David Sonnenschein Sound-Design-Sonnenschein-David-EB2370002760850

Published on February 14th, 2012 | by PSE

5 Keys for Using Sound Effects to Improve Sound Design — Part 4

DS 5 Keys for Using Sound Effects to Improve Sound Design   Part 4By David Son­nen­schein, author Sound Design: The Expres­sive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cin­ema.  Tune into David’s new Webi­nar Series, begin­ning Tues­day, Feb­ru­ary 14th – visit Sound Design for Pros for reg­is­tra­tion details!

Key 4:  Sound can help express the emo­tional subtext

Adjec­tives and adverbs give fla­vor to the scene descrip­tions, hint­ing to the direc­tor, actors, pro­duc­tion designer, D.P. (direc­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy) and sound designer what feel­ing should pre­vail.  One can imag­ine a thou­sand kinds of “LIVING ROOM – DAY” if no emo­tional detail is given to the scene descrip­tion and only block­ing of the actors move­ment is indi­cated (which is pretty bad screen­writ­ing tech­nique, since this aspect should be left mostly for the direc­tor and actors to deter­mine dur­ing rehearsals).  But if a word or two of col­or­ful por­trayal is inter­jected, it thrusts our eyes and ears into a spe­cific real­ity:  aban­doned, rainbow-colored, marble-columned, blood-stained, cold neon, etc.

There may be a word that seems so out of con­text with the rest of the descrip­tion, that this could serve as a sound clue.  Mark it for spe­cial atten­tion.  For exam­ple, the loca­tion could be very dark alley, with sin­is­ter ten­sion built into the move­ment and dia­logue.  If sud­denly there appears a “lumi­nous ethe­real ball”, the con­trast should be made that much greater by char­ac­ter­iz­ing the environment’s neg­a­tive, antag­o­nis­tic feel­ing with a sonic ambiance that will allow the arrival of the good-guy ball in the most oppo­site of sounds to those of the threat­en­ing alley.  You can most effec­tively use pitch, tim­bre and attack in counterpoint.

Descrip­tion of a scene can give you a sense of energy and direc­tion of emo­tion.  Dur­ing a horser­ace, bet­tors have gam­bled not only their money but their hopes, and these can be exposed through the action and reac­tion in the sound track.  It can also give hints to the char­ac­ters’ per­son­al­i­ties and what we can expect to accen­tu­ate in the audio dur­ing their dra­matic jour­ney through­out the film.

The chant­ing crowd rises to its feet as the horses head into the home stretch.
Hooves pound.  Harold’s horse Sup­per Time nudges ahead of Peter’s horse Zip Drive.
Harold bounces like a super­ball, HOOTING like a hyena.
Peter GROWLS like a bear, punch­ing the air in swift hooks.

Sup­pos­ing these two fel­lows will be com­pet­ing not only at the race­track, but through­out the story, their forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and tem­pera­ment will have nuances in act­ing style, cos­tume, cam­era angle and sound.  The sound treat­ment will start with the use of voice (actor’s inter­pre­ta­tion), how it is recorded (type and place­ment of micro­phone, loca­tion or stu­dio record­ing) and post-production sweet­en­ing (fil­ters, multi-tracking).  Then the con­di­tions of the ambi­ent sounds and music will be added to reflect, sup­port and/or con­trast with each char­ac­ter, fol­low­ing the prin­ci­ples of psy­choa­coustics out­lined in the ear­lier chap­ters.  It all begins with the emo­tion that jumps off the page.

In the above case, what the two char­ac­ters are feel­ing at that moment is con­sid­ered a pri­mary emo­tion, in con­trast to a scene descrip­tion that gen­er­ates a reac­tion from the audi­ence (or reader) which is denoted as a sec­ondary emo­tion.  An exam­ple of this can be clearly seen in a scene in which the char­ac­ter is trem­bling with anx­i­ety, but the audi­ence is rolling in laugh­ter:

Hang­ing over the bub­bling indus­trial cook­ing pots, Horace tries for the
third time to lift the slip­pery hard-boiled egg between his two big toes.
As he holds on for dear life to the droop­ing coat hanger, he man­ages to
pinch the egg with his extra long toe­nails.  Slowly, slowly, he raises the
egged toes to his mouth… But slowly, slowly the egg begins to crack and

In a scene that has a con­trast between pri­mary and sec­ondary emo­tions, we  have a choice to employ the sound purely with one emo­tion, or use spa­tial or tem­po­ral coun­ter­point to heighten the ten­sion.  In the fol­low­ing exam­ples, I am tak­ing lib­erty to use my own def­i­n­i­tions for the var­i­ous types of com­edy and the rules they may fol­low for the sake of show­ing the kinds of choices that can be made in sound design.

A satire would most likely carry us into Harold’s world as the cho­sen point of view, focus­ing on the pri­mary emo­tion by exag­ger­at­ing the seri­ous­ness of his plight. This could be done by exploit­ing the cliché sounds of an action thriller, i.e. threat­en­ing low fre­quen­cies in the boil­ing vats below, nerve-racking dis­so­nant metal bend­ing of the coat hanger, Harold’s audi­ble irreg­u­lar breath­ing, the omi­nous crack­ing of the egg rever­ber­at­ing in the tiled kitchen.

In a slap­stick com­edy, the tone would also be exag­ger­ated and even less sub­tle, with a silli­ness in recog­ni­tion that we are the delighted observers par­tic­i­pat­ing in the sec­ondary emo­tion, prod­ding us directly to the point with a more car­toon­ish style of sounds.  The bub­bles would sound with more melodic pop­pings, slid­ing the tones in a cir­cus organ-like clown dance.  The bend­ing hanger would be a springy doowing-doowing.  Harold’s breath would prob­a­bly not be heard at all, so as to help focus us on our own laugh­ing breath even more.  The crack­ing of the egg would have a stut­ter­ing, but intel­li­gent rhythm, a kind of tease to draw out the ten­sion to the max.

SoundDesign 5 Keys for Using Sound Effects to Improve Sound Design   Part 4In a com­edy that alter­nates between the pri­mary and sec­ondary emo­tions, we have the oppor­tu­nity for a sophis­ti­ca­tion of shift­ing point of view and pulling the audi­ence off guard more than they expect from either a pure satire or a slap­stick com­edy.  By mix­ing the con­ven­tions, a new rhythm can be estab­lished, a kind of “beat fre­quency” phe­nom­e­non between the two points of view, pri­mary and sec­ondary, that tick­les the audience’s fancy and they feel that their own heads are being tossed around on an emo­tional roller­coaster.  Inter­sect­ing planes of real­ity con­spire to heighten the humor, and in this case the sounds can be selected from both points of view to make this coun­ter­point.  For exam­ple, the threat­en­ing volcanic-like bub­bles from below will con­trast greatly to the car­toon­ish springy hanger from above.  Harold’s strug­gling breath could be heard in hyper close­ness, then com­pletely dis­ap­pear when the egg crack­ing is cued to enter in full attention-getting intensity.

Stay tuned for Key 5 next month, and visit www.SoundDesignForPros.com to sign up for info on sound design webi­nars with David Sonnenschein.

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