Soundtracks are created by mixing together noise and speech (as well as music). Good filmmakers will devote a lot of their energy to the soundtrack of their film in post-production, making such that it sounds rich and interesting, and also making sure that key moments are audible. Bad sound design can make a film seem clunky and boring. Good sound design brings a film to life, adding layers to the action as well as heighten an audiences sense of perception.
It’s important to emphasize how essential sound design is to filmmaking; sound is never an afterthought. It’s carefully constructed and manipulated, often completely separately from the images that we see on screen. This list is just a small snapshot of what can be achieved with sound art, please feel free to post your own favorite examples of great sound design in films in the comments section.
1. Blackmail (1929)
The sound version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (it also exists as a silent film) is a bizarre mix of the primitive and the ingenious. It’s primitive because lengthy parts sound awkward as early “talkies” took a while to use music effectively to compliment the action; there’s also a lot of random humming, whistling and singing as characters rejoice in their mouth’s newfound ability to create noise. It’s ingenious because of Hitchcock’s experimental use of sound, which was way ahead of its time.
There’s a fabulous scene in Blackmail where Hitchcock plays with the sound of the word “knife”. A gossipy character repeatedly says the offending word until it’s all that the murderer can hear; all other dialogue becomes muffled aside from “knife”, which sounds so aggressive that it’s almost as if the word is stabbing at her.
2. A Man Escaped (1956)
In Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé) sound has many interesting functions. Most obviously, we have a retrospective voice-over from the central character, Fontaine, which offers commentary and explanation that otherwise wouldn’t be possible without the lead character talking to himself (which would have been unrealistic for a Nazi prison where talking is often forbidden).
There are many scenes in A Man Escaped where what we hear is more important than what we see. During Fontaine’s escape attempt, we know that he’s about to tackle a guard (who we can’t see) because we can hear the guard’s proximity from the loudness of the gravel crunching under his feet; we also know that it’s the opportune moment because we can hear a train passing by that starts to drown out all other noise. It would probably have been simpler to frame the shot to show both Fontaine hiding and the guard patrolling the wall however, by putting us in Fontaine’s shoes (who also can’t see the guard) Bresson makes the scene unique and incredibly tense.
The scene is an example of the basic simulation of sound perspective through volume manipulation. When the guard is close to Fontaine, we hear the gravel crunching loudly. When he moves away, the crunching becomes quieter.
3. Forbidden Planet (1956)
Fidelity is important to sound design. We may not know what something sounds like but if it sounds like how we expect it to sound then it works. When someone punches someone in a film, you’ll often hear a loud “whack”, which has probably been created by recording a melon exploding; it doesn’t matter if it’s not the true noise, it simply needs to sound right.
This is taken a step further in science fiction, which often has to create realistic noises for nonexistent objects. Sound effects for science fiction classics such as Doctor Who, Lost in Space, Star Trek and even Star Wars owe a huge debt to Forbidden Planet. Before digital sound effects were possible, created out-of-this-world analogue effects by using manipulating sounds that had been recorded on conventional magnetic tape. By playing with the sound effects’ speeds and sampling feedback loops, Louis and Bebe Barron created an electronic score that preceded the synthesizer. Needless to say, without Forbidden Planet science fiction might have sounded very different.
4. American Graffiti (1973)
American Graffiti is famous for its diegetic soundtrack. This means that all of the songs played in George Lucas‘ teenage comedy can be heard by the characters as the music is played on radios throughout the film (in fact, any noise that the characters can hear is diegetic). The sound of the music was still manipulated as when the main characters are talking the sound is washed out, making it sound more ambient.
This was achieved by sound engineer Walter Murch re-recording the songs with a tape player in his garden. After American Graffiti George Lucas‘ contribution to sound design became immeasurable. The quality control stamp of “THX” is now used to let audiences know that the sound they’re hearing is as close as humanly possible to what the sound designer intended.
5. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Being able to mix sounds so that dialogue and special effects come out of different speakers really heightens the audience’s sense of perspective. They know where characters are, and they know how far away the action is happening and from which direction the sound is coming from.
The first ever sound designer was Walter Murch (see American Graffiti), who is essentially the godfather of modern sound design. Apocalypse Now was the first multi-channel movie to be mixed with a computerized mixing board. Both he and director Francis Ford Coppola wanted the audience to feel like they were in a war-zone, surrounded by gunfire and bullets. This multi-channel “surround” style also works eerily well in the jungle sequences.