Today there is an almost non-stop production and release of films, be it action, comedy, drama or documentaries. As audiences, we have become so desensitized to some elements of filmmaking that we begin to take them for granted. Without said element, we instantly know the film is lacking, but we can’t consciously put our finger on what it is. It is a similar case for sound and sound tracks for films.
Taking the case of popular movies like the Harry Potter series we can see why sound plays such an important part of the general feel of the movie. Being an fantasy film in itself, the soundtrack plays an immensely important role in setting the tone of scenes be it creating suspense or accompanying a duel. In particular, one notices that repetition is used often here. Since the movie involves a fantastical element, wands, spells and the resulting sounds produced by these items are unknown to us. That is, our ears are uneducated and the film must establish these noises so that we may be able to understand various shots, cues and concepts of the film simply by understand what the hum of a Snitch might be like, or the roar of a Hippogriff. One can even recognize Hedwig’s Theme despite the variations (throughout the film series) because its repetition has been etched into our minds as a symbol for the film.
This concept has widely been used for various film series like Star Trek and Pirates of the Caribbean. It creates sounds which viewers begin to relate to and understand so that they may use them later on. Star Trek—aside from its theme track which is familiar to generations of fans—uses specific sounds for the futuristic machinery and technology, which they establish in the early stages of the film, so that when a ship crashes or danger lurks, alarms, sirens and other indicators become a part of our auditory dictionary and do not interfere with explanations and hinder the continuing storyline.
Another technique used is silence. Silence adds drama without needing to add more elements (in terms of sound) into the scene. It lets emotions hit home visually and emotionally. Dallas Buyers Club often used silence to highlight thoughts of characters as they reminisced their past.. It let viewers know the difference between the present and memories with the absence of environmental noise; and also allowed viewers time and breathing area to process shots.
Silence is also used to create tension and instill fear especially in horror films. Paranormal Activity, the Shining, Dead Silence, and largely any horror film uses silence in order to highlight the process of fear the character would be experiencing. During an average day at home if there is a crash upstairs, the family members will fall silent and listen. It is this process that not only guides the character to the specter who caused the crash, but also pulls viewers deeper into the shoes of the character. The camera here might shift to a point-of-view as we too begin the ‘search’. This sets the stage for ’jump-scares’, which are the heart-pounding resolve to the silent build up. These might be the face of a creature or dramatic entrance of a ghoul but the horror visuals are usually accompanied by loud bursts of music or crashes.
Such horror films also use the quiet of the acoustic sounds, ones that get drowned out by the everyday din of activity. The gentle ticking of a clock, the caw of crows, all add to the atmospheric feel of a scene. They foreshadow how the scene might play out and slowly allow tension to be built. Ears perk up as the soundtrack fades away and these sounds also give a sense of expanse or space to a scene. In Potter, the Whomping Willow stands alone with the distant chirping of birds and the Scottish landscape behind giving the Hogwarts grounds an immense sense of size despite not even seeing the castle. The Shining’s iconic scene of floods of blood rushing down empty corridors with a magnified hum too gives a shocking feel to the brief visual. In contrast, Dallas Buyers uses a high-pitched hum to highlight the protagonists’ adrenaline rush before a bull-ride and later even his state of drunkenness. Gravity contrasts the pressing silence with the anxious breathing of astronauts to highlight their loneliness. Thus acoustic sounds allow filmmakers to enhance the feel of a scene with subtle, realistic noises.
An interesting aspect about sound is that many sounds have already been imprinted into our minds and hearing them immediately brings up specific visuals. The modern microphone is what further allows sounds to retain their tonal value, thus never loosing its true essence even when used in a different space. In some films this characteristic about sound recording can be both a hindrance, or a cleverly used tool. In terms of hindrance, some sounds which we are familiar with, resonate or carry forward certain characteristics of the space it was created in. For example, a nervously shouted ‘Hello!’ into a cave will always have a certain echo which if not captured on a recording, fail to establish the vastness or emptiness of the cave in a film despite the visual being present.
Animated films however are constantly breaking this idea by merging sounds and creating new ones, giving them their own characteristics without depending heavily on the recording space. A great example of this is Pixar’s Wall-E which involved the creation of many mechanical sounds for the protagonist robot as it moved across different terrain and interacted with the world. However, in studio, Ben Burt (sound designer) used a variety of old devices, cans, metal sheets and many more objects to create sounds as well as their subtle space characteristics, which create a very accurate and believable depiction of the world despite the animation. Thus, modern recording and the emergence of sound design has increased the importance of good sound effects in film as they help create worlds, spaces and experiences even though they may not exist in reality.
In conclusion, sound not only needs to be captured correctly, but also thought about, scrutinized and used appropriately. Sound design is no longer left for post-production, and is actively thought about during filming as well. It becomes an integral part of storytelling, which allows filmmakers to concise, change, or elongate certain shots without needing to have the origin of the sound being shown in the frame. It ties in closely with character experiences and allows for viewers to be completely hooked onto the visuals. Thus sound can be considered just as important in film as the accompanying visual. After all…watching a horror movie without any sound wouldn’t be as scary, would it?
Below is a video showing how sounds were created for Wall-E ad how sound design played a huge role in the film.