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

6. Das Boot (1981)


Great sound design makes inanimate objects come to life. The unterseeboot in Das Boot was a carefully constructed replica that lived in Bavaria Film Studios, Munich. The set comes to life on screen thanks to its smothering soundtrack, which is rich in detail. The submarine’s metal expands and contracts, its rivets pop and the sonar’s pings echoes through hull like a ghostly wail.

The most effective scene is the British attack. If you were a seaman in a submarine you wouldn’t be able to see the attack, only hear it. This makes the sounds of the British depth charges all the more nerve wracking. You don’t know when they’re coming, and when they do come they’re incredibly loud. Das Boot is also a good example of dubbing in post-production, which happens more often in filmmaking than you might think. The extensive use of loud gyroscopes (used to provide stable camerawork) meant that most of the dialogue had to be re-recorded during post production.


7. Twister (1996)

Twister is a great example of the importance of sound to nineties blockbusters. Today, IMAX and 3D are used to draw crowds in to see the big films. In the nineties, the inventive use of surround sound was emphasized in trailers, and often used as a key selling point for seeing a film on the big screen.

Twister is a pulpy example, but the sound design (largely overseen by supervising sound editor Stephen Flick) is magnificent. The sound of the wind was used to create a sense of anticipation, and the textured (and loud) tornado noise ramped up the adrenaline. Flick, treated the tornadoes like characters, using six-track DTS/SR*D formats plus eight-track SDDS to help create the movement; you’d hear what it was like up close to a tornado, but also what it sounded like to have one pass over your head. It’s immersive, fun and well worth watching in its full surround sound glory.


8. Mission Impossible (1996)

mission impossible

Most sound that you hear in a film is simultaneous. When you hear a character speaking, you see the actor’s mouth move and the words that you hear are occurring at that exact moment in the plot. It is also possible to use non-simultaneous sound to make a scene more interesting.

For example, when Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) explains to Franz Krieger (Jean Reno) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) how they’re going to infiltrate the CIA’s headquarters we first see Hunt talking to both characters while sitting in a quiet train carriage. As Hunt gets into the gritty details, the image flashes to a different point in time, to inside the headquarters. Even though we’ve moved temporally, we’re still hearing Hunt’s voice from the carriage explaining how the CIA’s security system works.

This use of sound, mixed with the edit to a different location, wasn’t strictly necessary (we could have watched Hunt explain the logistics from inside the carriage). However, it makes the scene much more visually interesting and it also sets up the action, which will follow shortly. Imaginative use of sound has transformed dull exposition into a fun little sequence.


9. WALL-E (2008)


Sound design in animated films is always impressive because every sound will have to be entirely manufactured. Sound designer Ben Burtt (the key architect of the sound of the Star Wars saga) created the voices for the central characters, and also furnished WALL-E with an immersive and humorous soundtrack. A good chunk of Wall-E is without dialogue, so sound really helps to carry the audience through the narrative. For animated films, key dialogue is almost always recorded in advance of the animation so that animators can select takes and animate their designs based on the performances. Burtt ended up making the noises for WALL-E by tweaking his own voice as he’d often experiment on himself, in his own words, “like a mad scientist”.

After the animation was completed Burtt had the unenviable task of searching for literally thousands of sound effects to help finish the film, many of which were apparently recorded in a junkyard. This sort of sound “collecting” is also common in live action films, where background noises are collected by foley artists. A good range of foley sound effects (like footsteps or insect noises) helps to enhance the sound of a film, animated or otherwise.


10. Gravity (2013)

There is no sound in space, yet Gravity isn’t a quiet film. This isn’t because Gravity uses the usual Hollywood convention of adding sound to space sequences (e.g. Star Wars and Star Trek), it’s because texture is added in other ways.

For example, during the “detached” sequence in Gravity, all hell is breaking loose. There are multiple explosions, debris is striking metal at high velocity and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is firing his thrusters in a desperate attempt to save his colleague Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Despite all of this chaos, we don’t hear any of it. We only hear Steven Price’s score, and the dialogue between Mission Control (Ed Harris), Kowalski and Stone. The music is so enveloping, and the dialogue is so frantic, that you almost don’t realise that you can’t hear anything else. It’s an unusual way of filmmaking, but it’s so powerful that it deservedly won best sound editing, best sound mixing and best original score.

Author Bio: David Biggins is a film graduate and marketeer from England. He’s been published on the BBC website, and used to present a film radio show in Norfolk. Before joining Taste of Cinema he was a film critic for Reel Whispers.You can follow David on Twitter @MrMilktray.