Using Sound Design to reveal the under layers

Two films I am involved in inspired me mostly to write this article. I have been giving this matter a lot of thought, which bursted particularly while working for 8 months on history and social related TV programs with a regular interview / stock footage format (which unfortunately felt kind of flat). One is an expository documentary which I will write a bit more about below and the other is an artistic two-part short film in which the writer and director decided to strip away the most common layer of given information: dialogue. This film (on the process at the moment) has an impressive photography but it’s actually based on sound –  the story, the character’s development are based and told on sound elements; and silence. The approach was to go directly to the core of the narrative without the use of spoken word, seen here as explanatory.

Often sound designers and editors are asked to work on a piece of media that is visual driven; the requests are usually to fix / edit the spoken word (dialogues, testimonials, narration) and mix in the music. A visually oriented culture has led to an approach of image as the means of conveying information; often sound is regarded solely as the spoken word and some music. After all “cinema is truth twenty-four times a second” [1]. Giving myself permission to interpret this Jean-Luc Godard affirmation as driven from a historical point of view – where image is in fact the origin of cinema -, and open a light critic on how still nowadays, in a big number of audiovisual media, the image dictates the rest, the sound follows and is secondary, both in idea, time and budgets. Mostly, sound is thought of as the spoken word – the actor, the testimonial, the narration. And often, even if the sound quality of this spoken word is acceptable, there is a lack of “vision” (sad pun, I know) of how a well constructed, thought through sound can elevate the film into a level of emotional connection, that might lead us to a projective identification or virtually feel the texture and temperature of a landscape, that takes back in history or forward into a projected or imaginary future.

This article is going to focus particularly on this kind of projects – when at a first glance it feels the sound part of a media is merely walking in tow with the picture. Practical examples will be shown, mostly based on documentaries I have been in charge of the sound design and varied references – mostly cultural and / or ethnological one is able to take as a base for reflection.


Spoken word is last

One practical approach I used recently on an expository documentary, and has revealed itself not only efficient but a platform to raise questions necessary to think the sound design process, was simply to shifting the focus away from the spoken word and build a narrative with sound before anything else. For the sake of contextualisation this is a documentary about events in the early 60’s in North Carolina. It was made up of testimonials and accountings from people who took part of these events and showing of supportive archive pictures. But from the beginning there was no supportive sound… and here is where a sound designer is able to elevate the film in several levels. This documentary is about racial segregation and how a group of people of a small county fought through it by integrating black students in their football team. With the telling of this struggle, it also accounts for several smaller stories which illustrate personal and social experiences, negative and positive. Below I will write two specific examples I have used to create a sound narrative.

  • the telling of an American football game which had been unjustly arbitrated leading to the defeat of the integrated team: a couple of players and the coach recall these events from their perspective while archive pictures of the game are shown. From their words we learn they had been extremely unwelcome in this county and suffered several unjust penalisations. To convey this feeling of uncomfort, almost threatening I used the sound of crowds booing and processed it with EQ’ing, chorus, and reverb to become a slightly dissonant, confusing and spread out atmosphere; although the intention is not to cause fear, the displacement and augmentation of the sound source is useful to convey an exaggerated sensation. Timely, the sound of a whistle as used on the occurrence of a penalty with accompanying crowd reaction put together the scenery as told by the narrators. A long reverb on the cut to the interview shot marks its distance to the present time.
  • telling how the integrated football team took the stand to attend  several church meetings on Sundays with supporting archive pictures of a crowd assisting the mass: firstly I worked on a walla sfx on church; I looked at more elements and I see a man walking towards the front benches which allowed me to add, in all subtleties, footsteps approaching  and finally as the narrator  effectively tells how they have entered the building and been accepted, I added southern african-american walla to the sound composition.


Nuances, nuances, nuances

Currently, I am on the pre-production of a semi-observational / essay documentary film. Could the previous words sound alarming in an article like this, where ideas and tips about ‘better’ sound design are being shared, but being free to do so, there are also subtle ways with which sound work can enhance what is going on on the screen or within the characters, their relationships, etc.

I use cautiously the prefix “semi” since it’s quite common to perceive a line from pure observational to telling something more. Understandably this is a topic specific for long discussion and so here we are trying to simplify.

Firstly the director’s idea must be met; even if it looks like a simple edited sequence of footage, there is something to be told. Think textures, emotions, actions, perspectives and development. What is the character’s worldview? What is permuting or what is permanent? What are the sensorial perceptions one can play with? Which environment is it? – natural, industrial? And what is the relationship of the character(s) with it – is it a familiar or stranger context? To think these questions (just to name a few) not only deep enough but through an anthropological point of view might help sound designers gain additional perspective or insight. On a related note, something that recently grabbed my attention was David George Haskell‘s observation on his fabulous book The Song of Trees:

(…) there is so much acoustic information revealed by the rain here that the crack, puff, or smack of drops on woven polyester, nylon and cotton became an aural barrier and distraction. The yielding, lightly textured surface of human hair and skin is silent, or nearly so. (…) When western missionaries arrived here, they insisted that their colonized, evangelized subjects wear clothing. An unintended effect of this stricture was to reorient ears towards the self and away from the forest, partly closing the door to acoustic relationship with plants and animals.

And so, a study on the cultural / anthropological context, an observation on how people’s perception are changed, either by force or will, can reveal a new world of ideias and truthfulness that allows us to tell the audience a richer story with crafted sound.


On an individual level, a sound designer can also apply the following concept:

Internal reality

Max Tegmark, cosmologist, says of the internal reality to be the reality model that exists only internally to one’s self: [1]

your mind feels as if it’s looking at the outside world, while it’s actually looking only at a reality model inside your head – which in turn is continually tracking what’s outside your brain via elaborate but automatic processed that you’re not consciously aware of.

He also challenges his readers with the exercise of putting the book down, close their eyes and walk a few steps. “Feeling” the objects in the room it’s our reality model being updated, this time using information from our leg movements rather then our eyes:

Your brain continuously updates its reality model using any useful information it can get hold of, including sound, touch smell and taste.

Tegmark introduces key concepts that I find very useful while analysing a script or film for sound design:

– external reality: the physical world, which I believe would exist even if we humans didn’t
– consensus reality: the shared description of the physical world that self-aware observers agree on
– internal reality: the way you subjectively perceive the external reality


A very interesting example of how one’s perception – internal reality – updates to a new reality can be watched on From One Second to the Next, a film directed by Werner Herzog in which, X’s mother, Valetta, accounts for his son condition after being ran over :

Most nights I’m here on the couch listening for the ventilator. Listening to… making sure that all his breaths are right, that his peep doesn’t change, that he doesn’t need suction through the night.

I hear everything. I hear everything.

I can hear the ventilator cycles. I can hear just if the breath sounds different.




Here are a few techniques in this context that sound designers have applied:

     John Purcell, on his great book Dialogue Editing for Motion Pictures  has mentioned an example with dialogue editorial work regarding a particular film in which  is portrayed a relationship between a son and a mother which starts off with some distance but develops towards a more comprehensive state and therefore they become closer. His approach, he tells, was to add subtle reverberation between their dialogue to indicate distance between each other and later on take it away /reduce it as the relationship unfolds.

One can also use this technique to portray the importance of a character in relationship to other or to the surroundings, or to shape the audience’s view or their relationship and empathy to this character.

     Sound designer Peter Albrechtsen, on this great article by dox magazine, talks about White Black Boy and the thought of a sensorial exploration that happens through sound:

Shida can’t handle the intense sun and his eyesight is getting worse. I think this is what inspired Camilla [the director] to talk to me, as she wanted to make the sound reflect Shida’s way of experiencing the world – when you lose eyesight, the hearing often get more alert.


A similar approach is noticed by Samuel Mackie on his sound analysis of the film “A Silent Voice“:

It’s that muffling of sound where physical sensations become precedent. This is shown in pragmatic ways, for example the parallel scenes in which Nishimiya senses Ishida through traveling vibrations in a hand railing.




Fiction – and the impressive case of El’s scream on Stranger Things

If you are a sound designer who watches Stranger Things I’m sure you haven’t forgot this dazzling scene when El is taken away, by her father’s order, to be locked in a room:


This processing used on her voice conveys both the ruthless environment of the place and the complex feelings of sadness, confusion and outrage the character is feeling. It also gives an almost atemporal sensation by the repetitions of her screaming spread out in space, fading out; the space perceived through the sound get tighter as El is locked on a room to be transferred to a muffled effect indicating anguishing loneliness and despair.


For further related reading and other examples read this article which features Darren Aronofsky: The Sounds of Obsession – A Video Essay with great analysis of the film Pi and Black Swan, and the relationship of the audience with the film and their conscious relationship to it.

[1] Tegmark, Max, Our Mathematical Universe – My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, 2014

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