Opinion Pieces

Opinion Pieces


Dave Robinson - Sound Design In Film


Dave Robinson, Head of Sound at Creative Outpost, spoke to  Behind the Glass about this passion for sound and how the soundtrack really brings film to life.

My first experience of cinema was as a five year old in 1981 on a trip to the ABC in St.Helens to see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Admittedly, most of the details are now sketchy, and although I was too young to fully appreciate the intricacies of the story the overall experience left a lasting impression. I think this was mainly due to the sheer scale of both the picture and sound that engulfed me.

Jump forward twenty years and I found myself training as a post-production sound engineer in Soho where I was developing my passion for all things audio. And the more I learned about audio through my job, the more I began to fully appreciate the importance of sound design in film.

As we all know, a good film begins with a good script, which is then crafted into shape in the hands of a talented director. Editing and picture post then bring the story and images to life. But a component that can often be overlooked, is how an exceptional soundtrack has the ability to take a film to another level and elevate it from good to great. There are some films that truly stand out and here a handful of my favourite examples of extraordinary sound design in film:


Wall-E:

 

At the time it was released in 2008, I was 10 years into my career and fully immersed in the world of audio. I saw it at Empire Leicester Square on opening week and remember being completely blown away by the film’s soundtrack, especially during the first act which features virtually no dialogue whatsoever. Pixar enlisted the help of Star Wars sound design legend Ben Burtt to bring Wall-E to life and it’s a masterclass in how to convey deep emotion through the use of abstract sound design. The audience couldn’t help but fall in love with Wall-E on a human level, a character that is essentially a synthetic, digitally animated robot. Without the help of dialogue to lead the exposition of the story, the sound team had to rely on more nuanced aspects of communication like the intonation and pitch of sounds to help us understand exactly how Wall-E is feeling. It’s wonderful soundtrack is still a touchstone whenever I am tasked with creating some kind of mood or emotion through sound design.


Master and Commander: Far Side Of The World

 

This historical epic from Peter Weir is a film I never tire of watching and one with a beautifully atmospheric soundtrack that really puts you in the time and place of the story. The sound team went to extraordinary lengths to gather an extensive collection of authentic sound effects, from recording old cannons firing at wooden pallets to recording the sound of old ship sails out in the desert. It isn’t just the big, commanding (excuse the pun) sounds either that make this soundtrack special. It’s also the more subtle touches, like the creaking and groaning of the ship as it pitches and rolls through the ocean. The whole film has a genuine, earthy feel to it which plays to my love of history.


Saving Private Ryan:

 

This is one that probably makes an appearance in most people’s best-of sound design lists but for good reason. The contribution of the sound design in creating an incredibly immersive cinematic experience can not be underestimated and the first and last battle scenes are some of the most visceral ever seen on film. By all accounts the sound design work of Gary Rydstrom, Spielberg’s long-time collaborator, is also one of the most accurately reproduced soundtracks of the time. The feeling of compete shock and awe during the opening battle scene as the lander craft arrives on Omaha beach is one I’ll never forget and 22 years later, is still just as breathtaking. Although a few modern techniques are employed here and there - such as the memorable ‘inside Captain Miller’s head’ moment - it’s the diagetic sounds that give the battle scenes their authentic feel. An extensive sound library was compiled during production by recording as much military hardware from the era as they could source, both big and small. The result are scenes that are rooted firmly in reality unlike the exaggerated, over-the-top sounds of most war films that came before it..


The Birds:

 

By the time Alfred Hitchcock came to make The Birds in 1963, straight off the back of Psycho, his relationship with composer Bernard Hermann had become synonymous with grand, iconic musical scores. Often, the music was front and centre and one of the main elements used for heightening tension or invoking strong emotions in the audience. When creating the soundtrack for The Birds, they took a different and quite maverick approach, one than involved no musical score at all - well, not in the traditional sense at least. Whilst developing the film, they met with a German sound technician called Remi Glassmann. He introduced them to an instrument he was working with what could be described as an early version of the sampler. Using this, Hermann was able to literally play the sound of birds in a musical sense to create an alternative, dynamic soundtrack that ebbs and flows with the drama and tension of the story. It was a pretty audacious decision to dispose of a musical score in favour of just sound design but it works to great effect. Some of the key scenes where this technique is used are genuine creepy and often terrifying.


Gravity:

 

The overall sound design in Gravity is impressive but being an audio-geek there is one particular detail that stands out for me, most prevalent in the opening scene before all of the mayhem occurs. It is the filmmaker’s use of contact mics to express how sound is affected by the vacuum of space. Essentially in space there is nothing to hear, as so wonderfully put in the strapline of a certain space horror classic. The only external sounds that astronauts can interpret are through the vibrations of something they are physically in contact with. In the case of Gravity, we hear the muffled sound of the motor and vibrations of an electric drill as Dr. Ryan Stone attaches bolts to the Hubble telescope or the scrunching movement of spacesuits from the point of view of the characters. It’s a subtle addition within the soundtrack but a stand-out example of attention to detail.


There Will Be Blood:

 

The thing that most impresses me about the soundtrack for this Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece is the way that the sound design is so brilliantly entwined with Johnny Greenwood’s musical score. Both elements work together as one to enhance the uneasy tension of the film to another level. And it’s all put together with such a deft touch that it almost feels like both were created by the same person at the same time. They just work perfectly together. The film includes scenes that are sometimes extremely quiet and atmospheric and also huge, unexpected moments. This requires a really dynamic soundtrack to emphasise the highs and the lows of the story and the sound design does this incredibly well. From the simple diagetic sounds of a lone Daniel Plainview chipping away in a mine shaft to the sudden, violent explosion of an oil well. The score then works perfectly in tandem to intensify the undulating moods of the film, from creeping dread to bombastic. It’s a great example of the power of sound in helping to drive a story.


Bait:

 

This is a more recent choice. It tells the story of a feuding family, set in a Cornish fishing village. It’s low-budget film, shot on 16mm with no production sound recorded. All of the dialogue, foley and sound design was added later. Not only that, rather than take the usual approach of ‘bedding in’ the audio to try and make it as polished and believable as possible, the soundtrack has a strangely detached feel, going against the grain of everything we usually strive to achieve. The dialogue and sound design has a raw, vintage quality and sits somewhere just above the image yet never takes you out of the story, if anything it draws you in. I would never have thought to approach the sound in that way myself but it’s a unique, bold move and when married with the beautiful images the result is quite special.


These are just a few of my personal favourites from a long list which I hope will help to highlight the significance of great sound in film.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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