The World of Sound

Sound work in film is often underappreciated and receives little credit or attention. And movie viewers willingly oblige, taking the kind and quality of film sound for granted, and seemingly paying it no mind.

That is an unfair situation, since filmmakers since the late 1920s have realized that they can gain the attention of the audience with compelling visual action, but shape and enhance the illusion with subtle audio manipulation. As the famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa said, the effect of sound added to the cinematic image produces an affective force that is difficult to quantify.

But unquestionably images that are stripped of their sound, and not designed to be silent (as an entire era of films were), lose most if not all of their power. One is left with what seems to be pictures senselessly moving and disconnected shots appearing randomly on the screen. The creative work done in sound, a classic mix of art and craft, totally solves these problems, while actually strengthening the power of the images.

Good sound anchors the audience in the physical realities of the dramatic action: the breathing of a nervous horse just before a robbery, the musical shriek of the knife coming through the shower curtain in Psycho, the sound of a key turning in the door lock of a darkened house. It both complements and explains the picture, using direct and ambient sound graphically within the picture.

The sound work begins with the production sound recordist, who also mixes the sound as he or she hears it while the scene is being shot. All the production tracks are reviewed, and a determination made as to what dialogue will have to be dubbed, or added via ADR.

The ADR supervisor will schedule and prepare for the actors lines to be substituted, and supervise those recordings. Usually the director will be present to work with the actors in recalling their emotions and making sure the sync is as precise as possible. Then the dialogue editor takes the original sound and the dubbed additions, and meshes them together so that at times the actors themselves cannot tell when they have been dubbed.

Higher budget movies will now also hire a sound designer, a title that didn’t really exist before the late 1970s with films like Star Wars and Apocalypse Now. This job is often filled by the supervising sound editor, coordinating all aspects of the sound, dialogue, sound effects and music and their successful integration with the picture elements.

The final step is performed by the re-recording mixer, who assembles the refined and polished separate tracks for music, dialogue and effects, and blends them in ways that add maximum impact to the film at hand. Also to be decided in the final mix is whether to use voiceover narration under the images of the movie, a strategy that can perceived as a desperate attempt to clarify a story (the original release of Blade Runner was saddled with a dreadful voiceover narration), or a way of making the film intimate and the narrator insightful, as William Holden was narrating from the grave in Sunset Boulevard.

Use of Music

Finally, the use of music, whether source (songs and other previously written material that has a source of realistic origin within the context of the story) or original score (also called underscore) has an overwhelming impact at this critical stage of the film’s completion. The director and composer should have been discussing the film since its completion of principal photography, and at some point during the first cut period, will have held several ‘spotting sessions’, in which the director indicates where music should be placed, and what kind of music is in the director’s mind.

Scores are as varied as the movies they serve; some require full orchestral musical treatments, others can be accomplished on a synthesizer or with just one or two instruments. These can be budgetary as well as aesthetic choices. The use of contemporary music can help market a film, but can also be very expensive. Or unknown bands can be featured, as they were in a film like Juno, and lead to a new musical craze.

Buying prerecorded music is expensive, and buying anything from the very popular catalogues like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones will be very expensive. All rights (including publishing, performance and “sync” rights to use in another context) must be purchased, and royalties paid on any soundtrack sales. Scoring the movie, even with a large orchestra (often done in Europe where labor costs are much lower), is a more economical approach, and the production then owns the music, which is considered a work for hire.

A music supervisor is almost always brought on the picture now to negotiate the thicket of licensing agreements and recording requirements, and may also be the liaison to CD soundtrack deals. This is a key hire, since this individual has a clearly defined budget within which to work, and must assess the quality of talent, the number of songs or music cues needed, and must handle all recording and orchestral fees within the budget.

With a musical such as Chicago and Dreamgirls, the soundtrack sales and downloads are as important in selling the film as other tools, and more profitable, too. Music in movies today is not created to simply add or embellish dramatic emphasis or comedic delight – there is too much money to be made on a soundtrack that both augments the movie and stands on its own as an additional revenue stream.

Movie music, including an increasing number of scores by rock composers like Johnnie Greenwood who composed the music for There Will Be Blood, both reflects and determines general musical tastes. But while movie music can greatly improve the movie experience, even the greatest score cannot make a bad movie into a good movie.

The Bottom Line

Sound matters. It really does. So do sound effects, music, both songs and scores. Producers, who do not leave adequate money in the budget for postproduction because they spent it all during production, doom their productions to suffer in these all-important areas, which affect a film’s ability to be sold to a distributor, let alone to an audience.

The producer should always be present for the final mix, even though the process seems endless because it must be so highly exacting. This is the final time to argue whether a scene can be enhanced with additional or less dialogue, or whether a music cue is intrusive or evocative. If someone is not present for this discussion, they have no grounds for blaming someone else later in the process.

the director focused on the many areas of sound is another important job for the producer. There are so many different elements to evaluate and make decisions about, and the director can sometimes become overly familiar with the material and how it sounds, and either wants to change everything or nothing.

A middle ground must be pursued, of course, and all the hard work of the many technicians and crafts people should be utilized in any way that can make the picture’s impact that much greater. Sound can play a much greater role in easing audience acceptance than the uninitiated realize, and should be given the resources, time and energy that it deserves.