Designing A Movie For Sound
© by Randy Thom (email@example.com) (updated 3/15
The biggest myth about composing and
sound designing is that they are about creating great sounds. Not true, or at least not
What is Sound Design?
You may assume that it's about fabricating neat sound effects. But
that doesn't describe very accurately what Ben Burtt and Walter Murch, who invented the term,
did on "Star Wars" and "Apocalypse Now"
On those films they found themselves working with Directors who were not just looking for
powerful sound effects to attach to a structure that was already in place. By
experimenting with sound, playing with sound (and not just sound effects, but music and
dialog as well) all through production and post production what Francis Coppola, Walter
Murch, George Lucas, and Ben Burtt found is that sound began to shape the picture sometimes as much as the picture
shaped the sound. The result was very different from anything we had heard before. The
films are legends, and their soundtracks changed forever the way we think about film
What passes for "great sound" in films today is too often
merely loud sound. High fidelity recordings of gunshots and explosions, and well
fabricated alien creature vocalizations don't constitute great sound design.
A well-orchestrated and recorded piece of musical score has minimal value if it hasn't
been integrated into the film as a whole. Giving the actors plenty of things to say in
every scene isn't necessarily doing them, their characters, or the movie a favor. Sound,
musical and otherwise, has value when it is part of a continuum, when it changes over
time, has dynamics, and resonates with other sound and with other sensory experiences.
What I propose is that the way for a filmmaker to take
advantage of sound is not simply to make it possible to record good sound on the set
(though God knows that would be a triumph in itself), or simply to hire a talented sound
designer/composer to fabricate sounds, but rather to design the film with sound in mind,
to allow sound's contributions to influence creative decisions in the other crafts. Films
as different from "Star Wars" as "Citizen Kane",
"Raging Bull", "Eraserhead", "The Elephant
Man", "Never Cry Wolf" and "Once Upon A Time In
West" were thoroughly "sound designed", though no sound designer was
credited on most of them.
Does every film want, or need, to be like "Star Wars" or "Apocalypse
Now" ? Absolutely not. But lots of films could benefit from those models.
Sidney Lumet said recently in an interview that he had been amazed at what Francis Coppola
and Walter Murch had been able to accomplish in the mix of "Apocalypse Now".
Well, what was great about that mix began long before anybody got near a dubbing stage. In
fact, it began with the script, and with Coppola's inclination to give the characters in "Apocalypse
Now" the opportunity to listen to the world around them.
Many directors who like to think they appreciate sound
still have a pretty narrow idea of the potential for sound in storytelling. The
generally accepted view is that it's useful to have "good" sound in order to enhance the
visuals and root the images in a kind of temporal reality. But that isn't collaboration,
it's slavery. And the product it yields is bound to be less complex and interesting than
it would be if sound could somehow be set free to be an active player in the process. Only
when each craft influences every other craft does the movie begin to take on a life of
Walter Murch has enormous talent for manipulating sound, but what made the tracks in films like "The Conversation" and "Apocalypse
Now" great was probably more his ability to manipulate the film, the story, and
the images in ways that allowed sound to be a collaborator, not just something
A Thing Almost Alive
It is a common myth that the time for film makers to think seriously
about sound is at the end of the film making process, when the structure of the movie is already in place. After all, how is the composer to know
what kind of music to write unless he/she can examine at least a rough assembly of the final product? For some films this approach is adequate. Rarely, it works
amazingly well. But doesn't it seem odd that in this supposedly collaborative medium,
music and sound effects rarely have the opportunity to exert any influence on the
non-sound crafts? How is the Director supposed to know how to make the film without having
a plan for using music?
A dramatic film which really works is, in some senses, almost alive, a complex web of elements which are interconnected, almost like living
tissues, and which despite their complexity work together to present a more-or-less coherent set of behaviors. It doesn't make any sense to set up a process in
which the role of one craft, sound, is simply to react, to follow, to be pre-empted from
giving feedback to the system it is a part of.
The Basic Terrain, As It Is Now
Many feature film directors tend to oscillate between two wildly
different states of consciousness about sound in their movies. On one hand, they tend to
ignore any serious consideration of sound (including music) throughout the planning,
shooting, and early editing. Then they suddenly get a temporary dose of religion when they
realize that there are holes in the story, weak scenes, and bad edits to disguise. Now
they develop enormous and short-lived faith in the power and value of sound to make their
movie watch able. Unfortunately it's usually way too late, and after some vain attempts to
stop a hemorrhage with a bandaid, the Director's head drops, and sound cynicism rules
again until late in the next project's post production.
What follows is a list of some of the bleak realities faced by those of us who work in
film sound, and some suggestions for improving the situation.
If a script has lots of references in it to specific sounds, we might
be tempted to jump to the conclusion that it is a sound-friendly script. But this isn't
necessarily the case. The degree to which sound is eventually able to participate in
storytelling will be more determined by the use of time, space, and point of view in the
story than by how often the script mentions actual sounds. Most of the great sound
sequences in films are "pov" sequences.
The photography, the blocking of actors, the production design, art direction, editing,
and dialogue have been set up such that we, the audience, are experiencing the action more
or less through the point of view of one, or more, of the characters in the sequence.
Since what we see and hear is being filtered through their consciousness, what they hear
can give us lots of information about who they are and what they are feeling. Figuring out
how to use pov, as well as how to use acoustic space and the element of time, should begin
with the writer. Some writers naturally think in these terms, most don't. And it is almost
never taught in film writing courses.
Serious consideration of the way sound will be used in the story is typically left up to
the director. Unfortunately, most directors have only the vaguest notions of how to use
sound because they haven't been taught it either. In virtually all film schools sound is
taught as if it were simply a tedious and mystifying series of technical operations, a
necessary evil on the way to doing the fun stuff.
On the set, virtually every aspect of the sound crew's work is
dominated by the needs of the camera crew. The locations for shooting have been chosen by
the Director, DP, and Production Designer long before anyone concerned with sound has been
hired. The sets are typically built with little or no concern for, or even awareness of,
the implications for sound. The lights buzz, the generator truck is parked way too close.
The floor or ground could easily be padded to dull the sound of footsteps when feet aren't
in the shot, but there isn't enough time. The shots are usually composed, blocked, and lit
with very little effort toward helping either the location sound crew or the post
production crew take advantage of the range of dramatic potential inherent in the
situation. In nearly all cases, visual criteria determine which shots will be printed and
Any moment not containing something visually fascinating is quickly trimmed away.
There is rarely any discussion, for example, of what should be heard rather than seen. If
several of our characters are talking in a bar, maybe one of them should be over in a dark
corner. We hear his voice, but we don't see him. He punctuates the few things he says with
the sound of a bottle he rolls back and forth on the table in front of him. Finally he
puts a note in the bottle and rolls it across the floor of the dark bar. It comes to a
stop at the feet of the characters we see.
This approach could be played for comedy, drama, or some of both as it might have been in "Once Upon A Time In The West". Either way, sound is
making a contribution. The use of sound will strongly influence the way the scene is set
up. Starving the eye will inevitably bring the ear, and therefore the imagination, more
Finally, in post, sound cautiously creeps out of the closet and
attempts meekly to assert itself, usually in the form of a composer and a supervising
sound editor. The composer is given four or five weeks to produce seventy to ninety
minutes of great music. The supervising sound editor is given ten to fifteen weeks
to-smooth out the production dialog-spot, record, and edit ADR and try to wedge a few
specific sound effects into sequences that were never designed to use them, being careful
to cover every possible option the Director might want because there "isn't any
time" for the Director to make choices before the mix.
Meanwhile, the film is being continuously re-edited. The Editor and Director, desperately grasping for some way to improve what they have,
are meticulously making adjustments, mostly consisting of a few frames, which result in the music, sound effects, and dialog editing departments
having to spend a high percentage of the precious time they have left trying to fix all
the holes caused by new picture changes.
The dismal environment surrounding the recording of ADR is in some ways symbolic of the
secondary role of sound. Everyone acknowledges that production dialog is almost always superior in performance quality to ADR. Most directors
and actors despise the process of doing ADR. Everyone goes into ADR sessions assuming that
the product will be inferior to what was recorded on the set, except that it will be
intelligible, whereas the set recording (in most cases where ADR is needed) was covered
with noise and/or is distorted.
This lousy attitude about the possibility of getting anything wonderful out of an ADR
session turns, of course, into a self fulfilling prophecy.
Essentially no effort is typically put into giving the ADR recording experience the level
of excitement, energy, and exploration that characterized the film set when the cameras
were rolling. The result is that ADR performances almost always lack the "life"
of the original. They're more-or-less in sync, and they're intelligible. Why not record
ADR on location, in real-world places which will inspire the actors and provide realistic
acoustics? That would be taking ADR seriously. like so many other sound-centered
activities in movies, ADR is treated as basically a technical operation, to be gotten past
as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Taking Sound Seriously
If your reaction to all this is "So, what do you expect, isn't
it a visual medium?" there may be nothing I can say to change your mind. My opinion is that film
is definitely not a "visual medium." I think if you look closely at and listen
to a dozen or so of the movies you consider to be great, you will realize how important a
role sound plays in many if not most of them. It is even a little misleading to say
"a role sound plays" because in fact when a scene is really clicking, the visual
and aural elements are working together so well that it is nearly impossible to
The suggestions I'm about to make obviously do not apply to all films. There will never be
a "formula" for making great movies or great movie sound. Be that as it
Writing For Sound
Telling a film story, like telling any kind of story, is about
creating connections between characters, places, objects, experiences, and ideas. You try to invent
a world which is complex and many layered, like the real world. But unlike most of real
life (which tends to be badly written and edited), in a good film a set of themes emerge
which embody a clearly identifiable line or arc, which is the story.
It seems to me that one element of writing for movies stands above all others in terms of making the eventual movie as "cinematic" as possible:
establishing point of view. The audience experiences the action through its identification
with characters. The writing needs to lay the ground work for setting up pov before the
actors, cameras, microphones, and editors come into play. Each of these can obviously
enhance the element of pov, but the script should contain the blueprint.
Let's say we are writing a story about a guy who, as a boy, loved visiting his father at
the steel mill where he worked. The boy grows up and seems to be pretty happy with his
life as a lawyer, far from the mill. But he has troubling, ambiguous nightmares that
eventually lead him to go back to the town where he lived as a boy in an attempt to find
the source of the bad dreams.
The description above doesn't say anything specific about the possible use of sound in this story, but I have chosen basic story elements which
hold vast potential for sound. First, it will be natural to tell the story more-or-less
through the pov of our central character. But that's not all.
A steel mill gives us a huge palette for sound. Most importantly, it is a place which we
can manipulate to produce a set of sounds which range from banal to exciting to
frightening to weird to comforting to ugly to beautiful. The place can therefore become a
character, and have its own voice, with a range of "emotions" and
"moods." And the sounds of the mill can resonate with a wide variety of elements
elsewhere in the story. None of this good stuff is likely to happen unless we write,
shoot, and edit the story in a way that allows it to happen.
The element of dream in the story swings a door wide open to sound as a
collaborator. In a dream sequence we as film makers have even more latitude than usual to modulate sound to serve our story, and to make
connections between the sounds in the dream and the sounds in the world for which the dream is supplying clues. Likewise, the "time border"
between the "little boy" period and the "grown-up" period offers us
lots of opportunities to compare and contrast the two worlds, and his perception of them. Over
a transition from one period to the other, one or more sounds can go through a
metamorphosis. Maybe as our guy daydreams about his childhood, the rhythmic clank of a
metal shear in the mill changes into the click clack of the railroad car taking him back
to his home town. Any sound, in itself, only has so much intrinsic appeal or value. On the
other hand, when a sound changes over time in response to elements in the larger story,
its power and richness grow exponentially.
Opening The Door For Sound, Efficient Dialog
Sadly, it is common for a director to come to me with a sequence
composed of unambiguous, unmysterious, and uninteresting shots of a location like a steel
mill, and then to tell me that this place has to be made sinister and fascinating with
sound effects. As icing on the cake, the sequence typically has wall-to-wall dialog which
will make it next to impossible to hear any of the sounds I desperately throw at the
In recent years there has been a trend, which may be in insidious influence of bad
television, toward non-stop dialog in films The wise old maxim that it's better to say it
with action than words seems to have lost some ground. Quentin Tarantino has made some
excellent films which depend heavily on dialog, but he's incorporated scenes which use
dialog sparsely as well.
There is a phenomenon in movie making that my friends and I sometimes
call the "100% theory." Each department-head on a film, unless otherwise
instructed, tends to assume that it is 100% his or her job to make the movie work. The
result is often a logjam of uncoordinated visual and aural product, each craft competing for attention, and often adding up to little more than noise
unless the director and editor do their jobs extremely well.
Dialogue is one of the areas where this inclination toward density is at its worst. On top
of production dialog, the trend is to add as much ADR as can be wedged into a scene.
Eventually, all the space not occupied by actual words is filled with grunts, groans, and
breathing (supposedly in an effort to "keep the character alive"). Finally the
track is saved (sometimes) from being a self parody only by the fact that there is so much
other sound happening simultaneously that at least some of the added dialog is masked. If
your intention is to pack your film with wall-to-wall clever dialog, maybe you should
consider doing a play.
Characters need to have the opportunity to listen.
When a character looks at an object, we the audience are looking at
it, more-or-less through his eyes. The way he reacts to seeing the object (or doesn't react) can give us vital information about who he is and how
he fits into this situation. The same is true for hearing. If there are no moments in
which our character is allowed to hear the world around him, then the audience is deprived
of one important dimension of HIS life.
Picture and Sound as Collaborators
Sound effects can make a scene scary and interesting as hell, but
they usually need a little help from the visual end of things. For example, we may want to have
a strange-sounding machine running off-camera during a scene in order to add tension and
atmosphere. If there is at least a brief, fairly close shot of some machine which could be
making the sound, it will help me immensely to establish the sound. Over that shot we can
feature the sound, placing it firmly in the minds of the audience. Then we never have to
see it again, but every time the audience hears it, they will know what it is (even if it
is played very low under dialogue), and they will make all the appropriate associations,
including a sense of the geography of the place.
The contrast between a sound heard at a distance, and that same sound heard close-up can be a very powerful element. If our guy and an old friend are walking
toward the mill, and they hear, from several blocks away, the sounds of the machines
filling the neighborhood, there will be a powerful contrast when they arrive at the mill
gate. As a former production sound mixer, if a director had ever told me that a scene was
to be shot a few blocks away from the mill set in order to establish how powerfully the
sounds of the mill hit the surrounding neighborhood, I probably would have gone straight
into a coma after kissing his feet. Directors essentially never base their decisions about
where to shoot a scene on the need for sound to make a story contribution. Why not?
Art Direction and Sound as Collaborators
Let's say we're writing a character for a movie we're making. This
guy is out of money, angry, desperate. We need, obviously, to design the place where he
lives. Maybe it's a run-down apartment in the middle of a big city. The way that place
looks will tell us (the audience) enormous amounts about who the character is and how he
is feeling. And if we take sound into account when we do the visual design then we have
the potential for hearing through his ears this terrible place he inhabits. Maybe water and sewage pipes are
visible on the ceiling and walls. If we establish one of those pipes in a close-up it will
do wonders for the sound designer's ability to create the sounds of stuff running through
and vibrating all the pipes. Without seeing the pipes we can still put "pipe
sounds" into the track, but it will be much more difficult to communicate to the
audience what those sounds are. One close-up of a pipe, accompanied by grotesque sewage
pipe sounds, is all we need to clearly tell the audience how sonically ugly this place is.
After that, we only need to hear those sounds and audience will make the connection to the
pipes without even having to show them.
It's wonderful when a movie gives you the sense that you really know the places in it.
That each place is alive, has character and moods. A great actor will find ways to use the
place in which he finds himself in order to reveal more about the person he plays. We need
to hear the sounds that place makes in order to know it. We need to hear the actor's voice
reverberating there. And when he is quiet we need to hear the way that place will be
Starving The Eye, The Usefulness Of Ambiguity
Viewers/listeners are pulled into a story mainly because they are led
to believe that there are interesting questions to be answered, and that they, the
audience, may possess certain insights useful in solving the puzzle. If this is true, then
it follows that a crucial element of storytelling is knowing what not to make immediately
clear, and then devising techniques that use the camera and microphone to seduce the
audience with just enough information to tease them into getting involved. It is as if our
job is to hang interesting little question marks in the air surrounding each scene, or to
place pieces of cake on the ground that seem to lead somewhere, though not in a straight
line. Sound may be the most powerful tool in the filmmaker's arsenal in terms of its
ability to seduce. That's because "sound," as the great sound editor Alan Splet
once said, "is a heart thing." We, the audience, interpret sound with our
emotions, not our intellect.
Let's assume we as film makers want to take sound seriously, and that the first issues
have already been addressed:
1) The desire exists to tell the story more-or-less through the point of view
or more of the characters.
2) Locations have been chosen, and sets designed which don't rule out sound as a
player, and in fact, encourage it.
3) There is not non-stop dialog.
Here are some ways to tease the eye, and thereby invite the ear to the party:
The Beauty of Long Lenses and Short Lenses
There is something odd about looking through a very long lens or a
very short lens. We see things in a way we don't ordinarily see them. The inference is often that we are looking through someone else's eyes. In the opening
sequence of "The Conversation" we see people in San Francisco's Union
Square through a telephoto lens. The lack of depth of field and other characteristics of
that kind of lens puts us into a very subjective space. As a result, we can easily justify
hearing sounds which may have very little to do with what we see in the frame, and more to
do with the way the person ostensibly looking through that lens FEELS. The way we use such
a shot will determine whether that inference is made obvious to the audience, or kept
Dutch Angles and Moving Cameras
The shot may be from floor level or ceiling level. The frame may be
rotated a few degrees off vertical. The camera may be on a track, hand held, or just
panning. In any of these cases the effect will be to put the audience in unfamiliar space.
The shot will no longer simply be "depicting" the scene. The shot becomes part
of the scene. The element of unfamiliar space suddenly swings the door wide-open to sound.
Darkness Around the Edge Of the Frame
In many of the great film noir classics the frame was carefully
composed with areas of darkness. Though we in the audience may not consciously consider
what inhabits those dark splotches, they nevertheless get the point across that the truth,
lurking somewhere just outside the frame is too complex to let itself be photographed
easily. Don't forget that the ears are the guardians of sleep. They tell us what we need
to know about the darkness, and will gladly supply some clues about what's going on.
Extreme Close-ups and Long Shots
Very close shots of people's hands, their clothing, etc. will tend to make us feel as
though we are experiencing things through the point of view of either the person being
photographed or the person whose view of them we are sharing. Extreme long shots are
wonderful for sound because they provide an opportunity to hear the fullness or emptiness
of a vast landscape. Carroll Ballards films The Black Stallion and Never Cry
Wolf use wide shots and extreme close-ups wonderfully with sound.
Raging Bull and Taxi Driver contain some obvious, and some very subtle uses of slow motion. Some of it is barely perceptible. But it always seems to put us into
a dream-space, and tell us that something odd, and not very wholesome, is happening.
Black and White Images
Many still photographers feel that black and white images have several artistic advantages over color. Among them, that black and white shots are often less
"busy" than color images, and therefore lend themselves more to presenting a
coherent feeling. We are surrounded in our everyday lives by color and color images. A
black and white image now is clearly "understood" (felt) to be someone's point of view, not an "objective"
presentation of events. In movies, like still photography, painting, fiction, and poetry,
the artist tends to be most concerned with communicating feelings rather than
"information." Black and white images have the potential to convey a maximum of
feeling without the "clutter" of color.
Whenever we as an audience are put into a visual "space" in which we are
encouraged to "feel" rather than "think," what comes into our ears can
inform those feelings and magnify them.
What Do All Of These Visual Approaches Have In Common?
They all are ways of withholding information. They muddy the waters a little. When done well, the result will be the following implication:
Gee folks, if we could be more explicit about what is going on here we sure would, but it is so damned mysterious that even we, the storytellers, don't fully
understand how amazing it is. Maybe you can help us take it a little farther." That
message is the bait. Dangle it in front of an audience and they won't be able to resist
going for it. in the process of going for it they bring their imaginations and experiences
with them, making your story suddenly become their story. success.
We, the film makers, are all sitting around a table in pre-production, brainstorming about how to manufacture the most delectable bait possible, and how to make
it seem like it isn't bait at all. (Aren't the most interesting stories always told by
guys who have to be begged to tell them?) We know that we want to sometimes use the camera
to withhold information, to tease, or to put it more bluntly: to seduce. The most compelling method of seduction is
inevitably going to involve sound as well.
Ideally, the unconscious dialog in the minds of the audience should be something like: "What I'm seeing isn't giving me enough information. What I'm hearing
is ambiguous, too. But the combination of the two seems to be pointing in the direction of
a vaguely familiar container into which I can pour my experience and make something I
never before quite imagined." Isn't it obvious that the microphone plays just as
important a role in setting up this performance as does the camera?
Editing Picture With Sound In Mind
One of the many things a film editor does is to get rid of moments in the film in which
"nothing" is happening. A desirable objective most of the time, but not always.
The editor and director need to be able to figure out when it will be useful to linger on
a shot after the dialog is finished, or before it begins. To stay around after the obvious
"action" is past, so that we can listen. Of course it helps quite a bit if the
scene has been shot with these useful pauses in mind. Into these little pauses sound can
creep on it's stealthy little toes, or its clanking jackboots, to tell us something about
where we have been or where we are going.
Walter Murch, film editor and sound designer, uses lots of unconventional techniques. One
of them is to spend a certain period of his picture editing time not listening to the
sound at all. He watches and edits the visual images without hearing the sync sound which
was recorded as those images were photographed. This approach can ironically be a great
boon to the use of sound in the movie. If the editor can imagine the sound (musical or
other- wise) which might eventually accompany a scene, rather than listen to the rough,
dis-continuous, often annoying sync track, then the cutting will be more likely to leave
room for those beats in which sound other than dialog will eventually make its
Music, dialogue, and sound effects can each do any of the following jobs, and many more:
* suggest a mood, evoke a feeling
* set a pace
* indicate a geographical locale
* indicate a historical period
* clarify the plot
* define a character
* connect otherwise unconnected ideas, characters, places, images, or
* heighten realism or diminish it
* heighten ambiguity or diminish it
* draw attention to a detail, or away from it
* indicate changes in time
* smooth otherwise abrupt changes between shots or scenes
* emphasize a transition for dramatic effect
* describe an acoustic space
* startle or soothe
* exaggerate action or mediate it
At any given moment in a film, sound is likely to be doing several of these things at
But sound, if it's any good, also has a life of its own, beyond these utilitarian functions. And its ability to be good and useful to the story, and powerful,
beautiful and alive will be determined by the state of the ocean in which it swims, the
film. Try as you may to paste sound onto a predetermined structure, the result will almost
always fall short of your hopes. But if you encourage the sounds of the characters, the
things, and the places in your film to inform your decisions in all the other film crafts,
then your movie may just grow to have a voice beyond anything you might have dreamed.
So, what does a sound designer do?
It was the dream of Walter Murch and others in the wildly creative early days of American
Zoetrope that sound would be taken as seriously as image. They thought that at least some films could use the guidance of someone
well-schooled in the art of sound in storytelling to not only create sounds but also to
coordinate the use of sound in the film. This someone, they thought, would brainstorm with
the director and writer in pre-production to integrate sound into the story on the page. During
shooting that person would make sure that the recording and playing-back of sound on the set was given the important status it deserves, and not
treated as a low-priority, which is always the temptation in the heat of trying to make the daily quota of shots. In post production that person
would continue the fabrication and collection of sounds begun in pre-production, and would work with other sound professionals
(composers, editors, mixers), and the Director and Editor to give the film's soundtrack a
coherent and well coordinated feeling.
This dream has been a difficult one to realize, and in fact has made little headway since
the early 1970s. The term sound designer has come to be associated simply with using
specialized equipment to make "special" sound effects. On "THX-1138"
and "The Conversation" Walter Murch was the Sound Designer in the
fullest sense of the word. The fact hat he was also a Picture Editor on "The
Conversation" and "Apocalypse Now" put him in a position to
shape those films in ways that allowed them to use sound in an organic and powerful way.
No other sound designers on major American films have had that kind of opportunity.
So, the dream of giving sound equal status to image is deferred. Someday the Industry may
appreciate and foster the model established by Murch. Until then, whether you cut the
dialog, write the script, record music, perform foley, edit the film, direct the film or
do any one of a hundred other jobs, anybody who shapes sound, edits sound, or even
considers sound when making a creative decision in another craft is, at least in a limited
sense, designing sound for the movie, and designing the movie for sound.
Back to Articles|Back to Homepage