Here’s an example of a common scene from a suspense film or TV show: A woman walks alone to her car late at night down a long, dark alley. Shooting a scene to play as late at night or in a deserted location is common film language for creating suspense or tension. Sometimes, though, the opposite approach can be very successful as well. Creepy scenes don’t always have to be set at night in a cemetery. Sometimes, they occur in bright, sunny, happy places like forests or meadows. These can work really well precisely because you don’t expect them to be so suspenseful or tension filled. Cute little bunnies run around here – how nasty could this be? The answer is, plenty nasty!
Many, many years ago, I worked on a film called “Flesh and Bone” (1993). In one scene Meg Ryan’s character has returned, now as an adult, to her long-derelict childhood home and she walks alone out in the high grass behind the house. All you can see in any direction is long, flowing, green grass warmed by the sun and gently waving in the wind. The scene is definitely darker under the surface though. As she struggles to remember the night her parents were murdered in that house, I included cicada beds that rose and fell and a particularly nasty sounding locust ratchet. As she looks off into the distance, I cut a couple of very distant frightened horse whinnies that played up her nervousness. Of course there were also the usual suspects: crows and insects whining and scratching away. Poor crows! They never seem to get much respect. Need to cut something ugly? Throw in a crow!
They actually make a really cool clicking sound as well as their more familiar cawing, something very much like the language the alien warriors speak in “Predator”. Toward the climax of the scene, I had a low, heavy, throbbing diesel train approach in the distance but never really quite go by. The chugging drone helped the ominous tone I wanted in order to transition into the next sequence. An interesting side note to “Flesh and Bone” is that it was shot in the summer in West Texas and the insects were intense to the point of being crippling to the production. Apparently, they had to fire off a shotgun on the set in order to scare the nearby cicadas into an extremely brief moment of silence so they could record a couple of lines of dialog and then the drone would start up again! I don’t know if that was factually true, but I love the story!
In “Skeleton Key” (2005), the film takes place in the back bayou country outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. Again, evil lurks in what otherwise looks like a fairly pleasant rural location. As Kate Hudson’s character is being shown around the plantation grounds as part of her job interview, I cut in a squirrel chitter which played off against some squawking bluejays. Harry Cohen at Soundelux in Hollywood created all the design stingers and tones and did an amazing job, as always.
Flickers and cactus wrens are good, squawky birds that have a spooky sound to them and I put in a couple here and there. Vocals are one contribution birds and animals can make to a scene but their movement can also add to the suspense. It can get a bit cliche’, but having a bird fly away does still work. A dog running by on leaves and twigs can be really scary if you don’t know what it is and this thing you don’t see goes running right by you sonically. Claw scrabble on tree bark or rock is a great sound to place in at certain moments to catch a character’s attention.
I worked on “The Reaping” (2007), and in one scene, Hilary Swank’s character goes out to the proverbial lonely shack in the deep woods. The scene started off as just a walk through the woods but as she gets closer and closer to the shack, the tension gets stronger so I began with nice, pleasant birds and happy crickets chirping and, as it gets darker in tone, I transitioned to harsher insect beds and shrill chitters. There’s one moment in which she begins to notice something is wrong but without any actual visual cue and I cut in a wapiti scream which is similar to a loon cry. It’s a very mournful, haunting sound and it worked great as a turning point as the scene continued its downward spiral.
The middle of the woods in bright daylight isn’t normally a place you might expect to hear whale clicks but this forest has them! Whales and dolphins make some incredible sounds that you can’t readily identify but add a strong ominous element.I tend to try and use natural vocals and movements to develop suspense as opposed to doing a lot of processing but that can be another way to go. Pitching vocals way down can make them pretty unnerving. Or just weird. But sometimes weird is just the right note to hit.
Written by Bruce Tanis for Designing Sound