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Designing A Movie For Sound
by Randy Thom 

When I try to explain what a movie sound designer does it's always
difficult.  The idea that a sound designer is somebody who fabricates
sci-fi sound effects is probably the most widely held notion on the
subject.  But it doesn't describe very accurately what Ben Burtt and
Walter Murch, who originated the term, did on  Star Wars and Apocalypse
Now.  On those films they found themselves working with Directors who
were not just looking for neat 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 they 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
they way we think about film sound.

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 do not 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,
or simply to hire a  great 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, A Touch Of Evil,
Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Never Cry Wolf and Once Upon A Time In The 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 they 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 Francis
Coppola's inclination to give the characters in Apocalypse 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 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 it's own.

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

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
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 watchable.  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

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 typically isn't taught in film writing

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
were simply a boring and tedious 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 used.  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 of information will inevitably
bring the ear, and therefore the imagination, more into play.
Unfortunately, sound (and the audience's imagination) isn't given this
sort of chance often enough.

Post Production
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.

Taking Sound Seriously
If your reaction to 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
closely look 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 distinguish them.

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 may........

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.  Nearly all of the great sound
sequences in movies have a strong element of pov.  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 exploitation.  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 usually 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
instead of a film.

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.

Shooting for Sound, Camera and Microphone as Collaborators Instead of
Master and Slave

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 without him.

Design sets which have the visual elements to suggest the sounds we want
in our palette.  And then feature those elements, at least briefly, in
close-up, without continuous dialog over them.

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 of one 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

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.  The
way we use the shot will determine whether that inference is made
obvious to the audience, or kept subliminal.

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

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.

Slow Motion
Raging Bull  and Taxi Driver  contain wonderful uses of slow motion.
Some of it is very subtle.  But it always seems to put us into a
dream-space, and tell us that something odd, and not very wholesome, is

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 exponentially.

What Do All Of These Visual Approaches Have In Common?

The conscious use of visual ambiguity is what they 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.

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 often edits without listening to the sync sound at all.
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 otherwise) 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 contribution.

Sound's Talents
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, images, or moments
  • 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 once.

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?
He or she may cut dialog, record music, perform foley, edit the film,
direct the film or perform any one of a hundred other jobs.  But anybody
who shapes sound, edits sound, or even considers sound when making a
creative decision in another craft, is designing sound for the movie,
and designing the movie for sound.

© 1998 Randy Thom 

old version of Designing A Movie For Sound

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