Every kid nowadays has a camera. In fact, most humans carry around cameras in their jacket pockets, ready to flip one out at a moment’s notice to contribute to the grass roots, democratised, limitless documentation of the human experience on earth. It’s quite an incredible social experiment if you think about it. Plus you get to watch your holiday back, forever – in all its glory.
Later you’re in your editing program – you’ve got all your best GoPro shots and mix them up with some from your DSLR and your phone when you needed a selfie stick. Amazing, that was such a funny moment when Johnno fell in the pool. Ooh and there’s that cute feral puppy licking your fingers sniffing at the lens. And boy did that sunrise look awesome on the top of that hill you reluctantly climbed after a big night out. You better find your favourite music track to sum up the trip and overlay all the clips because you certainly can’t listen to the sound from the actual camera. It’s all a big crackly mess, you can’t hear what people are saying, because it was so windy, and your thumb was over the tiny microphone hole making it sound like you’re rubbing body parts against the bathtub. It doesn’t matter though; music is the way forward. Music adds mood and energy and personality – because you chose the track personally, because you love it. So why would anyone ever bother with sound?
Imagine for a second, that you’re sitting on a long-haul flight and both the screen in front and the screen next to you are faulty? Your one has bad picture quality – everything looks green. When you move up one seat and plug in your headphones, the picture is great, but there is a constant buzz on the audio. Which screen are you going to up putting up with? Sound is one of the least appreciated parts of the film making process, until it goes wrong. Sound is actually incredibly important when building an emotional connection from the character on screen, through the lens, to the viewer. When someone on screen falls off a bike and breaks an arm, you don’t even need to see it happening. You feel instantly uncomfortable just by the sound of the bone crunching. It’s the sound of birds singing or wind whistling that can turn the same shot of a person walking through the woods from happy and calm to mysterious and threatening. And what happens when something on screen has no sound of it’s own? Like computer generated animation ‘Inside Out’?
This is where sound design comes in. The art of creating the right soundscape to enhance or even drive the story is as old as the first talking film. Through the years, sound designers worked tirelessly to layer ambient background sound with specific elements to make the viewer feel like there was no difference between the real world and the world on screen. Except that what is on screen was so cleverly created to tell a story on not just one, but hundreds of levels.
Take for example a battle scene in Lord of the Rings. Legolas is firing his arrow at an orc whilst Aragorn is drawing his sword to chop someone’s head off. You have probably never drawn a sword before, so the next time you have access to one, you’ll expect it to make a characteristic ‘shhhhhhht-iing’ sound when you get it out of it’s scabbard – just like Aragorn’s does. Here’s a classic piece of sound design that is telling you something: Aragorn’s sword is super sharp, so sharp it makes a ‘sharp’ sounding noise. The characteristic ‘shhhhhhht-iing’ sound would be caused by the metal sword scraping against another hard surface, such as stone or another piece of metal. Scabbards were made of metal for heavy swords or for ornamental reasons, but for light, portable swords like Aragorn’s they are more likely to be made of leather, so as to not blunt the sword when you get it out to chop someone’s head off. Metal on leather action doesn’t sound ‘sharp’ enough for movies though. Even a metal scabbard would not produce a ‘shhhhhhht-iing’ sound that can be heard over battle noise.
The sound of Aragorn’s sword is telling us how sharp it is, the ‘thuunkkk’ of Legolas’ arrows hitting wooden orc shields is telling us how solid the shield is but how powerful Legolas’ arrow is if we could only get past the shield. The shield on set is probably made out of painted polymer but it doesn’t matter – so long as it SOUNDS like it’s made out of wood, we’ll believe it, and it becomes part of the original story. Thus hundreds and hundreds of little sounds are recorded, and layered over a shot to create a full picture of what’s going on. Why not just record what was on set? Because dialogue was the most important thing to capture cleanly, so all other sounds take a lower priority whilst you’re paying an actor for his or her time. Later on in post-production, ‘seamlessly’ intercutting camera angles without losing the flow is only possible with an overall soundscape for the scene, which is layered separately from dialogue.
Animations are a whole new world as characters and spaces don’t produce any sounds as of themselves. Again, sound designers create entire worlds from scratch to make a final edit feel real, although it is obviously an animation. It’s all about emotional storytelling on a non-verbal level. Remember the kid who fell off his bike? Thanks to good sound design, you can feel just as squeamish hearing a cartoon character break an arm, whilst knowing full well that they don’t exist.
Back to the real world, the one we operate most in. If you’re filming something as straightforward as a nature documentary, where all the sounds are ‘real’ and you have an on-board microphone, it shouldn’t be a problem, right? You may have filmed one croc in the morning, and the same croc in the evening. Same day, same location, but boy does it sound different. The croc may be doing the same thing but different bugs are chirping in the mornings and evenings, the wind may have picked up ever so slightly causing an ambient rustle in the trees or a group of warthogs has just decided to kick off a party around the corner. In order for a sequence to work, you’ll have to put in the hours in post-production. In addition, things like shooting stars don’t make a sound, but your eyes notice them so much more if you add a little ‘swoosh’ in the edit.
We love sound design, as it connects our audiences on a whole new level with what we do. We love capturing real experiences in real destinations and take extra care to record on location so we can later layer everything we heard that made that particular moment special. We find sound design adds hugely to our films, especially when capturing the essence of a place. When the Kookaburras get going, or you hear samba floating through the air from a nearby party, you know exactly where you are in the world. And this, dear readers, is storytelling on a global scale.
PS: Check out our “Shhhhhh… – Australia” film, 2 minutes of Down Under in glorious HD, no music. Can you tell which shots have just the original recorded audio and which have been sound designed?