When struck by the epiphany that I was (for the most part) oblivious to cinematic sound design, the way I view films was changed. I had never realized how important the sounds of film can be, and what had always been a sternly visual experience for me quickly became so much more. Ironically, it makes perfect sense as to why it took me so long to take notice of this aspect. I believe effective sound design is achieved when all sounds in a scene are utilized seamlessly to create an on-screen world that audiences can relate to. This could include dialogue, background noises, music (both diegetic and non-diegetic), and sometimes even silence. A truly immersive experience comes from the natural inclusion of these sounds, so often the best sound designs are those that viewers are not even cognizant of.
This is especially true when considering fictional settings in science-fiction or fantasy films. Suspension of disbelief is required on some level to usually enjoy the extraordinary elements of these genre films. But audiences still need to be engaged and to believe that the events of the film could still happen in that world. Sound design is quite significant in developing a sense of authenticity. Many classic science fiction films are revered in this sense. Jurassic Park (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993) is often praised for its sound design, which allowed such an unrealistic high concept to feel somehow grounded and possible. To create the atmosphere of Isla Nublar and Jurassic Park itself, subtle sound effects were woven in to make the forestry more natural. Birds, insects, the wind on leaves. These may seem insignificant, but without them the film would not feel as real as it does. Then of course there are the not-so-subtle sound effects. No one actually knows what a tyrannosaurus rex’s roar would sound like, but when it crashes through the speaker for the first time, no one in the audience questions it. Apparently, to create this sound, sound designer Gary Rydstrom used the distorted audio of a baby elephant, with the hopes of creating something “otherworldy but still organic.”
The Star Wars franchise has received similar accolades beginning with the first installment, Star Wars: A New Hope (dir. George Lucas, 1977). Lucas’s goal with the sound design was similar to Rydstrom’s: to find something “organic” that could “draw upon raw material from the real world.” For a series that never once uses or references the planet earth, this was a tall order. Various sound effects and animal noises were recorded and utilized to portray the sounds of each imaginative prop in the film, from the ignition of a lightsaber to the roar of Chewbacca. The creative decisions here work because while everything on screen is clearly the work of fantasy, the sounds used are just familiar and normal enough to let audiences buy it.
Of course, there are films that lie outside the realm of dinosaurs and spaceships. Sound design is not solely significant in these instances. Films such as Seven (dir. David Fincher, 1995) or There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) have been hailed for their sound direction. These are still works of fiction but their stories take place in the “real” world. Here audio is used not as much to make a non-believable story less so, but mostly to maintain the tone and aesthetic. Both Seven and There Will Be Blood feature a climax involving a main character reaching the decision to commit a murder. In Seven, this scene is dramatized by Howard Shore’s tense score. Conversely, There Will Be Blood features no music for the entire last ten minutes of the film. Not even when Daniel (Daniel Day-Lewis) picks up a bowling pin and savagely beats his rival. The only thing that can be heard as the scene lingers are Daniel’s frantic breaths and the disturbing sound of the pin reaching its target. This is a case where sound design becomes noticeable, as audiences are expecting some sort of music to accompany the scene. When these expectations are subverted, audiences become uncomfortable, and the scene is intensified as a result.
It is worth noting that many of the films I have discussed are decades old. As with most of day-to-day life, much of sound design has become digital. The comparison is most akin to practical effects vs. CGI. The sound effects of past eras were often real sounds being captured, recorded, and edited. Many yearn for the crisp, genuine sounds of the past. Although, the capabilities of digital sound are limitless. While the methods and instruments have changed greatly, the role of cinematic sound has not. It is still one of the most, if not the most, integral components of a film. And, if you’re anything like me, it was right under your ear and you didn’t even realize it.