Skip to content

10 Films That Can Teach You Everything You Need To Know About Sound Design

10 July 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by David Biggins

film sound design

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)

a-man-escaped

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)

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.

 

 

Pages: 1 2


   

Other Brilliant Movie Posts On The Web
   

Like Our Facebook Page and Get Daily Updates
   
  • Ted Wolf

    I’m sorry, but I really find it hard to believe that Citizen Kane isn’t on this list. It always gets singled out for visual style, but the combination of sound effects, quite often complementing dialogue is light years ahead of anything you get until modern sound technology. It’s just a phenomenal movie to listen to.

  • Rafael Santos

    What about “The Conversation”?

  • nick3232

    Why can’t someone who can use the word diegetic not know the difference between its and it’s. Slightly disappointed.

  • Scott Koue

    I’m always fascinated by these kinds of articles. They are usually written by people who know little if anything about sound. Unfortunately this one is more of the same. Not only are some of the film choices… ah questionable some of the reasons given have nothing to do with sound design. BTW synthesizers far predate the 50’s. And music is not even part of the sound department and generally sound designers along with the rest of the sound department, including the mixers, hear the music for the first time during the final mix.
    And probably everyone in sound post would be offended by the first sentence.

    And you left out two of the most noted sound designers all together. You could have at least talked to some sound professionals and preferably have them do some proof reading. At least then it wouldn’t come out quite so clueless. Sorry to be harsh but this was really not well researched.

  • David Biggins

    There’s always difficult balance to strike when writing articles like this. Do you go into as much detail as possible, or do you write in general terms for a wider audience.

    The first Moog synthesizer (the classic synthesizer that has become synonymous with the word) wasn’t around until the sixties. Yes, technically the Hammond organ and nova chords (to name a couple) are synthesizers that existed before Forbidden Planet however, these types of synthesizer weren’t voltage-controlled modular synthesizers. I could have explained this, but the detail wasn’t relevant to my point – that the sound of Forbidden Planet heavily influence the direction of the sound of Science Fiction.

    Your point about the sound department not hearing the music until the final mix isn’t true in all circumstances. As I’ve written, Walter Murch (the sound designer behind The Conversation, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now) worked as a sound engineer on American Grafitti, but he also manipulated the music soundtrack so that it wouldn’t drown out the dialogue in key scenes. Regardless, even if a sound designer didn’t hear a single note of the soundtrack until the final mix, music is ESSENTIAL to the sound design of a film. It’s primitive to think otherwise. If you doubt my research, feel free to read Film Sound’s views on the subject (a website put together by sound designers and academics who love talking about sound in film): http://www.filmsound.org/marshall/index.htm.

    Finally, In regards to my first sentence, although a crude description of sound design it’s a fact. Noise and speech are recorded, mixed, manipulated, re-recorderd, played with, messed with and innovated with. If it’s done well, it’s an aural pleasure and movie magic.

    Please do share the names of the two sound designers that you think should have been featured. The idea behind writing these lists is to encourage debate so that readers can discover new films, and appreciate the work of great filmmakers. The comments are an important part of that, so feel free to write your own selection – drawing attention to the great techniques used. In fact, you can even share terrible films (this isn’t a best of list) if the sound design has been great.

  • theokos

    About the voice-over in Man Escaped, it is actually used for a much different purpose than stated. Since it is being told in the future, we can already assume that he escapes from early on in the film, placing all of the suspense in HOW he escapes rather than WHETHER he escapes. It also helps double information- we hear him describe what he’s doing as we see what he’s doing, which is something most filmmakers never do (it is common thought that film should be boiled down to only what is necessary). In fact, the voice-over in A Man Escaped is completely unnecessary, we would still understand the film just as well without it. It exists for artistic purpose, as a beautifully written accompaniment to the visuals rather than a replacement of the visuals.

  • Tracy Granger

    I’m sorry but this list by no means teaches me everything I need to know about sound design!
    And the first ever sound designer was not Walter Murch. Alan Splet was experimenting with sound way before Walter Much and probably inspired him.

    Where are the Films of David Lynch? Eraserhead, The Elephant Man?

    ALET SPLET was a sound design genius. He recorded sound, edited sound, designed sound and mixed sound…
    http://designingsound.org/tag/alan-splet/
    He made David Lynch films “Lynchian”

    And what about Alien? Psycho? Citizen Cane? The Conversation?

    You could watch 100 great films and never learn everything you need to know about sound… so this article is slightly ridiculous. But a good start to a very long discussion.

    • Tracy Granger

      also.. Alan Splet’s work on ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ … was nothing short of Genius .

  • This is an awesome for reading and you really
    found the valued in this topic. I need your more assistance on this topic and
    look forward that you bring some new things.

    FitJackets

  • Neil Argo

    I have found that some of the best sound design in cinema can be observed in motion pictures produced in the early 1970s and forward.

  • Manuel Luque Clavero

    What about Blow Out? Just for the lake scene it deserves to be on the top of this list!

  • Brian Lussier

    The Conversation, Blow Out and either Jurassic Park or Saving Private Ryan. I’d also have put at least one Malick film, whether Days Of Heaven or The Thin Red Line. And BTW, if you’re going to put Gravity, you better make damn sure to acknowledge the debt it owes to 2001: A Space Odyssey!!! Shameful!

  • rkwright

    Seriously, you left Blowout off of this list? It’s whole premise is about a sound technician….

  • Jose Alberto Hermosillo

    In film school we studied SPEED that ended it up winning the Oscar. Also and now BIRDMAN.

  • Prefers70sMovies(‘CeptGrease)

    I don’t see The Conversation, No Country for Old Men, or a single David Lynch movie on this list. Time to reevaluate. Also Berberian Sound Studio was amazing in the sound department.