“Films are 50 percent visual and 50 percent sound. Sometimes sound even overplays the visual.”
-David Lynch (Film Director)
Films were once devoid of sound. Who knew that something that never existed in films would eventually become an integral part of completing a film. Today we see how films give utmost importance to sound designing and yet, sometimes people do not seem to notice sound as one of the most important elements of a film. Every sound in a film is very carefully and intentionally placed in its specific position in order to express an emotion or depict a certain thing.
Every kind of film has a major role of sound playing in it, however they are designed in different manners for different kinds of films. For example in an animated movie, every sound is designed from scratch from different points of inspirations and this also includes the most faint ambient sounds. On the other hand, when movies are shot in public spaces or rather in any spaces, the existing ambient sounds come into play automatically. In this manner the degrees of sound designing differ in different movies.
The role of sound design also differs based on the genre of the movie. The genre of the film plays an important role in determining the kind of sounds and the amount of sound designing that is required. In certain series of films, sounds become important identifying characteristics. For example, just the voice of a certain person would establish his presence even if he wasn’t visible on the screen at a particular time. In a similar manner, in fantasy films, a certain sound could define a certain creature in the manner in which we identify animals in real life. Sound could also help in establishing the mood of a certain scene in a movie or even a complete movie.
As we learn from the essay by Bela Balazs, sound in reality is everything you hear. An untrained ear might call it noise, whereas a trained ear might just make music out of the sounds around. The essay also suggests that we live in an acoustic world, which includes the minutest sounds from the creaking of a door to the humming of bee at a distance. Another very important concept that the essay is covers is that of ‘silence’. Silence itself is a sound which also plays a very important role in films. It adds it own kind of drama and suspense, or maybe a sense of peace depending on the context of the movie. But silence isn’t just hearing nothing. In that case a deaf person would know what silence is. “We feel the silence when we can hear the most distant sound or the slightest rustle near us. The silence is greatest when we can hear very distant sounds in a very large space.” Silence can be used in a number of ways depending on the context of the movie.
The first movie that I would like to state as an example would be the horror film, ‘The Conjuring’. Every horror film scary only because of the manner in which we relate the sound effects to the visuals in front of us. Ever thought of a ‘creaking’ door without the ‘creak’? Nothing could define the fact that the door was creaking other than the sound itself. In this manner there are certain things that only the sound design can execute. Silence also plays a very important role in horror movies. I believe that no horror movie can be complete without the effective use of silence. Again, silence is used in a different context in these movies. Silence is used to build suspense, create tension and fear in this movie. This silence is used in contrast with sudden loud sounds immediately after, and this is what makes the particular scene scary. For example, in ‘The Conjuring’, when the mother goes down into the basement and gets locked, silence is used to build the tension in the scene, which is immediately contrasted with the loud clap right beside her ear. Then the scream right after, adds to the fear and tension. Bela Balazs, in her essay, also suggests that we relate certain sounds to certain expressions. Therefore, the scream is more effective when we see her face full of fear along with the sound.
This happens because we relate certain sounds to certain visuals. This has happened over time because of the references made to specific expressions in film over a period of time. So therefore, when we hear a scream we will expect to see that face full of fear. In case we do not, the overall effectiveness of the scream also reduces.
In the past couple of years, the animated movie ‘Wall-E’ has been noticed as an iconic movie when it comes to sound design. The sound design for this film is done by one of the most reputed sound designers, Benjamin Burt who has also designed the sounds for other famous films such as the Star Wars series and the Indiana Jones series. However, the amount of work he has done for the sound designing of ‘Wall-E’ is much more than what he has done for any other film. ‘Wall-E’ is an animated film that doesn’t have any dialogues but only uses sounds for everything. Its the story of a cleaning robot that is working alone after he is the last one left. For this film, Ben Burt has designed over 2500 sounds, all from scratch. He has used simple objects such as metal sheets and slinky toys to create the sounds for this movie. When asked in an interview, he recorded a tank moving and sped up the clip to depict the treads of Wall-E when he moved. Therefore, in animated movies, the process of making the visuals is separate and the process of creating the sounds in separate. However, both are equally important as I have been stating above. This movie also has a very effective use of silence. They portray the ambient sounds very well which help in establishing the locations of the scenes.
Lastly, I would talk about a short animated film by Disney which doesn’t have any dialogues either. ‘Paperman’ by John Kahrs is another example of the effective use of silence. This movie has no dialogues and still brings about a great number of emotions using simple sounds and visuals. In the very opening scene, we see the boy and girl separate from each other and this entire scene combines very well with the silence at that moment in the film. The silence and the face expressions, together, bring about the intimacy between the two people and also express the sadness of them being separated although they do not know each other. Even later in the film, the manner in which the builds up compliments the progression of the film before it reaches its climax.
Therefore, this is another example of the importance of sound design in a film.
Thus, through the above examples we see the role of sound design in films. We see how sound plays a significant role in expressing the film and how a film without any sound at all would seem incomplete today. The minutest of sounds in a film help in establishing a fact and therefore I would conclude by quoting Walter Murch;
“The ultimate metaphoric sound is silence. If you can get the film to a place with no sound where there should be sound, the audience will crowd that silence with sounds and feelings of their own making, and they will, individually, answer the question of, “Why is it quiet?” If the slope to silence is at the right angle, you will get the audience to a strange and wonderful place where the film becomes their own creation in a way that is deeper than any other.”