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Published on March 27th, 2012 | by PSE

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

DS 5 Keys for Using Sound Effects to Improve Sound Design   Part 5By David Son­nen­schein, author Sound Design: The Expres­sive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cin­ema. Tune into David’s upcom­ing Webi­nar Series on April 3rd, co-hosted with our own Ric Viers. It’s the lat­est in their “Secrets for Great Film Sound” series – visit Sound Design for Pros for reg­is­tra­tion details!

Key 5: Find the phys­i­cal or dra­matic tran­si­tion in the scene

The flow of drama leads us to turn­ing points in the story that evoke shifts in phys­i­cal space, intent, emo­tion and in gen­eral a new direc­tion for the char­ac­ters and plot. When read­ing the script, note where these occur, as they will serve as sign­posts for changes in the sound­track as well.

The most obvi­ous shifts of phys­i­cal space occur at the change of one scene loca­tion to another. Cer­tainly this is moti­va­tion to change the ambi­ent sounds to help ori­ent the audi­ence to the new space, but rarely is this change a dra­matic turn­ing point in itself. More likely you will have to dig for the psy­cho­log­i­cal tran­si­tion that can be escorted with a shift in the audio.

Still on the phys­i­cal plane, a com­mon tran­si­tion ele­ment is a door. This can be lead­ing the char­ac­ter into a new space, unknown adven­ture, or sur­prise twist. In thrillers the cliché of an attack upon the enter­ing char­ac­ter con­tin­ues to elicit anx­i­ety, often accen­tu­ated with the low vol­ume sound that sud­denly is bro­ken by the loud, con­trast­ing thrust of the intruder. There are also moments of a sud­den, unex­pected entry into a room by a for­eign ele­ment that is accom­pa­nied by a def­i­nite shift in the ambiance. Imag­ine a dog ken­nel late at night when a cat some­how sneaks in through a win­dow crack, wak­en­ing the snuf­fling hounds into a bark­ing fer­vor. So the win­dow, drawer, cab­i­net, closet, chim­ney, drain, man­hole, ele­va­tor, car trunk, cave, swim­ming pool sur­face, ocean wave and shadow can all serve as “doors” into other realities.

Ask your­self what the pre­dom­i­nant feel­ing is, before and after this tran­si­tion. What would the char­ac­ter be hear­ing because their atten­tion would be more prone to one aspect of the envi­ron­ment than another? How would the audi­ence par­tic­i­pate more in the world of the char­ac­ter with respect to the shift of sounds? Some bipo­lar extremes could be:

  • closed – open
  • loud – soft
  • dry – echo
  • low pitch – high pitch
  • near – far
  • empty – full
  • har­mony – dissonance
  • friendly – menacing


The choices made should be based on an analy­sis of the arcs and dra­matic turn­ing points of the char­ac­ters and plot, con­sciously empha­siz­ing, sug­gest­ing or even con­tra­dict­ing what is occur­ring in the sub­text of the script.

SoundDesign 5 Keys for Using Sound Effects to Improve Sound Design   Part 5 Look­ing beyond the phys­i­cal cues, there usu­ally are many moments that exhibit pro­found tran­si­tions indi­cated by either a character’s action or dia­logue. One exam­ple in As Good as it Gets occurs in the restau­rant scene when Jack Nichol­son is court­ing Helen Hunt in his very ungainly fash­ion. As he is draw­ing towards a deci­sive rev­e­la­tion and shift in his char­ac­ter, the nat­ural sounds of the restau­rant (mur­mur of other clients, sil­ver­ware, glasses, etc.) fade away, leav­ing a kind of mag­i­cal vac­uum for the two char­ac­ters to sink in their emo­tional teeth and hearts. When the scene ten­sion is resolved with a humor­ous shift, the sounds of the restau­rant return to their pre­vi­ous lev­els. The magic moment has passed.


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