Here’s the second part of this four-part series on the magical, imagineering aspects and grounded engineering requirements of envisioning your film from an editorial standpoint. MovieMaker magazine will publish part of this series as an article in their December 4 issue as part of their annual filmmaking guide.
2) Visualize your audio – and plan
One misconception that many people in the film business have…is that if you want great sound in your movie you don’t really need to think about sound early on.
Randy Thom, sound designer and mixer, How to Train Your Dragon, The Incredibles, The Right Stuff, and Return of the Jedi.
To produce the best-sounding film or video, anticipate how your show will sound, budget for sound, and record your desired audio during the shoot. This way you’ve got the sound you want for when your picture comes together audio wise during sound editing in sound editing and the mix.
Create a sound vision. Imagine what your viewer will hear. Think about the different scenes or parts of your show and how you want them to sound: light and sprightly, cheery with a sinister threat in the air, painful but upbeat, etc. You might start by imagining each character or subject as an instrument or a theme: What would they sound like? What tune would they play? Next, envision how scenes or sections will sound as purely musical themes. The goal is to get an idea of the subtle and grand tones of your film and consider how sonics can support them.
…if you encourage the sounds of the characters, the things, and the places in your film to inform your decisions in all the other film crafts, then your movie may just grow to have a voice beyond anything you might have dreamed.
Like picture images, sound and music elements contribute to the story. Sound augments POV sequences, helps put the noir in noir, and is the backbone of many a dream and fantasy sequence. Sounds, words, and music can inform a character, prompting an action or reaction or revealing overt or underlying emotions.
Ensure that each piece of sound and music enhances and supports your story. It’s not always a matter of “see a bird, hear a chirp effect.” Sound can represent something or someone unseen – off screen – and comment on or deepen a scene. Yes! Routinely, sound and music bound from the backseat to drive the story. Think of the ways the off screen kaboom of a bomb or swoosh of an advancing tsunami affects a town of people or recall how Rick reacts to hearing “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca.
Hitchcock believed that “To describe a sound accurately, one has to imagine its equivalent in dialogue” and gave this illustration from a scene in The Birds: The flock gathers, surveys, and attacks, saying, “Now we’ve got you where we want you. Here we come. We don’t have to scream in triumph or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.” The Birds is noteworthy because it relied heavily on sounds – there was no score – to make its farfetched plot plausible.
The buzz words today for sound are “organic,” “real,” and “natural.” The Hurt Locker, which won the 2009 Academy awards for sound editing and sound mixing exemplifies this trend. A memorable scene of GIs on a night-search in Iraq depended entirely on the bed of sound the editors built. Avatar, the runner-up for the Oscar that year, embodies the other end of the sonic spectrum: Its audio palette paints an imaginary planet where the synthesized sounds are anything but real. What these two sound styles have in common, however, is crucial: They both aurally plant the audience in the movie’s environment.
Whether you have many layers of sound or minimal sound, sonics are pivotal to the audience’s perception and reception of your show. They transport viewers away from the filming on the soundstage and into the characters’ world. Sound sustains and is an integral part of a film’s voice and vision. Bear this in mind when you design sound; every sound effect and piece of dialogue should strengthen your show’s purpose.
And don’t overlook the power of silence. Sound design can include planned sections of silence or minimal sound. (No show is entirely silent as there is always ambient sound. If you drop out all sound, you risk viewers’ hostile glares at the projection booth or channel surfing.) Silence, especially during a gripping scene or after a cacophony of sounds, can put the audience on the edge of their seats until they’re literally living and breathing with the movie.
3) Visualize your music – and plan
Music can strongly influence how the audience feels about a show’s subject, characters, themes, and plot. Well thought-out music sets the appropriate tone for the picture, clueing viewers in as to what to expect: a comedy, a romance, or a chance to rock and roll. Music, like sound, affects our hearts and senses and seals the movie in our memories: John Williams’ music in Schindler’s List, played by the incomparable violinist Yitzhak Perlman evokes the suffering and loss of Jews during WWII.
Music anticipates and foreshadows action, often warning that a villain is just around the corner, or, as in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, hinting that this is no ordinary hamlet. It can also conjure a time or place. Scott Joplin’s upbeat piano tunes peppered The Sting, rooting the movie in the 1930s and paralleling the characters’ optimism. The musical theme in Somewhere in Time sustained its time travel plot. Regularly, music accents key and not-so-key points: entrances, exits, scene transitions, and act outs.
Music can counter what’s on screen to convey a larger truth. Composer Toru Takemitsu delivered a renowned score for writer-director-editor Akira Kurosawa’s epic movie Ran. Here’s what one scene in the script called for: “A terrible scroll of Hell is shown depicting the fall of the castle. There are no real sounds as the scroll unfolds like a daytime nightmare. It is a scene of human evildoing…The music superimposed on these pictures is, like the Buddha’s heart, measured in beats of profound anguish, the chanting of a melody full of sorrow that begins like sobbing and rises gradually as it is repeated, like karmic cycles, then finally sounds like the wailing of countless Buddhas.”
Music can let the audience know something before a character does – that good or bad news is on the other side of the door. It can also do the opposite – set the audience up – as the melody at the end of Carrie does, lulling the audience so the movie can deliver its final jolt of fright. Music often conveys characters’ inner thoughts and emotions. Bernard Hermann’s score for Vertigo heightened its characters’ nightmares, dreams, and schemes right from the opening carousel music which mirrored the circular camera movement and the spiraling mystery plot. Sometimes characters even have themes e.g. Lara’s theme in Dr. Zhivago or the shark’s theme in Jaws.
Once you’ve got your music plan, be sure to allow enough time to obtain rights, hire a composer and allow time for their work, record that band you’re dying to use, or create it yourself. Skywalker Sound Ltd., George Lucas’s sound company, states that, “Music provides an emotional bedrock for a film.” Lay out your conception of it ahead of time to once again craft the best sounding, most efficient-running project.
This concludes the Imagineering part of visualizing your film. My next post will alert you to the more mundane engineering requirements that are part of envisioning your film.
Editing practices, Editor’s role, Sound & music editing, Technical & process