Sound consists of two completely different arenas in film: the score, (the music), and the sound effects, whether recorded in real time or added in post-production. They both deserve their very own blogs, so I will be focusing strictly on sound effects, and excluding music from the ‘sound’ category. To be fair, that’s what the awards ceremonies do too – there’s awards for sound design and original score, and I will follow suit.
Sound Effects – or Lack There of
As John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” demonstrates, one of the most affecting sounds in movie making is silence. The 2018 film stunned audiences and critics alike with its incredible use of sound – that is, it hardly had any sound at all – placing much greater emphasis on the few sound effects that were used.
Sound itself was a key element of the storyline: in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by alien creatures who use their powerful sense of hearing to hunt, a family must stay silent in order to survive. This idea presented a unique opportunity for sound designers, whose job is always important, but held more weight in this film. Audiences would be forced to pay careful attention to everything they heard, placing the work of the sound artists under a microscope.
For this unique task, John Krasinski enlisted the help of sound designers Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadal of E² Sound, who used Foley effects for the film. Foley is created when the sound artist uses various objects to mimic the original sound source: the artists gather the materials they will need to reproduce a sound, and then add the sounds as they watch the film.
For “A Quiet Place,” the sound designers were responsible for the varying levels of quiet and the creature sounds – inventing the noises made by these otherworldly beings walking and hunting their prey. They also created their own version of echolocation by holding a stun gun up to a bunch of grapes, then slowing down the effect so that audiences could hear each individual click made by the gun. Imagine what a difference it would have made in the experience of the film if they hadn’t found the perfect sound that was equally terrifying and believable. This is just one example of how sound can enhance a story – albeit an extreme one.
In contrast, you also have films like “Saving Private Ryan,” a much louder, more explosive film, but where sound was also a critical part of the storytelling. The film is often praised for its realistic portrayal of WWII and the Invasion of Normandy, largely achieved through cinematography and sound design.
The challenge for sound designers here (in conjunction with the cinematographer) was to capture the feeling of being on Omaha Beach with the soldiers, and what it would have sounded like on June 6, 1944, being thrown into the water, weighed down by your uniform and equipment, while your comrades in arms were massacred around you.
Director Steven Spielberg chose to make this scene more than 20 minutes long, which feels like an eternity to moviegoers, and it’s supposed to – Spielberg said he wanted to “demand them (the audience) to be participants with those kids who had never seen combat before in real life, and get to the top of Omaha Beach together.”
Supervising Sound Editor Richard Hymns led a sizable team of sound mixers, sound editors, recording artists, re-recording artists, and foley editors to produce the sounds of shellshock, bobbing up and down in the water, the sound of approaching tanks, gunshots, and explosions. It was the mission of the sound department and of Steven Spielberg to create a film as deafening and as graphic as it was in real time – not a war movie that sounded like it was made on a Hollywood soundstage.
“Saving Private Ryan” is a perfect example of how important it is that the visual narrative and the sound storytelling work together, because it had such an impact on the final product. Had the two departments fought each other, or weren’t in close communication with one another, the storytelling would have suffered, and the film likely wouldn’t have been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
In addition to making true stories more realistic, sound effects can also make a fictional world believable, as sound designer Ben Burtt did when he worked on “Star Wars.” Before Foley was a common practice, Burtt spent almost a year experimenting with various sounds, testing them all in a studio as Foley artists would. Burtt had to decide what lightsabers and intergalactic battle cruisers and stormtrooper blasters would sound like, and he did. The now iconic sounds of “Star Wars,” a 1977 film, are considered a trademark of sci-fi even now, and many sound designers refer back to Burtt’s work.
More than three decades later, Burtt struck again when he did the sound design for “Wall-E,” an animated film about a lovable trash-compressing robot left to clean up the Earth when it became unsuitable for human life. This also gave Burtt lots of creative freedom, because all of the sounds must be created and added after the fact. For Eve’s plasma gun, Burtt hit a slinky with a timpani (drum) stick, and to make natural sounding wind that wasn’t real wind (because wind is impossible to record on a microphone), opted to pull a strip of fabric across carpet. “Wall-E” captivated audiences young and old and is considered one of the best sound-designed films ever made.
What these three films prove is that sound storytelling is just as important as the visuals. Sound effects can bring the viewer into a scene, where visuals alone can keep audiences sidelined as mere spectators. This isn’t always a bad thing – sometimes it’s good for a film to know that it is a film, meant to tell a story for the enjoyment of an audience. But as time goes on, filmmakers have pushed the envelope more and more on what it means to tell a story. We’ve reached new horizons and set new limits as to how far we can go, and the results have been incredible and immersive films that give audiences a chance to be a part of the story.