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TASK 4 - Sound Essentials

Introduction to sound design

It is often said that an audience can forgive an ordinary shot but not poorly recorded sound. What usually sets student work apart from professional productions is the quality of the audio. Therefore it is imperative that students learn the foundational importance of sound and understand the basic building blocks of a professional sound mix.

Feature films can often have hundreds of layers of sounds in their final mix, however all these sounds can be broken down into five distinct categories.

(1) Dialogue: In terms of story and narrative the character dialogue is one of the most important elements of sound. Through dialogue we learn about the key characters as they interact with one another. On location the number one priority for the sound team is to capture the best sounding dialogue possible (as many of the other sound elements can be re-created later in post-production). If for some reason clean dialogue was not captured on the set, the actors will go into a recording studio to re-enact the scene and capture what is know as ADR (additional dialogue recording). These recordings are synchronised with the picture and are recorded in such a way that the audience will be unaware that the voice was recorded after the fact. Other forms of dialogue can include voice-over narration which is a form of non-diegetic sound (explained below) which is often employed to communicate key elements of the story to the audience.

(2) Foley: A foley artist is someone who painstakingly goes through each shot from a film and re-records the sounds that were not captured on location. This can include a myriad of sounds such as footsteps, body and clothing movement, breathing & even animal sounds. Gary Hecker is one of Hollywood's best foley artists and has worked on a range of film's from The Empire Strikes Back to the Spiderman Trilogy. For a clearer idea of how foley sounds are recorded you can watch a video showing Gary's creative process here. Foley capture is a fun process and can be performed with specialised audio recording equipment (ie Zoom H4N) or even simply using your camcorder's built in mic close to the object being recorded.

(3) Music: Music can be used to great effect to heighten the emotion in both film and television. A well timed piece of music can increase the impact of a scene, no matter the genre of the film. There are a myriad of excellent music examples that demonstrate the power of music to increase the tension in a scene (i.e. Hitchcock's Psycho & Spielberg's Jaws). It is also interesting to watch the same piece of vision with two different soundtracks back to back - this will often completely change the emotion of a scene. For another illustration of the importance of audio, try watching a scene from a horror film with and without the sound. What is terrifying with the audio can in some cases become comedic without the audio to help guide the scene. The use of pre-recorded music can present a range of copyright issues which must be discussed at the onset of any production. Thankfully programs such as Garageband, Logic Pro and Adobe Soundbooth offer a number of copyright free music loops that can used in student productions.

(4) Atmospheric: This is a subtle area of sound that can make a huge difference but is rarely utilised in student productions. Atmospheric or background sound is essentially ambient sound that is recorded with the intention of creating a sense of realism (also helping with continuity in a soundtrack). This could be subtle sounds such as birds in the background, wind blowing through the trees, a constant hum in a factory setting or cars passing by. It is best practice to capture a few minutes of ambient sound from the various locations in which you film. These sounds can then be used (much like a visual cutaway is used) to help create the illusion of continuity in audio transitions.

(5) Sound Effects: Sound effects are used to heighten the impact of the visual elements of a film. These sound effects include pre-recorded sounds such as explosions, aircraft, military marching or train wrecks. Some of these sounds can be accessed through sound libraries online (i.e. Free Sound) , sound library CD's or programs such as Garageband. In a student production sound effects are an excellent means of achieving higher production standards without the large budget. One film that was produced for very little (approximately $15,000) yet achieved large impact through it's soundtrack was 'Monsters'. The director Gareth Edwards stated "Sound weirdly becomes more important than visuals in some ways. You can paint a really big scale world through what you hear you don't have to see it all. You forgive a bad image if you can clearly hear the sound well - but you don't forgive a great image if the sound is terrible".

Diegetic sound

Diegesis is a Greek word relating to the world created in a narrative. Therefore, when we discuss diegetic sound we are referring to the natural sounds happening in the world of the film. These are the sounds that the characters on screen can hear - such as a tyres screeching in a chase scene, a gunshot, or a busker playing on a street corner. However there are sounds in film that the audience can hear that the characters in the film do not - these are referred to as non-diegetic sounds.

Non-diegetic sound

These are the sounds that the audience hears that are not coming from the world of the film. The most common form of non-diegetic sound is mood music that the audience hears but is not coming from the world of the film. A classic example of this can be heard in any of the 'Rocky' training montage sequences - we hear the uplifting music but Rocky doesn't. As mentioned earlier another form of non-diegetic sound could be from voiceover narration used to give us an insight into a characters mind or to help with the exposition of the story.

Now that you understand the important foundational concepts regarding sound it's time to move onto the fourth task - click here to access the task description

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Sound Essentials

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