowledge and experience with as many people as I can!

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