Sound Design: How Sound Helps Tell Your Visual Stories

Every scene in a film contains carefully crafted sound design to help audiences further understand what is taking place. Sound reflects various aspects of the production, from the scene’s location to the actions of the 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). While working on these films, Ingreji mainly worked on 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.

When considering sound design, dialogue and background music usually come to mind first. While these are undoubtedly vital in driving the plot and character development, they are only some of the elements in a production’s sound design. Your scene needs a 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 tell the audience where the scene is taking place. Although these sounds are usually quiet, they are essential to a scene, as 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 is 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 needs to consist of noises you typically hear in that setting. 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 might be of blowing wind, leaves rustling and animal sounds. It features 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, which is done through the use of action sounds. These include more subtle sounds, such as character clothing, items they might be holding or any contact they make with other characters or objects.

In an action scene, such as a fight scene, sounds likely include the impact of a punch or grunts from the fighters. Sound designers will go through a fight scene carefully to make sure all of the hits and impacts sound authentic. 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 everyday life, but not having them will make scenes stand out.

Sounds like these are quiet and subtle, and sound designers generally use these in quieter dialogue scenes. Take the typical “lonely guy at a bar” scene, for instance. Imagine a character sits at a bar and orders a drink. Then as the bartender goes off-screen, viewers may hear the sound of a glass set on the bartop and a shot being poured. That is a good use of action sounds.

Your audience will notice if actions sounds are missing

Although these are small sound elements, and the audience may not pick up on all of them, their absence will make the scene feel incomplete. The scene will lack the audio information needed to fully portray the actions and settings of any 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, as well as 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 works to great effect in horror or action scenarios, as it allows the audience to use their imaginations. Imagine two characters walk into a dark room out of frame. Then, there is the sound of a blade being drawn, followed by stabbing sounds and screaming. The audience understands what is happening despite not seeing any action on the screen. This also allows audience members to interpret the scene individually and experience it in a unique way.

Sound design in practice

In addition to creating a realistic scene, sound design makes for an effective storytelling device. The combination of elements such as dialogue, sound effects, and atmospheres help to support the story the filmmaker is telling. Sound design informs viewers where a scene is taking place and what is happening in it, and it informs them of how they should be feeling while watching that scene. Clever sound design can leave audiences feeling uneasy, scared, happy or any other emotion.

Given the power of sound design, we asked Ingreji what he believes to be 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 various types of sounds are recorded differently.

Location sounds

Location sounds are recorded in order to represent where the scene is taking place. So for these, a sound op will go to 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. Examples include: floorboards squeaking, doors creaking, any items or objects moving/in use, 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 adds realism to a scene through the reproduction of sound effects 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 execute correctly. The way in which Foley artists create these sounds 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 a specialized sound studio with a large preview screen. In this studio, a wide range of surfaces and props are at the artist’s disposal. The actions performed here include walking, running, rubbing clothing, breaking objects, handling props and jostling people. Artists perform these actions 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 on a Foley stage.

What is ADR and why do we use it?

During the filming of a project with dialogue, a microphone captures and records the audio. However, there are times when the dialogue isn’t recorded clearly. This often happens due to loud background noise or when an actor’s voice becomes muffled.

In cases of unusable dialogue, the actors re-record the audio in an ADR session. ADR stands for Automated (or Automatic) Dialogue Replacement, which replaces unsalvagable dialogue from the production tracks. Once the actor re-records his or her dialogue on a clean track, it’s added to the scene and matched to the footage. Although ADR exists as a solution to bad production audio, many filmmakers avoid using it, especially if the audio is for a direct shot of a character speaking, as this is difficult to sync up correctly.

Editing sound

Many editors prefer to edit the sound within their editing software of choice, whether it is Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer or something else. They create multiple audio tracks and layer the required sound effects according to how they should be applied to that scene. However, some audio requires mixing into one track which is then layered to the edit, such as an atmospheric track. In this instance, the 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 an excellent way to elevate your work and make it more professional. It also adds realism to your scenes. But many sound designers go through a great deal 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 your visual story without showing anything

Effective sound design allows you to paint a vibrant picture of a cinematic scene without having to show your audience a single thing. If neglected or handled improperly, a scene will 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 to be 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!

1 COMMENT

  1. Interesting article, thanks. In general though, I find a lot of movies, action ones in particular, assault you with audio. I’m constantly riding the volume on my remote to watch a movie at home. I find it very annoying that I need to raise the volume to hear dialogue and then quickly turn it down when sounds and music become disproportionately loud! We don’t listen to a movie in a studio acoustic environment, it’s in typical living room environment. Even in cinemas, the sound is like this and generally far too loud. Why the disparity between dialogue and other sounds? I wish the mix was more even. I find a lot of movies mixed in a ridiculous fashion. Please serve the story and not wring the last ounce of your dynamic range out on this unimpressed viewer.

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