[Written by Peter Albrechtsen for Designing Sound]
Let’s start with talking not about choice of sounds but choice of words.
In the US, background ambiences are called backgrounds – or just BG’s. In Denmark, though, we call them atmospheres. For me, that’s actually a better word to describe this part of the soundtrack, as background sounds can add so much texture, feeling and – yes – atmosphere to a scene. It’s an amazing tool to shape a scene, not just mapping out the geography and time of day, but also setting the mood, creating a vibe and building an underlying rhythm. It’s one of my favorite sound design tools because it works quite subliminally and can be extremely effective, nevertheless.
I want to start out showing a commercial I did a couple of years ago, which I think showcases ambiences in an interesting way. It’s an IKEA commercial directed by a very visually and aurally imaginative Danish director, Martin de Thurah, who really created this commercial with sound in mind. Here it is (even though this youtube-link isn’t exactly the greatest quality, sorry):
First of all, I need to point out that the sound design of this commercial wasn’t just done by me but by two talented colleagues as well, sound designers Morten Green and Mads Heldtberg, the latter also being a very skilled composer. It took a lot of experimentation and building of sounds to establish the very different universes and small tales that unfold very, very fast in this commercial.
If you’re very strict in the way you describe the layers of the soundtrack, some would probably point out that several of the sounds you’re hearing in this commercial aren’t really background sounds but foley and effect sounds. But still several of the small scenes are utilizing these foley and effect sounds like they’re part of a background ambience track – like the typewriter on the boat, the radio program at the apartment buildings or my toothbrush rattling in a glass at the end. This is not the point for me, though. What I find interesting is how the sound sets up a world of each image that goes beyond what the eye sees. The backgrounds really set the tone and the background sounds are in that sense very much in the foreground.
Actually, when I build up background ambiences I pretty much always use effect or foley elements to make the backgrounds come alive in more specific ways. These sounds can add some cool additional elements and textures – all the way from wind in grass to rattling cutlery in a restaurant to the sound of an alarm going off in the distance. I use impulse reverbs all the time – especially Altiverb – it’s a great, easy way of making sounds seem like they come from the same acoustic environment, even though they are recorded close up or in several different rooms.
I want to be able to rearrange the backgrounds in the mix and that’s also why I use a lot of different elements. If suddenly a bird seems out of place I don’t want all birds to be included in just one sound file. Actually, talking about birds: I love building up bird tweets that are precisely fitted to each scene – like having a black bird coming in just after one specific line of dialogue.
Everything is orchestrated and layered and this means that you can control each specific sound and each specific emotion and even the frequencies in the sense I usually make sure that I’ve got some lo-frequency stuff, some mid frequency-stuff and a bit of hi-frequency stuff as well. You can even pan out elements, which I also love to do – have different things happening in the left and right speaker while also leaving space in the center for the dialogue. Another panning trick, which I heard Gary Rydstrom talk about in a lecture about Jurassic Park, is using quite different ambiences for left surround and right surround when you need the feeling of being in a big place, like in the jungle or something like that.
Getting back to the birds, a good example of these would be The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In the film (and book), most of the action takes place at a fictional island in Sweden but me and the supervising sound editor, Peter Schultz, sat down with a map and found out where this island would be placed when following the directions mapped out in the book. Then I found out exactly which birds lived in this place and got hold of these, individually recorded. This may sound like restricting yourself but actually it was very inspiring because it gave me a specific palette of sounds to choose from and I used the bird sounds almost as musical instruments coming in at certain times – like early on in the movie when Mikael Blomkvist is introduced to the family living on the island and the bird sounds both underscore the uneasy mood and at the same time underline the tempo in the scene.
(A funny aside: The sound design for the upcoming US remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is done by Ren Klyce who is actually one of my biggest influences when it comes to utilizing background sounds. His mighty, mighty work in Se7en is a master class in ambiences (they even wrote a script for things happening off screen!) and one of my favorite sequences in recent films when it comes to ambiences is the factory interrogation scene in Zodiac. Zodiac, on the other hand, was a main inspiration for the director of the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – yes, it’s a small world, and it’s even smaller on film.)
I want to share a couple of examples from another film I worked on just last year, Nothing’s All Bad (in Danish: Smukke mennesker). The movie is the feature debut of director Mikkel Munch-Fals who is really into sound and always extremely open for input which is always wonderful – it inspires you to do better. It’s interesting ‘cause visually the film has very few wide shots and instead uses a lot of close-ups which usually means that sound-wise you’d like to focus on just the actor’s voices and not the locations surrounding them. But Munch-Fals is using this visual style to get as close to the characters as possible and be as subjective as possible, especially with the sound design. He wants the sound to mirror the interior landscape.
I was the re-recording mixer of the film while the sound designer was the immensely talented Thomas Jaeger. The two of us have collaborated on a lot of films by now and actually you couldn’t really say who’s doing what in the mix. We go back and forth, try lots of different approaches for scenes and often reshape the sound design quite significantly on the dubbing stage.
It’s a constantly creative process and ideas are bounced back and forth all the time. This upcoming clip is a good example of this, as this whole sequence was actually filled with sound all the way through but on the stage we got the idea of turning things down halfway throughs the sequence. There’s a lot of ambiences and background sounds in the first part, which makes the silence at the end way more effective and evocative, I think. Thomas and I collaborated on doing the abstract ambiences at the end, as well – there’s no music in this sequence, only sound design:
Whenever I work on school ambiences like those featured in this clip, I always think of Dead Poets Society, which had brilliant sound design by the late Alan Splet, another maestro of ambiences (check out Eraserhead and Never Cry Wolf, it doesn’t get much better). In Dead Poets Society the classrooms have tiny, small squeaks, creaks and movement all the time and whenever you’re in a hallway the sound of the pupils is everywhere – they did a lot of location foley and school recordings, apparently. It’s one of those subtle soundtracks that you don’t really notice first time around but nevertheless it’s been a significant inspiration to me.
A small sound joke: In Denmark, the schools are experiencing a lot of cutbacks and as I’m the son of two teachers I thought it was quite fun to include a bit of an in-joke here. What I did was putting a lot of old office equipment sounds in the background when the headmaster is talking to the teacher, like vintage matrix printers, to make it evident that this school desperately needs an all-around upgrade.
This second clip from the same film is very much a salute to train sounds. One could almost write a thesis on train sounds in film, as they’ve featured prominently in key sound sequences in milestones like The Godfather, American Graffiti and Rumble Fish. The train sounds in the above clip start out as background sounds and at the end they jump to the front of the mix and very much become the driving force of the climax. I love train sounds because there’s so many different textures to them, weird screeches, heavy rumbling and cool rhythms – and so much energy!
This was another sequence that changed a lot on the dubbing stage and there was actually a lot of discussion about the use of train sounds because you never ever see a train in the picture. I’d argue, though, that most of the people watching this scene in the film will never really think about something fishy going on with the train sounds. We tried lowering the trains in one of our mix passes and it really didn’t work – the scene lost a lot of its impact and power, not just sound-wise but emotionally, which is the absolute main thing.
I just recently heard about an interesting approach when it comes to backgrounds – when supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Craig Henighan worked on the awesome Black Swan he would play all the design/fx for director Darren Aranofsky, without any music or dialogs – the two of them just listened to backgrounds/ambience/fx/design. They’d play through the reels, discuss vibe and mood, pick up on what was working and what wasn’t. On Danish films, this approach may prove difficult, as we’re often fighting very tight schedules and it really takes a very seasoned and open-minded director to listen to a film this way. But no matter what, I think it’s a fascinating way of letting backgrounds come to the foreground.
As they should.