For The Film Makers Who Listen
Updated: Aug 6, 2019
The Sound Design for an atmosphere or scene is as much a composition as the music that shares it’s space. It may not have the recognisable repetition or melody of a musical composition but it does have the intricacies and depth of layers. Working with the development of visuals from a very early stage is hugely beneficial when designing sound for a project, a little like cooking a meal, one should taste and adjust accordingly throughout the process. It would be a little peculiar to finish a meal, have it looking exactly as you want it to and then add all the flavour.
I like to think that great Sound Design actually pushes the sound into the visuals rather than laying it over the top right at the end, which I believe happens far too often in the film industry. Of course this is largely due to the horrid ‘time is money’ phrase and not necessarily down to the skill of the contracted Sound Designer but if all the visual professionals are working thousands of hours to get to those final renders (which they really do and hats off to them for it!) then let the Sonic professionals do the same so that the final product is as good as it possibly can be.
There is nothing more pleasurable in my profession than having to create a believable and immersive atmosphere but I personally choose to do so by steering a different course rather than just using unadulterated foley or location recordings. It is undoubtedly artistic license constantly pulling at my coat tails but sometimes the ‘real life’ sounds just aren’t that pleasant when regurgitated for the accuracy a film scene.
I would like to take a moment to encourage you to at least use some decent headphones in order to be able to identify with the following pieces of audio. It's a constant sadness that today the majority of audio visual content is consumed on mobile phones or laptops...I miss the days of having separates systems in the home, with proper sound!
Let me use an example to demonstrate these points, a Bar Scene in a film:
If we were to actually replicate the accurate sound and volume of that scenario in a film, it would be brash and not so easy on the ears, so instead, we can begin to tweak. This tweaking can be heavily influenced by other factors of course. If there is dialogue then that has to take priority, if the point of view of the character is first person or third person, or if the story/Director dictates that the attention must be focused on something despite the surroundings, then you begin to be guided as to the creative paths you may choose. These are the kind of pertinent points that one is able to grasp if working on a production from the outset, something that I constantly preach the benefits of and a practice enjoyed right across the Gaming industry but not as much with Linear Sound Design.
For a moment though let us go back to this imaginary bar scene. I look to use 'trigger' sounds, i.e. the kind of things you would collect on a list if you asked a hundred people 'What might you hear in a bar?' The point is that the suggestion of sounds can be enough to convince the audience of a scenario, much like sleight of hand in an illusion. Not necessarily looking at all the visual details of the scene and representing a sound for every one but instead composing a picture of elements designed to completely convince the senses of the viewer.
The enjoyment comes when building the scene in terms of placing these triggers carefully in the timeline, the mix and therefore in the represented space itself. An indiscernible conversation on the left just ‘off camera’ is lowered in volume, afforded the application of the room’s reverb, if deemed necessary and given an adjustment of EQ to control how the range at which they are sitting from the subject is perceived. This is just one drop of sound in the entire scene but immediately has given a point of reference therefore and a sense of position. Then there’s the room itself, what is its layout? How big is the space? Is
the floor carpeted? Stone? Tiles? All these things will affect the sonic characteristics of the room and therefore the way that the sounds behave within. Next, the bartender is just off- centre shot at a distance of a few yards or so. The glasses are going to make a distinctive sound but they’re 6-8 yards away, so the adjustments of the sound’s parameters must be done with care. Add then the underlying murmur of numerous voices, male and female, all at different positions, furniture movement, appliances, a till, a door...the list can go on but the balance must be maintained so as not to rock the sonic boat, or as is commonly said 'Muddy' the sound. This is where conflicting frequencies found in numerous files within the mix serve to cancel each other and basically deny their required definition. Music will of course be playing in the bar too but choose carefully for despite the fact that it will be merged into the atmospherics it is still music and is still very emotionally influential. Thrash metal will bring a whole different vibe to the feeling of the atmosphere you’ve created over Northern Soul or Irish Folk and again, how discernible is it to be? Will it be adjustments of EQ to make it muffled? Or will it simply be direction of sound source and volume? The volume of the music will have a powerful effect on the entirety of the atmospherics so must be adjusted from zero up to that the point where it strikes the right chord! My personal gauge of where that point is, is the point at which an unforced smile appears on my face whilst adjusting levels!
The point of this article is simply to provide a subjective insight into a more thorough approach to atmospheric Sound Design....One could of course simply go to a busy bar with a decent microphone, record it and then use that, untouched, straight onto the scene.
The difference, in my opinion, between a bespoke piece of furniture...and a flat pack...One will simply do the job, the other will do the job with style and feel a damn sight more original!
Now to analyse the alternative, a bespoke 'Bar Scene' atmosphere. Beginning with one sound in one position and building to the full effect. Concentrating on just 6 seconds of atmospherics, this audio loops continuously 20 times, each time a new layer of sound is added. Finally upon the introduction of the 'Room music' the piece plays out for 10 seconds with everything in place.
I find it a pleasure to work alongside so many visual effects artists in the industry and to see the details of their painstaking work and despite our obvious differences of disciplines we have something in common, our trades are also our hobbies.
Similarly, as I grew up I watched my father constantly sketch ideas for his next painting in his pocket sketchpad, now I find myself doodling soundscapes in much the same way.
I will leave this blog/ramble with my latest 'doodle' inspired by a recent capture I made of a terrific downpour whilst sitting in a conservatory during a passing storm....but then, I imagined, with my Sound Designer's hat on, what if that storm was bringing with it something more than rain??!! That and watching endless Space exploration and Sci fi recently led to this short Sonic painting! :
Thank you for reading and listening to my thoughts and ideas here today. Should you have any questions or wish to get in touch regarding your own projects please do not hesitate to contact me, Ben Cozens, at the following email address: email@example.com