Sound Design portlandia-18

Published on January 31st, 2013 | by David Forshee

The Creative Use of Sound Effects in Portlandia

Port­landia, in case you haven’t seen it, is a sketch com­edy tele­vi­sion show from Sat­ur­day Night Live cast mem­ber Fred Armisen and Wild Flag’s Car­rie Brown­stein.  The show, as the name implies, fea­tures the city of Port­land, Ore­gon in all of its hipster-laden glory, and as the say­ing goes: “Keep Port­land Weird.” Although Fred and Car­rie occa­sion­ally play them­selves on the show, they often play highly-exaggerated (yet strangely famil­iar) ver­sions of Portlanders.

Portlandia’s unpre­dictable style is enhanced through edgy edit­ing tech­niques. The short sketches some­times even take on the form of an over-the-top adver­tise­ment (e.g. “Put a Bird On It“).  The unpre­dictable and absurd nature of Port­landia also opens the door to cre­ative and rather uncon­ven­tional sound editing.

One edit­ing tech­nique used fre­quently in Port­landia sketches is rep­e­ti­tion (e.g. “No You Go“).  In more con­ven­tional tele­vi­sion and film, sound design­ers often go to great lengths to ensure there is no dis­cernible rep­e­ti­tion in the sound effects and dia­logue.  How­ever, in this case, the rep­e­ti­tion matches the quirky edit­ing per­fectly, and becomes some­thing entirely new.  This “stut­ter edit­ing” actu­ally begins to take on a some­what musi­cal aesthetic.


 The Creative Use of Sound Effects in Portlandia


The sketches of Port­landia often exhibit a musi­cal sen­si­bil­ity, result­ing in sound effects that take on a more metaphor­i­cal role as opposed to a lit­eral depic­tion of visual cues (e.g. “Small Hatch­back“). This is per­haps because of Car­rie and Fred’s musi­cal back­grounds. This is not a new con­cept, as his­tor­i­cally sound effects have played a metaphor­i­cal role in com­edy which dates back to the Looney Tunes era. And while Treg Brown intro­duced more real­is­tic sound effects into the fan­tasy world of Looney Tunes for greater comedic effect, Port­landia uses more fan­tas­tic sound metaphors in a real­is­tic setting.

When I watch Port­landia (and Looney Tunes), I am reminded of how emo­tion­ally pow­er­ful sound is. We spend our entire lives sub­con­sciously asso­ci­at­ing cer­tain objects and actions with sounds.  As sound design­ers, we should use this cause-effect rela­tion­ship to our advan­tage.  This is the key to the affec­tive nature of sound effects in Port­landia.  Many times, my first instinct is to design real­is­tic sounds, and while real­ism is impor­tant for the spec­ta­tor in sus­pend­ing a sense of dis­be­lief, too often this real­is­tic approach is taken with­out first giv­ing thought to “out­side the box” metaphor­i­cal sounds. These are the sounds with the poten­tial to make scenes fun­nier, more dra­matic, or hyper­real, and the use of metaphoric sound is a very effec­tive tech­nique in tak­ing the spec­ta­tor into the sub­jec­tiv­ity of a char­ac­ter or scene.

And after all, Port­landia just wouldn’t be as quirky or off-beat with­out the use of the sound metaphor. For a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the sound metaphor, read this clas­sic essay from sound designer/editor Wal­ter Murch:



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