Every scene in a film has a different combination of sound that helps build the atmosphere for the audience. These sounds are carefully placed to represent what is going on in a particular scene, where the scene is set and what kind of actions the characters are engaged in.
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 and has been the assistant editor on films such as “London Has Fallen” (2016) and “The Mummy” (2017), where 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.
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, and figure out where the scene is set and what some of background sounds might be and 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.
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 because they appeal to the audience on a subconscious level. Without them, the scene will feel unnatural to the audience for taking away from the realism of the scene and make it stand out to the viewer, even if they aren’t completely sure why.
If the scene is taking place on a busy street, for instance, the background noise should be that of a busy street, with the sounds of people talking, car horns and the light sounds of engines revving. If the scene is set in a forest, the background noise would be of trees blowing in the wind, leaves rustling, the different animal sounds found in that particular type of forest and anything else that will inform the audience of where the scene is set.
The Sounds of Action
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.
If a character is in a scene with more action in it, like a fight scene, then there would need to be the sounds of cloth movement and impacts. Sound designers will go through a fight scene very carefully to make sure that 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.”
The same applies to character interactions with objects. For example if a character picks something metallic up like a wrench or even a gun, the sound designer will have to 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 or keys being pressed. These might not be sounds that people register in reality, but not having them in a scene will make it stand out to the audience.
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, where a 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.
Although the audience may or may not pick up on this, these are small sound elements, and 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 to leave a room while another character is talking to them, and as they do so they pick 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.
This technique is often used to great effect in horror or action scenarios because it allows the audience to use their imaginations. If two characters walk into a dark room out of frame and 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 while individually interpreting 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, but it also informs them of how they should be feeling while watching that scene. The clever use of sound design can leave audiences feeling uneasy, scared, happy or any other emotion you may want to craft 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 large libraries of 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, meaning 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 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 any sound that will more than likely be heard during the scene: 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 and therefore be able to make it as realistic as possible for the audience.
Foley 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 and 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 and then performing 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.
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.
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.
Adding solid sound elements to your project is a good way to make your work more professional and add realism to your scenes. But many sound designers go through a lot of trial and error before learning the correct techniques to getting perfect sound for scenes. 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.”
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.
Sidebar - How to test your sound design?
A great example of a film where the sound design drives both the story and the emotions is the 1998 Steven Spielberg film, “Saving Private Ryan.” The sound was designed by Gary Rydstrom, who also worked on “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator 2.” Rydstrom was able to create the massive soundscape of an entire war — crucial to this film because the visual perspective was often limited to the point of view of a character. The sound was able to not only represent the scenes in a sonic perspective but also in an emotional one; throughout the film, sound draws the audience in, from the thundering sounds of tanks coming, to the shellshock of an explosion, and even the bobbing up and down between the mayhem of war and the quiet cocoon of the ocean. The sounds for this film were captured naturally so as to represent the scenes accurately and were mixed together so well that many audience members were submerged in the reality created in front of them on the screen.
Another film with stunning sound design is the 2013 Alfonso Cuarón film, “Gravity.” This film took a unique approach to sound design, using the idea of the vacuum in space and applying it to the film’s sound design. The sound designer, Glenn Freemantle, used contact and underwater microphones to record the sounds for “Gravity” in order to give a true representation of space, especially in the famous 13 minute long continuous shot at the start of the film. He kept it completely silent throughout but made the vibrational sounds loud when two objects came into contact with each other. This gave audiences a completely new way to listen to the world and created an immersive and unique cinematic experience. It’s also a great example of effective sound design for quiet scenes.
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.