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Posted by on Aug 29, 2012 | 5 comments

Ideas in Sound Design: Semiotics and Language – Part 2

Cross-posting from my personal blog.

In my last article, I talked about Semiotics and encouraged sound designers and editors to think of sound for picture as a language; or, at least, as a component of the language used by any given film. I’d rather not rehash the specific elements of Semiotics that were discussed. There are several ideas that I’m going to assume you’ve read and are familiar with as I proceed through this article. If you haven’t read that original article, I suggest you go do so now. The examples I’m about to discuss will have more meaning for you if you do.

I mentioned two possible approaches to applying signification in the development of a “sound language” for a project. The first is to work with existing signification, and the second is to develop your own; however, these do not have to be mutually exclusive. Both can contribute to your particular piece’s dialect. Remember that I am describing language as merely a “code” to convey meaning. So, meaning needs not be limited to ideas or thoughts. As such, let’s take a look at three examples of sonic code work, language, as used in moving picture.

…and why not begin with an example that straddles the line between pre-existing and invented signification. Here’s a brief clip from the recent Battlestar Galactica series, produced for the Sci-Fi (now Sy-Fy) channel.

Here we have Commander Tigh reacting to a sonic element that is simultaneously music and sound design. The tonal element is a snippet from a larger piece of music composed by Bear McCreary, which is actually a rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” So, this is one of those “artful” uses of existing signification that I referred to in the previous article. This sonic element, which becomes a recurring element in the show, references Hendrix’s song without ever actually revealing itself as being a cover (until the lyrics are quoted in an episode that is). That concealment of reference is why I say it ventures into invented signification. By the time the reference is exposed in the show, we’ve adapted to it’s use and are able to detach from it any meaning that we might connect with the original song.

This particular example is interesting, because it is an overt signifier. Unlike other examples that we’ll touch on shortly, we are intended to perceive and attend to this sonic element. It helps us tap into the mental state of several characters, and assign a connection between them. Even when that connection is confirmed, the little musical phrase continues to represent their confusion and identify them as something apart from their surroundings. When they are revealed to be Cylons, it continues to hold its meaning that they are something apart from the rest. Even amongst the Cylons, they are different. This little refrain helps to maintain that separation and connote a sense of mystery.

Let’s move on to some examples of signification that is entirely diegetic…and for these examples I can let some people speak for themselves.

How about we start with Toy Story 3? I’m going to reference an interview with Tom Myers, Michael Semanick and Al Nelson here on; conducted by Miguel Isaza and Jake Riehl.

MIGUEL: Given the toys’ size in relation to the human world, how important was the sound POV of our heroes? What realistic sounds had to be embellished to convey their size or perspective?

TM: With Gary Rydstrom we continued the conceit that when the toys are interacting with humans, (when they are inanimate objects), they should sound smaller in scale compared to the human “real” world. But when they are interacting with each other, and walking and talking, they have a larger, almost human scale to their sounds. We always embellished sound when a threat was implied, especially in the finale scenes with the garbage truck, bulldozers, conveyor belt, shredder, claw, etc.

AL: We had creative license during certain toy POV scenes to even go over the top a bit. For example when Big Baby is doing that creepy march towards Woody, Bullseye and the aliens, we added low end sweeteners to his footsteps. We also added some rumble and actual diesel truck sounds to some of the RC trucks patrolling to add a sense of tension and danger.

In this example, we have a set of codes that are implying both the perspective of the diegesis and the conditions of that diegesis. For me, the mention of, “scale compared to the human ‘real’ world,” is the more important idea in that response. This approach allows the viewer to see the toys as the dual entities that they are: both actual toys and also living emotive beings. It is a subtle bit of characterization that has tremendous impact on the story. Imagine if the sounds of the characters did not change with the perspective. Suddenly they remain living being, even while they’re being abused by toddlers in Sunnyside Daycare. Whether the audience makes that connection or not, it has an impact on the tone of the film…and prevents it from going into a darker place.

For our final example, I’m going to direct you to the words of Randy Thom in the discussion of sound design for Cast Away that we hosted on Head to the recording of the discussion here, and jump to the thirty-eight minute mark (38:10 for the exact beginning of the lines I want you to listen to. [You don’t need to listen past 40:52, but feel free to listen to the rest of the discussion at you leisure, if you haven’t already. ;)]

Notice what Randy says there about “following an event.” In this case, the meaning (the signified) in our code is an event. Allowing the audience to witness an entire visual+auditory process creates a tool that can be used at a later time in the film. Now, it’s possible to imply that process at another time using just the sound (or vice versa). As Randy says, the audience is likely to recall the images of the waves anytime they are given in the soundtrack (particularly if they are in the foreground of the sound). This allows the visuals to focus on the character’s face or action, while relating it to those waves.

It’s also important to note the context in this situation he’s presenting. He talks about arranging for these capabilities early on. In the very least, some of this discussion needs to take place during or before the edit. This does not mean it’s impossible to discover and work with these opportunities later on in the process; not all of us are always lucky enough to have the director’s ear that early on. But being aware of the potential certainly gives you a chance.

Honestly, that idea extends to this whole idea of applying Semiotics to a film’s sound…or game’s, television show’s, or radio drama’s. The earlier this “language” can be built into a piece, the more opportunities for artful sound usage it will present. Start building that language as soon as you can. Fluency in any language requires use, and that applies to all personalities involved…director, contributor, and even viewer.

If you enjoyed this pair of articles…and you haven’t already…why not check out earlier articles in this series: Deprivation and Barriers Part 1 and Part 2.


  1. “Fluency in any language requires use, and that applies to all personalities involved…director, contributor, and even viewer.”
    Nice article! And the last sentence was very well put.
    Especially considering the last person in your list, the viewer. I remember that during my Sound Design study I’ve sometimes been to subtle whilst using the language in a project and that didn’t really help the viewer understanding/feeling that new language I’d created. I’ve learned that starting early on and being bold are very important parts of the process.
    It can be difficult, but never give up on the opportunity.

  2. Fantastic conclusion to the subject. A great read and insight into thought and application processes of sound. Thanks again.

  3. wheres the link to the first part?

    • The very first sentence. Click on the words, “my last article.”

  4. Two years later, this post is drawing my attention again.
    Great food for though!

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