“What does space sound like?” This old question has given us many ‘answers’ in film from a sound designer’s point of view. There is “Star Wars” of course, with spaceship shoot-outs, laser cannon shots and deafening explosions. And that’s not to mention Boba Fett’s cruiser and the Tie-Fighters, which you can identify by their trademark sound alone, even when they’re not shown on screen.
And then there are films like “Gravity”, which boasts about its realism, not only visual but also acoustic. But a space film with no sound at all would make for a very boring 2-hour cinema experience. Therefore, the makers decided to include eerie soundscapes correlating with the mayhem happening onscreen: deep bumps from impact sound and the frantic breathing of the main character.
So, who gets to make the decision on what a film sounds like? That, my friends, is the sound designer.
Introducing the sound designer
Sound and film are inseparably interwoven and have been complementing each other ever since the invention of film. The main goal tying the two departments together is suspense. You don’t have to have a blockbuster Hollywood movie to create this feeling. Essentially, everything that’s keeping you on the edge of your seat, or at least interested, is suspense or dramaturgy to some degree.
Imagine a modern trailer:
EPIC SCENERY SHOT.
DEEP IMPACT SOUND – CUT TO BLACK.
“HANS ZIMMER HORN” AS A DEEP, MALE VOICE SAYS: “THERE WAS ONLY ONE CHOICE.”
PICTURE OF STAND-OFF BETWEEN THE HERO AND THE ANTAGONIST, SLOW ZOOM.
“TO SAVE ALL OF HUMANITY” – HUGE BATTLE SCENE.
SCREAMING, ARMOUR AND WEAPONS CLASHING.
“BUT IT TOOK EVERYTHING…”
LONG SWOOSH, STRINGS SLIDING UP.
CUT TO TOTAL SILENCE AND SINGLE PIANO NOTES.
You get the picture. I bet all of you are imagining something like “The Avengers” trailer, although I just made this up. Did you hear the sounds I described in your head? That is because we have an imagination of how something is supposed to sound that is just as precise as how something is supposed to look. Precisely that is the job of the sound designer, trying to accurately create those sounds we hear in our heads when we see a picture.
The sound of silence
When I get a film from Filmspektakel or any other hyperlapse video, the video is silent. There is no sound at all. That comes, as most of you know, with the nature of the hyperlapse: a series of photos stitched together so it becomes a film. A perfect, clean slate for me to create the world we hear.
The most important tool is your imagination. Examine and listen to the sounds you hear in your head. Imagine yourself standing behind the camera. For once, do not think about the technicalities, but listen to your surroundings. A harbour, seagulls crying, ferry horns in the distance while the waves crash against the buoys, the wind blowing through the sails. Or maybe a forest, the leaves rustling softly, the trunks of old trees groaning, sparrows squabbling around, the grass moving like waves.
There is no limit to your imagination. There is also no limit to the level of detail you want to have in sound design. You create your own world. Whether it is completely true to nature or highlighting aspects which wouldn’t be audible to the human ear at all. Let me explain to you what I mean by briefly outlining my workflow.
Workflow for sound design
My sound designs for hyperlapse-style films are more or less divided into three sections:
This is short for atmosphere, also known as ambience. It creates the illusion that you’re actually there, in the pictures, just as I explained above. As I have no location sound from the cameras, I have to create the perfect illusion of this. I hate to break it to you, but nothing you hear is real (at least in these videos).
The creation of the atmo sounds are the most work by far, and they stem from examining the picture closely. What do I see, and what is audible of what I see? What would I hear if I were standing in this scenery? In which country am I, what sounds are typical to this region? What animals live there, and what sounds do they make? What type of languages are spoken, and what kind of engine motors are predominant in this area? This consumes at least 80% of the time working on the sound design. The goal is to create a picture that is believable to the viewer, or should I say the listener?
Foley / FX / diegetic sounds:
While the atmo may be the virtual reality, you still need to be able to interact to believe. Hyperlapses are not only one scenery shot after another – Filmspektakel, for example, works with “close-ups” of the reality. Remember the burger munching scene in “A Taste of New York”? That is where my Foley / FX section shines. Most of the time it is a bit more in your face in the sound mix. Footsteps, car horns, a bike bell, someone yelling “Taxi”, a camera clicking, the barking of a dog.
It is about zooming into reality – it creates a narrative, if only for a second, and highlights actions that could happen at this moment. Sound design can also create those immersive close-ups by placing sounds that are not actually happening onscreen, but could be happening at that moment.
Special effects / SFX / non-diegetic sounds:
These are the sounds which support the visuals. They are created for dramatic effect mainly and either are a stark exaggeration or have nothing to do with reality at all. All those crazy transitions you’ve worked on for so long – you also want them to have a big impact too, right? Swooshes, bass drops, big drum hits, you name it – all those Hollywood trailer sounds. This is when you want to go out all guns blazing! Just don’t overdo it, for the sum of only in-your-face sounds also creates fatigue.
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The art of sound design
The art of sound design is to get a balanced mix of all the ingredients you can think of, keeping up the suspense and creating a narrative through sound. Go with the flow, but also go with the video! Have confidence to detach the sound from the video or from reality. Then again, stay closer to it than you normally would be able to. Someday you might be able to answer for yourself “What does space sound like?”
In the next blog entries, I will explain how the project and the workflow look on my computer, and how you can create similar sound designs for your video. I will go into more detail on how to improve your mix and introduce the basics of sound and audio engineering. If you have any topic you are specifically interested in, I would be happy to explore it – just send me a quick note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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