5 Keys for Using Sound Effects to Improve Sound Design

September 21, 2011 by Jeremy Siegel in Sound Design, Sound Effects

5 Keys for Using Sound Effects to Improve Sound Design

David SonnenscheinBy David Sonnenschein, author Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema. Sign up for the Sept. 22 free webinar Secrets for Great Film Sound, co-presented with Ric Viers (author The Sound Effects Bible), at www.SoundDesignForPros.com.

Key 1: Start with the script

The written script for a dramatic film should be the first “listening” you will have of your sound track. Even if the film has been shot, or edited, don’t let your eagerness to jump into the visuals spoil this unique opportunity. Regardless of the difference between the writer’s words and what has been shot, read the script first. Your impressions of what will transmit the story through sound will be virgin and may very well draw more upon your inner ear if the input is from the page rather than the filmed image. Once you’ve seen the image, it is almost impossible to go back to the more primary stage without being influenced by the impression that the visual will have made.

When reading the script for the first time, you’ll get a lot more out of it if you do this from the beginning to end with no interruption, and at a pace as close as possible to the final film pace (usually a minute per page). If you can do this, you’ll get a more accurate feeling of the storytelling pace and the rhythms inherent in the drama, and it will be your only opportunity to get it like a first time viewer. After this reading you’ll be digging into individual elements, pulling things apart and putting them back together while consciously searching for creative solutions. So close the door, turn off the phone and get into it for a few hours non-stop (for a feature length script), as if you were sitting in the movie theater. But leave the lights on and have a pencil in hand. You will use the pencil like a conductor’s baton, nimbly marking the script as your eyes dance down the lines.

What to listen for: Objects/actions, environments, emotions, transitions

On the first reading you’ll be looking for key words and ideas that immediately impress you. In subsequent readings, especially after meeting with the director and other creative colleagues, these same ideas and more key words should be tracked down in much greater detail, while you note the development and transformation of these sounds throughout the story. Techniques for clarifying the developmental lines for the sounds will be given in the section “Drawing the Visual Maps”.

There are several different “voices” to listen for within the following categories:

1) sounds linked to people, objects and actions on screen that are explicitly described
2) environments that can be fleshed out with sonic ambiance
3) key words in both scene description and dialogue that give clues to the emotions of the scene (both of the character and the spectator)
4) moments of physical or dramatic transition

When you notice these on the page, circle, use checkmarks or any other rapid notation to mark the word or phrase. If you feel the urge to write an observation, economize by using a word or two at most, just enough to later cue the memory of your entire thought. You can invent a code (ex. “ew” for eerie wind), marking the repetition or development of a certain sound or theme that carries throughout the film. But keep moving forward without losing the pace of the story and don’t worry about getting it all marked out on the first read-through.

In my next blogs, we’ll go into detail on these four areas. Stay tuned and visit www.SoundDesignForPros.com to sign up for info on sound design webinars with David Sonnenschein.