A Sound Designer’s job is a rare mix of both literal and abstract persuasion.
One method does not take precedence over the other, each has it’s own value. The result – a synergy, where the rawest of emotions can be captured, and imparted on to the audience through the medium of sound.
The more literal form of Sound Design could be seen as ‘functional’, while the abstract could be seen as being more emotional, or artistic in it’s application – though the lines can be and are, often blurred.
We inform, persuade, influence, and emotionally manipulate the viewer through a mixture of subconscious ‘channels’ – ranging from the implicit subtlety of a cave’s ambience, to the overt echoed dripping of water, to the outright obscurities of the sound of impending doom – whatever that might be!
This manipulation is in part achieved through use of atmospheric audio design, whether literal (insects/birds/traffic/street chatter/next door’s TV set), or abstract (synthesized drones/buzzing/ringing). The intention may be to support the visual information, for example augmenting the rain we see on the windowpane with appropriate audio effects, (which in itself imparts emotional connotations). Or in the abstract sense, the purpose might be to give a suggestion of feeling, to implant into the viewer additional information, further manipulating their emotional state while not necessarily referring directly to anything happening on screen.
And then there are the qualities of the sounds themselves… Even slight changes to the character of a sound can have a huge influence over the audience’s emotional state.
The shuffled, erratic footsteps of a particular character may tell the audience he/she is down and out, a joke or a ‘bum’ perhaps, whilst conversely the crisp, sharp quality of a stiletto heel on smooth marble might inform us that our character is of high class. Batman’s hugely over-processed voice sounds like he’s arrived straight out of hell – he’s serious, whilst the delicate fluttering of Tinker bell’s wings imply a precious daintiness, that she is a rarity and to be cherished.
If we look for example, at my recently completed advert for Sure Men and Chelsea FC, the first eight seconds perfectly exemplify this act of emotional suggestion. Through use of creative sound design I aimed to bring the viewer into Eden Hazard’s head – illustrating through Sound Effects the ‘high pressure moment’.
To achieve this, a huge number of audio layers were used to convey the emotional state associated with this high-pressure moment. Note for example, the long, heavily reverbed breaths, right at the forefront of the mix. We do not see Hazard breathing, (nor would we hear him given the size of the stadium and extraneous noise) but the association stimulated by this Sound Effect is enough to inform the audience as to the current emotional state. Then consider the crowd audio at this point – heavily subdued through use of filtering, leaving only a trace in the viewers’ mind of the stadium he is in, likely reflecting his own perception. Again, we are brought out of reality and in to our protagonist’s headspace. This is a ‘diegetic’ sound (“Sound whose source is visible on the screen or whose source is implied to be present by the action of the film“), but in this instance is used in an abstract manner to guide the viewer’s interpretations. Then we have all manner of bass tones, whooshes, and digital effects, further eliciting the tension of the moment at key sync points like the drip of sweat, the picking up of the ball, the camera panning away.
I hope that this article provides useful food for thought for filmmakers, animators, and sound designers alike. It’s the cohesion of these disciplines that brings us today’s best works, and leaves the viewer in awe. I for one always feel particularly fantastic having left the cinema truly touched.