The Insider's Guide to Production: Sound Design - Sound defined

Adland has finally tuned in to sound design but, given that people react more to sounds than pictures, it is not yet being used to its full potential.

Stroll around the clubs and eateries of Soho and we'll guarantee that you won't go longer than a month without hearing someone in advertising talking about "sound design". The term is now so common that it rivals "crush the blacks" in production phraseology.

Directors toss it nonchalantly into their treatments, producers worry about where they can get it done while keeping the creatives happy, and musicians ponder how to charge, and who should be awarded, for it. So is sound design a new concept? Where did it come from? Who invented it?

What happened to our soundtracks before they were sound designed?

Well, the fact is sound design has always been around. All sounds are designed; they don't just appear on film mysteriously. The 1954 film Mr Hulot's Holiday entertains wholly through the repetition of a few well-chosen sounds.

But sound design did not become a Hollywood phenomenon until Ben Burtt started twanging electricity pylons to make laser-gun sounds for Star Wars in the 70s (although the term was actually coined by Walter Murch during his film edit/sound design of Apocalypse Now in 1979).

It was in the 70s that theatre directors began hiring sound designers to create on-set ambience. But it was not until the 90s that we johnnies in advertising adopted the term and, now that we've found it, boy, do we love using it.

When sound design first entered the advertising lexicon, it was taken to mean the replacement of normal sound effects by abstract or stylised whooshes and bangs. Nowadays, unfortunately, people take the term to mean "bespoke sound effects" or "lots of sound effects" or even "the acting sucks, have you got any sound- design Band-aids you can stick on to make it better?"

All too often, the first time a director is interested in sound design is when he finds holes in his film. Therein lies the root of the sound engineer's favourite gag: what is sound design? About another ten grand.

Sound design is about taking the time to create a soundbed that explores fully the emotional and narrative content of the film. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts and the results, while apt, are not too obvious and are done from the bottom up.

In many cases, sound design is seen as a pretty dress for the commercial to wear when, quite frankly, a strait-jacket would have been a better choice. The problem is that, most crucially, sound design only works when a film is designed for sound. You can't bung it on afterwards. Sound design has to start with the writing of the script. All ads need a director of sound, just as they have a director of photography.

Why? Film is not just a visual medium. The risk of digression forbids the argument that sound is 51 per cent of the picture, but let's just say that people react far more emotionally to sounds than they do to pictures.

If you want good work, it is not enough to turn up to a sound house and announce: "We have come for some sound design," when, in truth, you are the standard-bearer at the front of a production process that is now an uncomfortable fait accompli.

When was the last time you were aware of sound influencing the other team-mates during the production process? So much for film being a collaborative medium. We need sound to influence the earliest stages of the pre-production process to ensure the maximum resonance. Write the scripts so they use sound to describe events. Edit the film so that we leave space for mood. Let sound define a character. Sound will place you as quickly as pictures do. Split the story in two. Use counter-narrative. Dress the sets so that we starve the eye and tune the ear. To assume that the image, being the more expensive part, is the most important part is like saying banknotes are prettier than flowers.

A humble suggestion. Dear creative, please think about using sound as well as images to tell your story when you first write the script. Dear director, move sound up the league table of tools at your disposal, don't just put it in the treatment as a supporting role and then put your fingers in your ears. Sound design has to become part of the fabric of the script.

We want to talk pre-production.

Many juries do not have a clue how to judge good sound design; they mistake it for lots of sound design. Most of the so-called sound design today deserves to be called "excellent sound effects track-laying". Dwelling on the question "is it music or is it sound design?" does not help raise standards.

It is worth noting that there is a very valid and separate arena of sound design concerning the specific elements of a soundbed - such as the end mnemonic or designing the voice of a blackcurrant - but that is easily identifiable. Sound design is not about bouncing around the front of a studio saying: "Forward a frame, no, back a frame" - that's pound design.

We are not saying good sound work doesn't get done. It does, and by plenty of different people. We and other studios are rightly proud of the work we do. Some people do get it right.

We are just saying that it can get a whole lot better. And we are not saying that every job should be a sound extravaganza, only that sound has so much more potential.

In all but a few cases, sound is trapped in the dumb role of supporting the image. What a bloody waste. How one-dimensional. This will never make for complex storytelling. Sound design has so far under-delivered; it is the largest unexplored mine of filmmaking. How lucky we are that people are finally buying television sets with decent speakers and that, in order to be watched, commercials must be more entertaining.

Let's learn more about sound.

- Johnnie Burn and Warren Hamilton are sound designers at Wave.


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