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Sound Design

The Development of Sound Design for Hollywood Films and its Impact on Modern Cinema

Masterarbeit 2008 105 Seiten

Medien / Kommunikation - Film und Fernsehen




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1 Introduction
1.1 The Structure of This Report
1.2 Research Method and Sources

2 Sound Design for Film
2.1 The Three Pillars of a Soundtrack
2.2 Music
2.2.1 The Leitmotif
2.3 Dialogue
2.4 SOUND – Backgrounds, Noise and Sound Effects
2.4.1 Backgrounds
2.4.2 Noise
2.4.3 Sound Effects – Sound FX
2.5 The Work of Sound Designers, Sound Editors and Film Makers
2.6 Summary
2.7 Sound Design – Definition

3 A Short History of Film Sound
3.1 Early Film Sound
3.2 Talkies - The First Movies with Dialogue
3.3 Widescreen and Surround Sound vs. Television at Home
3.4 The First Sound Designers
3.5 The Digital Age - A new Era?

4 The Production Steps
4.1 Pre-production
4.2 Production
4.3 Post-Production
4.4 Technical Developments and Their Impact

5 The Power of Sound
5.1 The Use of Sound as a Stylistic Tool
5.2 How do we perceive Sound and Images?
5.3 Silence
5.3.1 a) Silence as symbol for death:
5.3.2 b) Awkward feelings, unsolved conflicts, embarrassment
5.3.3 c) Circus effect
5.3.4 d) In connection with disorientation mainly for showdown
5.3.5 Summary
5.4 Counterpoint, Asynchronous Sound
5.5 Synchresis
5.6 Added value
5.7 Diegetic and Non-diegetic Sounds

6 Case study - Analyzing Key Scenes in Motion Pictures
6.1 What to listen for
6.2 Once Upon a Time in the West
6.3 Terminator 2: Judgment Day
6.4 Saving Private Ryan
6.5 King Kong 1933 vs. King Kong 2005

7 Conclusion

8 Bibliography

9 Filmography


In this master thesis the author explores the development of sound design from beginning of sound film until now. The paper explains the vocabulary of sound techniques, standards and devices. It describes sound design in Hollywood films by outstanding examples from prominent sound designers. The thesis links the achievement of the sound designers to the state of the art. The study depicts the interaction between technical possibilities and high demands of audiences. It gives insight into film sound history, explains the production process of film sound in detail and defines the work of a sound designer. Furthermore it contributes to the ongoing academic discussion of film sound, which was coined by researchers such as Chion, Flueckiger, Sonnenschein and Whittington. The author thoroughly analyzes key scenes by successful sound designers and illustrates with the use of examples such as King Kong (1933), Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), Terminator 2 (1991), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and King Kong (2005) amongst many others, the technical and aesthetical progress of sound design and its influence on contemporary Hollywood films.

1 Introduction

“IN THIS AGE OF VISUAL CULTURE, it is important to remember that “sound is half the picture.” Since the 1960s, sound production, technology and aesthetics have fundamentally changed contemporary Hollywood cinema and the filmgoing experience. […] In contrast to the classical period of Hollywood cinema, film makers and filmgoers today do not just hear movies in a new way; they listen to movies in a new way, and what they are listening to is sound design” (Whittington, 2007:Introduction)

In his book Sound Design & Science Fiction William Whittington[1] describes the importance of sound in film and the impact on Hollywood cinema. This quote foreshadows already that there has been a change in the influence of sound design on films of today and also that the awareness of the audience has changed towards the filmgoing experience.

The outstanding inventions and developments in this and the last century regarding sound design, will be the focus of this research. What does a film soundtrack consist of? Who is involved in creating sound for film? How did the sound film change since the introduction of sound design and what do we experience today? How has technology changed the way sound designers work today? How do technology and other aspects affect the final movie? These are some of the core questions to be answered in this thesis.

Cross media marketing can be observed for a while now and indicates where the internet and other media are heading. The audio industry is struggling. CD sales have been declining for a couple of years now. Films can be downloaded from the internet via various options. The computer game industry is making more money than generated by the film box offices.

However, some films still manage to have great success financially. This is also due to intensive cross media marketing. Toys, soundtrack CDs, film posters, computer games, internet sites and digital tunes or images for mobile phones, are some of the ways to get the audiences’ attention. In advertisements we can observe that companies such as Intel or Apple have audio logos. Branding is no longer only visual. Computer games aren’t silent. All this must be for a reason. One reason might be that the entertainment industry changed. But hasn’t the audience changed as well?

Technological inventions brought some great tools but there is also a downside. When TV was born it gave us a new fantastic entertainment opportunity, but the radio industry was anxious to lose influence and traditional theaters had to struggle. When tape recorders started to be affordable, the record industry was in fear the first time, but those machines also made it possible for everyone to record sounds; a pretty important aspect but this thesis would not exist. Most recently the ever changing internet carries potential on the one hand and is bringing evil on the other. Today it is hard to just look at one medium solely. Through various new formats of delivery and the internet, all kinds of media are connected and interact.

Keeping all this in mind, the goal is to understand the development of sound design, the production process and technical influences and discover, how all this influences the work on sound in modern Hollywood films.

During the last years some great computer animated movies have been published. But the success of these movies does not rely solely on the fact that they are animated, rather than in the story and the way it is told. Sound Design has great potential to drive forward a story, to influence and to embrace the audience and let it become a part of the film.

1.1 The Structure of This Report

The goal of this research is to define what Sound Design is and what role the Sound Designer (2.7 Sound Design – Definition) in the Production Process (Chapter 4) of a film has. Classical film research, recent researchers and sound designers themselves help to get insight and clarify, what hides behind the term sound design. William Whittington, Joerg Lensing, Barbara Flueckiger and Michel Chion have done extensive research on sound design in the past and provide an inevitable background for anybody interested in the area of sound in film. Furthermore, quotes from Walter Murch, Ben Burtt - the pioneers of sound design – amongst other important sound designers such as Randy Thom or Gary Rydstrom, will bring light into the darkness of the sound design mystery.

Additionally, this report will focus on the three main pillars of a film sound track in: Music, Dialogue and Sound Effects (2.1 The Three Pillars of a Soundtrack). This chapter will closely look on the implementation of sound in films and explain terminology in order to fully understand what sound designers have to deal with. A short excerpt covers the important topic: The Leitmotif (2.2.1 The Leitmotif).

The aim is also to show the development of sound design from the early silent film era up to today’s digital production of Surround Sound films. Therefore, the History of Sound Film (3 A Short History of Film Sound) including various influences such as technological developments, cultural movements, and social impacts, builds an important backbone of this research. Important to note is, that this research cannot cover all aspects that influenced film (sound) history, due to restrictions and limitations given by this thesis. However, it shall give the reader a good understanding of what aspects (might) have had an influence on sound films in the past, the present and the future.

After the first four chapters the reader should have an understanding of what sound design is, how it developed, what a sound designer does and which sound elements there are in films. The technical site of the production process, some sound formats and technical developments should be in the reader’s awareness. The reader, then, should also be familiar with some of the important sound designers and their creative and technical work.

Chapter 5, The Power of Sound, will be a detailed and extensive examination of the relation of sound and film. An introduction to the academic discussion on sound design amongst early film theorists and recent researchers is content of chapter 5.1 (The Use of Sound as a Stylistic Tool). This is followed by a short excursion on perception of sound in relation to the image 5.2 (How do we perceive Sound and Images?). However, this is not to be meant a complete explanation of the biological and physical means of perception but should be regarded as an impulse for further thinking. Also, many researchers have examined psychological behavior of audiences exposed to various media and discussed cultural and historical movements in music, film, or pop culture. Again, not all of these aspects can be covered in this research due to limitations in time and scope.

Chapter 5.3, Silence, is a very detailed excursion on how Silence has become a powerful tool to amplify important moments in film. This discussion is heavily based on a case study by researcher Barbara Flueckiger and classical researchers such as Bela Balazs. It uses a lot of film examples and is one of the most thorough chapters in this thesis, as it has been a phenomenon observed in films from the 60ies until today.

The next four sub chapters focus on important sound terminology and critically discuss relevant aspects of sound in film. The discussion was commenced by early film theorists such as Eisenstein (A statement on sound), Pudovkin (Asynchronisation as a principle of sound film) or Balazs (Theory of Film: Sound) and revived by more recent researchers such as Chion (AudioVision), Flueckiger (Sound Design – Die virtuelle Klangwelt des Films) and Whittington (Sound Design & Science Fiction). The discussion on the use of counterpoint and asynchronism is part of chapter 5.4 (Counterpoint, Asynchronous Sound). Sound film terminology, introduced and discussed by Chion, is covered in chapter 5.5, Synchresis and chapter 5.6, Added value. The last important term is the Diegesis explained in chapter 5.7, (Diegetic and Non-diegetic Sounds).

This leads to the last important chapter of this thesis: The Case Study, chapter 6. This chapter examines key scenes of selected films that are analyzed in detail. This case study shall reveal some moments with great use of sound in film, and also show if and how sound design developed over the last decades. In this chapter it will be made use of Hollywood films from the sound film era as well as information from monographs and interviews by sound designers. After thoroughly examining the selected scenes, the findings will be concluded in chapter 7.

1.2 Research Method and Sources

This paper follows a qualitative approach and makes mainly use of monographs about film theory, film sound and sound design. AudioVison by Chion (1994), Sound Design (2001) by Sonnenschein, Sound Design (2002) by Flueckiger, and most recently Sound Design & Science Fiction (2007) by Whittington are the main primary sources of this research. This is extended by various websites, where proved to be an excellent source for further research regarding all aspects of film sound. Also the German website by Professor Lensing turned out to be very helpful. To get a deeper understanding and recent information, various articles from magazines and journals have been gathered.

As mentioned above the academic discussion, started by early film theorists, is a crucial element of this thesis and contributes to the critical observation of sound design. Film sound history, including technical and artistic development is reviewed.

Last but not least, various films from 1933 up to 2007 have been watched and an analysis and comparison of selected key scenes has been conducted. This rounds off this thesis and helps to draw conclusions on the influence of sound design on modern cinema and other new media. The focus lies on Hollywood films but movies from other countries and regions were part of the viewings, also to determine differences.

Due to time and size restrictions, this report will not focus on silent film in much detail. Also it cannot explain how directors and producers worked in the studio era. This research is not about financial aspects of making movies, although it should be kept in mind that the budget often affects the outcome a lot. Certainly many factors influence the final result of a production and the goal is to point out as much of these factors as possible.

2 Sound Design for Film

2.1 The Three Pillars of a Soundtrack

Today nearly every movie consists of three main attributes in the sound domain; Music, Dialogue and Sound Effects. Not all of them have always accompanied movies. In the time from the late 19th to the early 20th century movies did not have a synchronized[2] soundtrack[3] but were usually accompanied by a live orchestra or a piano player. A typical example for this is the slapstick[4] movies by Charlie Chaplin. Already in 1888, Thomas Edison had the vision “to synchronize the camera and the phonograph so as to record sounds when the pictures were made, and reproduce the two in harmony”[5]. But it was not before 1928 when The Jazz Singer (USA 1927, Alan Crosland) introduced the era of the ‘talkies’, the first movies with dialogue. Later in the same year Steamboat Willie (USA 1928, Walt Disney) premiered, a Disney movie with the first soundtrack that was completely added in post production which is discussed later in chapter 4.3 Post Production.

Numerous technical inventions (radio, tape recorder, TV) and social developments (pop culture, Rock’n’Roll,) as well as ongoing criticism towards the ‘talking pictures’ dominated the 20th century. Nowadays we expect every movie to have all of the three elements. There are plenty of people involved in the making of a soundtrack during all processes of production. To which extend filmmakers make use of sound designers[6], orchestras, sound editors and Foley artists[7] and so on, is not only a question of money but also a question of the director’s and producer’s opinion towards the importance of sound.

Today there are many ways to create music, sounds and dialogue and vast options of technical equipment. The ‘digitization[8] ’ has had an enormous impact on the workflow and technical sound and picture quality has increased throughout the 20th and 21st century. In the next section an overview of the three pillars of a soundtrack is given. Further on, the job of the ‘Sound Designer’ is defined as well as other areas of sound design or acoustic design, which exist today. There are also some references to some of the important sound designers who are experts in their field and contributed to the way we perceive movies, games and other media today.

2.2 Music

Music is the oldest form of sound which was established by having a live orchestra playing along the projection of a film. The so called silent films weren’t silent at all. When we see typical slapstick movies by Charlie Chaplin today, we forget that these presentations were usually accompanied by a piano player, a band or a small orchestra playing sounds that mostly doubled the action on screen.

Later when films had soundtracks, it was exactly this redundancy, which was criticized. When King Kong pulled up the rope, the orchestra played a glissando with the pitch going up and vice versa if it was going down. This observation was also called ‘mickeymousing’ as it reminds of the way sounds are applied to cartoons. Flueckiger says this was controversial discussed by film critics because

“therefore emerging redundancy, which the authors of the ‘manifest[9] ’ criticized explicit, worked against the risk of possible misunderstanding, which after the understanding of the ‘Hollywood classic’, had to be avoided” (2002: 136).

In Michel Chion’s Audio-Vision he confirms with:

“This is why they came up with the term counterpoint to designate their notion of the sound film’s ideal state as a cinema free of redundancy where sound and image would constitute two parallel and loosely connected tracks, neither dependent on the other” (1994: 36).

Since the thirties music is usually created in post production, meaning after all images are captured. In chapter 4, the different steps of film production with special attention to sound, are described. Sometimes a composer is assigned to create a complete new set of musical pieces or songs (this usually implies somebody is singing) for a movie. In some cases bands are asked to write songs referring to the topic and the mood of the movie. After composing the music, a sound technician is responsible to record the orchestra usually guided by a conductor. This music is also called (film) score or score music. Later the music is edited and synchronized to the picture.

It is possible to create synthetic orchestra sounds with sound libraries[10], samplers[11] and computer technology. This can save a lot of time and money in some circumstances, as it does not require recording a whole orchestra. Often film music composers have a work station at home and manage the whole process on their own from writing over ‘recording’ to mixing. However, due to limitations in the electronic way of reproducing realistic sounding instruments, producers of big budget productions tend to use real orchestras.

Of course not all music in films is created entirely new for the particular film. Many films make use of pre-recorded music (source music) from libraries, which feature a particular sound or they just decide to use famous songs.

“Important here is, if a song becomes famous through the film like in Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” from the film “Dangerous Minds”, or if a famous song is used like “Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison from the movie named after the song”[12] (Mikos, 2003: 234).

Already in 1970 Burt Bacharach won two Oscars; one for the best original score for a Motion Picture and one for the song “Raindrops keep falling on my head” featured in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (USA 1969, George Roy Hill).

2.2.1 The Leitmotif

The Power of music is unquestionable. There are a lot of great scenes that would be less amusing, less sad or less terrifying. Some scenes might even be misleading without music.

“Music may also be used to identify character, for example, themes associated with particular performers in Once Upon a Time in the West and Dr Zhivago, locations and time” (Nelmes, 1996:111).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Example 1: Screenshot taken from Once Upon a Time in the West

What if the shark in Jaws (USA 1975, Steven Spielberg) was not announced with its theme? Then the audience wouldn’t know what is about to come. It makes us think the shark is approaching. It makes us fear with the characters in the movie, even if we don’t see any shark.

A leitmotif does not necessarily only have to consist of musical elements only. In Terminator 2: Judgment Day (USA 1991, James Cameron), sound designer Gary Rydstrom followed another approach. The sounds he used are very rhythmical and consist mostly of elements that are characterized as sounds rather than musical instruments. However, a lot of organic sounds were the original source but they have been altered in order to sound as machine-like elements. Also a lot of metallic sounds from steel mills are implemented into the leitmotif of the Terminator played by Arnold Schwarzenegger to support his appearance. The other, more advanced Terminator, which is made of liquid metal, has a more dynamic leitmotif as he is able to morph into other persons and objects. We also hear the two motifs together when the two Terminators fight against each other.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Example 2: Screenshot taken from Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Musical themes have been used for a long time and researchers name composer Richard Wagner as the establisher of the technique to identify certain characters with a musical theme. Even the German term Leitmotif is used in the English language. Flueckiger defends the use of the leitmotif against Adorno and Eisler who criticized the uses of musical themes as they “always were the rawest tools to clarify the “train of thought” for musically untrained”[13] (in Flueckiger 2007: 184 quoted after Adorno/Eisler 1944: 15). She claims that the leitmotif is a “mechanism for constructing a dynamic symbol in between a work and a structure providing principle at the same time”[14] (2007: 186). The word dynamic is important here because the word leitmotif implies that it is able to change, it can develop.

A musical motive is a part of a musical them e, a bigger construct.

“Wherever the leitmotif sounds, it builds bridges between the present and the past. Although set in time, it develops timeless structure in the mind of the recipient, an axis, on which he can move forward and backward”[15] (2007: 187).

The Leitmotif has a lot of power and is more than a tool to help the audience to understand. I support the statement that the Leitmotif is not unnecessary or just redundant. Nelmes gives another example of how the use of a leitmotif is a great tool to enhance a movie and sometimes is necessary to follow a very complex story.

“In Goodfellas, Scorsese uses en elaborate soundtrack with some forty-two tracks, a mixture of American commercial ballads and rock music, Italian opera and traditional songs. The music is used to contrast the Italian-American from the American-Italian and to identify age distinctions between protagonists. It is also used to delineate the time of the action in a movie telling story with a twenty-five year time span, but using only limited changes in the appearance of the characters” (1996: 111).

In Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (NZ/USA 2001, James Cameron) we have confirmation of the use of leitmotifs in modern films. Not only characters but even creatures like elves, orcs or areas are assigned a leitmotif. The most common leitmotif of Lord of the rings is the musical theme that occurs numerous times throughout the movie to accompany the fellowship of the ring. It is a group of nine, which has been assigned the task to bring back the ring to Mordor and to destroy it.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Example 3: Screenshot taken from Lord of the rings: The fellowship of the ring.

2.3 Dialogue

Dialogue is probably the most important part in the sound domain as it is used to tell a story. It can give us information about characters, their feelings and their mood. It also can be used to explain situations, settings, or things that occurred in the past or will happen in the future. Furthermore it is a way to express oneself as an actor. It adds to the gestures and movements of the actors on screen. Dialogue is a strong way of communicating messages, though not the only one. Jill Nelmes about dialogue: “Certainly, while Warner Brothers saw music as being the appealing part of sound, it was the talking element that attracted the first audience” (1996: 109).

Technically a lot of things happened from the first attempts to capture sounds and replay them for an audience; from Edison’s first attempts to use the phonograph playing along with his cinematograph to digital editing in post production.

Today dialogue appears in many variations. For example, a letter is read by the actor without showing the whole letter or showing different images on screen instead. Voices can be modified to underline surroundings, feelings or states of mind. We can listen to somebody talking but observe the listener. This way we can see the reactions towards the spoken words. Thoughts can be expressed. People whisper, scream, stutter or cry. All this can be used to give movies another dimension. The film might also have a narrator, sometimes named “Voice-Over-Narration” (Mikos, 2003: 231).

Especially in the last ten years, computer animated movies became a huge success with movies such as Shrek, Ice Age or The Incredibles. Animated creatures got alive through their voices, usually spoken by famous actors. While in early movies actors only had one chance to speak their part like in a live performance in a theatre, they nowadays have the possibility to redo things in order to provide the best possible performance and sound quality. A typical method is ‘ADR’ which stands for Automated Dialogue Replacement and makes it possible to re-record voices, match them with the action on screen, and sync them to the lip movements. The ADR technique will be further explained in chapter 4.3 Post-Production). This applies for animated movies as well as for real acted movies.

2.4 SOUND – Backgrounds, Noise and Sound Effects

With ‘sound’ we described anything else but dialogue or music. This includes the above listed sections; Noise, Sound Effects and Backgrounds. The word sound effect might be misleading here because we talk about more than just ‘effects’. Already 1929 René Clair mentioned that we have to distinguish between sound effects that are just

“amusing only by virtue of their novelty (which soon wears off), and those that help one to understand the action, and which excite emotions which could not have been roused by the sight to hold immeasurably richer promise…”[16] (online).

Today usually every single action is underlined with sounds such as footsteps, motor sounds, interaction with doors and clothes. But sounds and sound effects are more than just repeating the visual component. After the first attempts of applying sounds to film, different techniques and concepts have been developed. In chapter 5 terms such as counterpoint or redundanc y will be clarified.

2.4.1 Backgrounds

Backgrounds usually represent the sound of an environment or surroundings and can be created by humans, cars, birds, machines and many others; for example sounds of birds and wind in a wide open landscape or hectic noise, many voices, horns and brakes in a train station. Backgrounds are often recorded ‘ on location’[17], at an airport, in a city or on an island. There are also huge sound libraries for backgrounds. They can be used to describe the environment or the time of action. It helps the audience to understand where the story takes place or can be used to let things appear hectic or isolated. In Ratatouille (USA 2007, Brad Bird) French music and even French voices can be heard in background, to tell the audience that the story takes place in France.

2.4.2 Noise

Additionally there are usually those sounds that are created by humans or things they interact with. These noises are sometimes recorded during the filming process but often need to be replaced due to quality issues. Loud environments on film sets, machines or airplanes make it difficult to record perfect sound on location. This is where the ‘ Foley Artist ’ comes into the game.

“Using many different kinds of shoes and lots of props – car fenders, plates, glasses, chairs, and just anything found at the side of the road – the Foley Artist can replace original sound completely or augment existing sounds to create a richer smoother track”[18] (online)

explains Philip Rodrigues Singer, an active Foley Artist/Engineer and member of the ‘Motion Picture Sound Editors’ association.

2.4.3 Sound Effects – Sound FX

Additionally, there are sounds that are ‘real’ effects, like explosions, gun shots, or anything else that is not recorded inside the studio or that has to be created from scratch like sounds of Dinosaurs. According to Lensing, effects are usually those sounds that are created by machines, weapons or guns and that are often provided on sound libraries. Sometimes they are recorded outside apart from location recording. Usually these effects cannot be created by a Foley Artist. Often, sounds are constructed of many layered sounds. Sound effects also help to make prerecorded sounds, or those created by Foley artists, to be more powerful, or more overwhelming, if intended such as the gun sounds in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

2.5 The Work of Sound Designers, Sound Editors and Film Makers

What does a T-Rex sound like? How about flying dinosaurs millions of years ago? This is where we can truly speak about designing sounds.

Film makers do an incredible amount of research and investigation to make things look realistic if that is the intention of the film. Jurassic Park (USA 1993, Steven Spielberg) for example was probably such a success because the film gave us an image of dinosaurs that we accepted as real. Nowadays we are biased by several movies we have already seen. We wouldn’t take a King Kong from the 30ties for real. Everybody knows; ‘this is a puppet’, ‘this is blue screen’ and ‘this is just a model’ and so on.

Nowadays film makers have to go further. Geologist, biologists, historians and a lot of researchers combine their knowledge to find out anything we have to know, to make a dinosaur to look, behave, move, and also sound as realistic as possible. 3D artists take into account the weight, the height, the skeleton of a dinosaur in order to animate their movements. Several questions can lead to a more detailed picture than our imagination. What did they eat? Where they aggressive or more passive? Where did they live? All this can tell us about the color of their skin or the texture of their skin. But the weight can also give us an idea of how they sounded when walking. A light weight flesh-eating, hunting species moves and therefore sounds different than a 23-ton Brachiosaurus. Every piece of information is considered to create an experience that the audience describes as real. However, due to the fact that nobody on earth ever saw a dinosaur with his or her own eyes, there is a lot of creativity involved especially in the making of sounds. Sometimes it might be good when the audience does not even have any expectations. This gives sound designers the possibility to play and experiment a lot in order to create something special and appropriate. In the end we have to take the sounds that are given as an audience. The fact that we take them for real - at least in the environment of that particular film – has been described as Synchresis by Chion, which is explained in chapter 5.5.

2.6 Summary

All three aspects of sound play an important role for the soundtrack of a movie and are interacting with each other. Sometimes there is a very important dialogue, so the sound effects must not overlay the spoken words. In another scene the music underlines the climax of the story and at another point total silence may emphasize the feelings of characters and the action on screen best. All this is a form of art, created by film makers altogether. Directors, sound editors, Foley artist, re-recording mixers have to discuss things beforehand and listen carefully to each other. Not to forget that the sound is ‘adding[19] ’ something to the picture and trying to support the film’s story and to create an experience for the audience. The interaction between the picture, the story, the characters and the sound is of great importance in order to achieve the best result as a film maker.

2.7 Sound Design – Definition

The following paragraph should help to understand the work of a sound designer, explain what sound design for film and other areas is and give some insight into the work of important film sound designers who worked on movies that are regarded as important steps in the history of film sound design.

Professor Lensing, lecturer for sound design at University of Applied Sciences Dortmund, provides an overview about different fields of sound design. In product design, it is the goal to achieve a certain sound that pleases the customer. It makes a Harley sound like a Harley. No matter what is desired, the audio or sound designer tries to achieve the vision by choosing certain materials, shaping the product or constructing it differently. Sometimes the term ‘acoustic design’ is used to describe the above mentioned work.

Lensing prefers to use the term acoustic design for sound used to create new atmospheric areas or to enhance existing areas by adding sound. Examples are shopping malls that are equipped with loudspeakers or beer gardens that mask noise from the street with nature sounds. Hotel rooms illustrate an ocean theme by adding sounds of water and waves.

In the domain of film sound design there are many interpretations of the word sound design and the job description of a ‘sound designer’ also known as ‘supervising sound editor’, because sound design actually involves many steps that are usually handled by different persons and overlooked by the sound designer.

According to Flueckiger the work of a sound designer includes “the formulation of a sound aesthetic overall concept for the areas dialogue and sound[20] (2002: 18), furthermore he is more than a manager and

“develops a style, with sounding elements, creates dramaturgical connections between characters, locations and objects and enhances the emotional dimension of the film with subtle transformations of the sound material”[21] (2002: 18).

In some cases he might also have management tasks but in general he is responsible for the creative aspects of all sound elements and linking it to the pictures. He surveys a whole project and communicates with his colleagues from the sound department and the director.

Professor Lensing[22] supports this argument and says: “in the meantime we have specialized sound designers for all areas”[23] (2004, online). The sound designer is more to be compared with the director of a film or the conductor of an orchestra. His responsibility is to create a vision and to implement it together with a team of location sound mixers, Foley artists, re-recording engineers, music editors and others. Professor Lensing states an interesting point about the connection to a composer and conductor, as sound designers do not really invent or create things out of nothing. They edit, arrange, select and play with sounds. They search, distort, enhance, diminish, reverse and mix sound bits into layers of sound like in an orchestra. He says: “the “sound designer” is […] a person responsible for the overall image of the soundtrack of a film, comparable to the “director of photography” for the visual part of a film”[24] (2006: 25).


[1] William Whittington is Assistant Chair of Critical Studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles

[2] Synchronizing means providing a reference point for two different devices so they can go together at the same speed. A film has to be “in synch”. It has to be made sure that the music and sound effects appear at the right spot and not earlier or later. Consistency throughout the whole film is very important here.

[3] With soundtrack it is meant the complete arrangements of music, sounds and dialogue.

[4] Slapstick is a type of comedy involving exaggerated physical violence or activities (e.g., a character being hit in the face with a frying pan or running full speed into a wall).


[6] Please refer to chapter 2.7 for a detailed description of the job as a sound designer.

[7] A Foley artist is named after Jack Foley. Jack Foley invented the technique of providing live sounds to the moving image in the studio while the sounds were recorded. The job of the Foley Artist is described in chapter 4.3

[8] See chapter 3.5 for more information

[9] The “Manifest zum Tonfilm” was a written document by the film critics S. Eisenstein, Pudowkin and Alexandrow in 1928.

[10] Sound Libraries are collections of sounds that are either collected by individual sound designers, sound studios or can be purchased on media like CD, DVD and hard drive.

[11] A sampler is an electronic device that can capture sound fragments and store them on a medium. Once stored the samples can be altered, played back, looped, reversed etc. Today there are a lot of software versions of samplers which used to be hardware.

[12] Translated from the German Original: Bedeutsam ist dabei, ob ein Song durch einen Film erst bekannt wird, wie Coolios «Gangsta's Paradise» aus dem Film «Dangerous Minds», oder ob ein bekannter Song in einem Film eingesetzt wird wie Roy Orbisons «Pretty Woman» in dem gleichnamigen Film.

[13] Translated from the German Original: Sie waren immer das gröbste Mittel zur Verdeutlichung, der „rote Faden“ für musikalisch nicht Vorgebildete.

[14] Translated from the German Original: Mechanismus zur dynamischen Symbolkonstruktion innerhalb eines Werkes und gleichzeitig um ein strukturbildendes, übergeordnetes Prinzip.

[15] Translated from the German Original: Wo immer das Leitmotif erklingt, schlägt es eine Brücke zwischen dem Gegenwärtigen und dem Vergangenen. Obwohl in der Zeit angesiedelt, entwickelt es eine zeitlose Struktur im Gedächtnis des Rezipienten, eine Achse, auf welcher er sich vor- und zurückbewegen kann.


[17] Meaning the filming location


[19] Please refer to chapter 5.6 for Added Value

[20] Translated from the German Original: Erarbeitung eines tonästhetischen Gesamtkonzepts für die Bereiche Sprache und Geräusch

[21] Translated from the German Original: „ entwickelt einen Stil, erschafft mit klanglichen Elementen dramaturgische Verbindungen zwischen Figuren, Orten und Objekten und erweitert die emotionale Dimension des Films mit subtilen Transformationen des Tonmaterials“


[23] Translated from the German Original: „ mittlerweile gibt es für jede einzelne Schicht spezialisierte Sound-Designer“

[24] Translated from the German Original:"Der „Sound Designer" ist für mich eine für den Gesamtton des Films verantwortliche Person, vergleichbar mit dem „Director of Photography"


ISBN (eBook)
1.1 MB
Institution / Hochschule
Fachhochschule Kiel – Multimedia Production
sound design film post production tontechnik audio video



Titel: Sound Design