Backgrounds: Sound Design Under the Radar
Guest article by Douglas Murray
Remember, all rules are meant to be broken! With that principle in mind, let’s scratch the surface of the grammar and possibilities of an aspect of film sound design: backgrounds (also called BGs, atmospheres or ambiences).
Backgrounds offer a powerful opportunity to use sound for maximum impact. Movies essentially need to have background sound at all times. By adding background sounds to a scene we define what the scene is, where we are, and what’s happening around us, even off screen. We can also suggest to the audience how to feel emotionally about a particular scene by giving subtle or direct sonic cues incorporated into the background sounds.
Humans don’t pay much attention to most of what we hear. We are bathed in sound practically from conception, so we have developed sophisticated mechanisms for filtering out the majority of what we hear, while allowing significant sonic events like sudden new sounds, or speech, to penetrate through to our conscious attention. This is partly why audiences don’t notice background sounds in films much. Nevertheless, we can be psychologically influenced by the ambient sounds in a scene without once thinking consciously about them. Even though we hear these sounds, and can often describe what we heard if asked, we aren’t focusing on the background sounds in a scene because we are engaged in the characters and story.
Whether consciously listened to, or subconsciously heard, background sounds define the space, the time and the mood of the scene. BG sounds even define the duration of the scene. We connect shots together in our mind if they have continuous sounds running behind them. For example, if we see a sequence of shots accompanied by a steady background sound, we will gather the shots together in our minds as being from the same time and place. However, when the background sound changes with each of the different shots, then we experience each shot as in its own place and time. So, the background sound that you put into a scene serves to connect the component shots into a whole scene, and also separates the scenes one from the other by the changes in sound at the transitions between scenes.
In order to contribute to, rather than distract from the thrust of the story, remaining ‘under the radar’ of conscious thought, the sounds we put into a scene have to comply with the expectations of the audience, in other words they must seem coherent to the nature of the location, and the range of plausibility is very broad.
For example, let’s take a scene in a restaurant where we are focusing on a conversation of three people at a dining table. We might expect to hear the voices of the other diners, as well as the clinking of cutlery and glassware. We might also expect to hear footsteps and movements of the wait staff and other diners as they enter and exit the scene. There may be music playing in the restaurant, sounds of food preparations, kitchen doors opening and closing, air-conditioning, and other restaurant sounds. Sounds may also come from the outside: pedestrians’ voices on the sidewalk, traffic, cars, trucks, buses, sirens, honks, trains and planes going by closely or in the distance, people parking and getting out of their cars, etc. All of these sounds may contribute to the sense of location inside the restaurant.
These sounds are not likely to attract a lot of conscious attention from the audience, but there would be a sense of absence if they or some other plausible sounds were lacking, especially at the beginning of the scene while we are orienting ourselves to the new situation. As a result, we put some of these sounds into almost every restaurant scene. They help define the space of the action, and they add a richness of texture that adds realism and sensual enjoyment to the experience of the film.
A marvelous side benefit of putting in these expected sounds is that the sound designer can think “musically” and use this palette of sounds the way a composer uses the available instruments in an ensemble. So now, thinking ‘musically’, let’s look at some of the component sounds and see what they contribute to the developing mood we might be aiming for.
The emotion of the scene can be supported in part by the quality of the background conversations (walla): sparse or busy, male or female, laughing or somber, etc. The mood can be empty or lush depending on the liveliness of the walla. An argument or a group laughing at a shared joke can reinforce or contrast with the mood of the protagonists, if desired. The clacking of silverware and glassware can reinforce the notion of consumption and re-energizing, while the sounds of doors, chairs, and footsteps can emphasize the transitory nature of the moment. Exterior sounds like a bus rumbling by to create a sense of oppression, or train wheels squealing on distant tracks can underscore the intense dramatic tension, as in the famous scene from The Godfather where Michael Corleone shoots the cop and the gangster (designed by Walter Murch). With all of these natural and plausible sounds at our disposal, we can orchestrate the off screen and background sounds like a musical performance to underscore the scene.
We establish the background sounds at the beginning of a scene to help define the location for the viewer to quickly grasp the kind of place we are in. Having set and met expectations of how the scene will unfold we can now play with the sounds a bit. As the scene progresses we can weave the various strands of sound in or out, ebbing and flowing; the timbres, pitches and rhythms of the sounds can be conducted like music. Absence of sound can create a tension like holding one’s breath. Once the location has been established, we can focus more on the psychological state of the protagonist.
So those are the two tasks for the sound designer. Establish the location, then direct the audience’s point of view by withholding most sounds and selectively presenting just the desired sounds. Reviewing a series of restaurant scenes on YouTube just now confirms the predictable sound design paradigm is to enter the scene by establishing the restaurant buzz, then dial it down while shifting focus onto the conversation between our featured diners. The purpose of the scene is the conversation, so having satisfied the audience that they are indeed in a restaurant we can subdue the BG sounds to a minimum.
By the time we enter the YouTube Godfather clip, we are completely in Michael’s head and we have ceased to hear the sounds of the other diners entirely. We don’t even hear any movements, only the sounds of the elevated trains as they pass by, sounding at first like surf pounding, or blood pounding in Michael’s head. Returning to the table, we hear Sollozzo’s unctuous voice as he tries to reason with Michael, his words soothing and intimate, but fading out as we hear, with Michael, and growing in intensity, the deafeningly loud sound of the train wheels squealing right overhead, until that sound peaks and is taken away with the first gunshot. Only then do we hear any other sounds: McCluskey’s choking and his chair creaking. The effect is stunning.
This is an example of bringing in a sound from the environment while exaggerating it to enhance emotional impact. This sort of plausible but unexpected sound can be wonderfully powerful, as long as it coheres to the mood of the moment which is usually synonymous with the psychological point of view of the protagonist. The sound designer seeks in this ‘musical’ use of backgrounds to keep the audience focused on the unfolding story of the protagonist and not on the background sounds, while conducting these sounds continually to keep the audience on track geographically and emotionally.
That’s sound design under the radar.
A few more notes on backgrounds:
Make tracks that are appropriately active, with character and spine. Skip the room-tone and air sounds — Brownian motion is dull. Find recordings that add color without being too obtrusive. Even better, go out and make some recordings of your own. Have fun.
Momentary sounds like bird calls, dog barks, car doors, etc. will inevitably happen to fall on lines of dialog. This can inhibit intelligibility of the spoken words and should usually be avoided. That’s why bird chirps and dog barks are usually cut out during speech and are typically slotted into the spaces in the conversation.
Dynamics may be your enemy in BGs. Our ears prick up when we hear sudden changes in sound level and we attend to the new sound, assessing the threat or import of this sudden change. So a loud sound like a car by or dog bark or door slam can take you right out of the movie.
Remember that the mixer will probably play your beautifully designed atmosphere track at an ephemeral or subliminal level, so that just a whiff of it bleeds into audibility. Mixers often treat BGs like a homeopathic tincture. It is true that a suggestion of the background and off screen space will often be all that is necessary to keep the audience from feeling cheated. And backgrounds can get out of hand if they are too dynamic and the easiest way to prevent this from becoming a problem in the limited time of a final mix is to play the BGs at a very low level. This practice is so widespread that mixing a background track to a more than subliminal level becomes some sort of statement. Low level BGs are a convention today — perhaps to a fault.
Water sounds are among the more sensual of sounds and wind sounds among the more evocative. They are a joy to work with. They can combine in a storm with wind howling, rain splattering and thunder blasting. These are the scenes where the backgrounds cease to be subliminal and take center stage. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to compose the rich sounds of weather. So enjoy playing Zeus conducting the thunder when you get the chance. Remember whatever the scene, it’s all about enhancing the drama and setting the point of view of the protagonist.
About the author: Douglas Murray is an Emmy award winning film sound designer, editor and mixer, mostly in the S. F. Bay Area and at Skywalker Sound. He’s currently enjoying the culture shock of living in Los Angeles. Some recent credits include Chernobyl Diaries, Hemingway and Gellhorn, Let Me In, Two Lovers and Cloverfield. He’s been cutting sound for over 30 years.
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