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Posted by on May 4, 2013 | 10 comments


Guest Contribution by Randy Thom


I’m on a plane from San Francisco to New York, May 3, and I see that the Designing Sound theme for May is time.  Two notions relating to time and sound design come to mind.  One is that fiddling with time in storytelling is always a playground for sound.  Jumps to the past or the future in a movie swing the door wide open to using sound in a subjective way, and sound is almost always most powerful in a story when it expresses or reflects subjectivity.  Our ears are subjective tools.  They are easily tickled and excited by ambiguity.  In the final version of Coppola’s rewrite of the John Milius script for Apocalypse Now the first line of description is: “Coconut trees being viewed through the veil of time or a dream.”  As he made the movie Coppola gradually turned Milius’ brilliant, but mostly objective, script into a carnival of subjectivity.  We hear and see the war through the highly filtered senses of those young American soldiers.  Walter Murch was one of the chief designers of the filters, and I had the incredible luck to be there as it happened.

The second idea that comes to me about time and sound design has to do with the stretch of time from pre-production to post production on any given project.  It makes no sense that sound design is relegated to “post production.”  I think of the wonderful scene in the Coen brothers’ film Barton Fink when the title character checks into the hotel.  He walks across an empty, smoky lobby to the clerk’s counter, but no clerk is there.  He taps the bell once, but the bell rings, and rings, and rings, and rings way longer than a bell like that should ring after being tapped only once.  When it has been ringing for about twenty five seconds the clerk finally appears, climbing up through a trap door on the floor behind the counter.  He calmly touches the bell with his finger to stop the ringing.

Obviously, the Directors wanted to make this place, this hotel lobby, feel odd.  They had a variety of tools at their disposal to accomplish that goal.  Many less imaginative directors would have chosen to use an odd piece of musical score as their main sonic tool.  The Coens chose to use no score at all.  Instead, they staged the entire scene around a bit of sound design.  The strangely lengthy bell ring, and the odd twist it gives to the place, are the focus of the sequence.  The actors, the cameras, the lights, the props, etc. were directed to serve the performance of that bell.  Why aren’t more scenes structured in this way, allowing a sound idea to influence the creative decisions in all the other crafts?  One reason is that we, and the directors we work for, are used to thinking of sound as icing on the cake.  The last thing in the process.  The best sound is baked into the cake beginning in pre-production, from the earliest…. possible…. time.

Speaking of time, as I mentioned before, I’m writing this on May 3. Regarding tomorrow…  May the Fourth Be With You.


  1. ‘It makes no sense that sound design is relegated to “post production.” ‘ I love the word ‘relegated’ here. 1929, Rouben Mamoulian, Applause. ‘nough said imho

  2. Nice contribution and perspective. It’s so true, quite often the sound is the icing on the cake rather than the star when it relates to visual creations. But when you have someone that truely appreciates sound and pacing related to it, it can really bring great emotions into a moment. It would be ineresting to try and do full audio production and then have the visuals made to that. (for once!) I’m sure it happens from time to time………..

  3. Your words are always inspiring Mr. Thom. Thanks for the post.

    Your post also reminded me of the tiger sequence in Apocalypse Now, where time seems to stretch more and more just before the attack thanks to the gradual, overall decrease in volume and the subtle changes of atmos sounds.

    In a way, I find this kind of use of sound similar to slow ‘dolly-in’ movements in cinematography: they build suspense while helping you focus -somehow like leaning forwards on a chair to listen better to the story-teller.

    So going back to your post, this kind of story-telling is only possible when sounds and images work hand-in-hand. Without those durations in the picture edit, the sound team wouldn’t have had a chance to work their magic in.

    It’s early planning and creative cross-pollination between departments that makes this possible.

    • Possibilities can still exist even if the “early planning” didn’t occur…provided there’s flexibility during the post-production process. The article I’m prepping for next week will have examples from a film where all of the clever uses of sound were developed between the picture editor and sound designer…after production was completed. They had the benefit of a director who was willing to give them the time to experiment, and the results are undeniable. I only mention this, because I don’t want younger people to assume that is impossible to achieve these kinds of moments if they haven’t been included from the beginning. While it does help, it’s more important to have a director who is cognizant of, and invested in, the power of collaboration. Make the case for it, regardless of when you’re brought onto a project.

      • Have to agree 100% here. Although the ideal is definitely to be involved from the beginning.

        • naturally ;)

  4. I agree, both suggestions of Mr. Thom are very interesting.

    Especially the example taken from Coen brothers’ Barton Fink made me come up with another film of Coppola, his lovely masterpiece Cotton Club.

    I point out to one of the last scenes, when Dutch and his gang are all killed.
    The sequence rolls in with Sandman jumping into the club floor and starting his tip-tap figures. After about 35 secs, an external night scene drops in, showing the boss Dutch with his wingmen in a car, rolling away from the Cotton after a rough tussle.
    Well, we can hear that the sound of Sandman taps holds on in the background shifting as an extra-diegetic sound, and creating a textural effect that drives the entire episode (the global sequence sums up to 4mins:10secs). There’s extradiegetic music too, but the tip-tap beats are intentionally mixed-in so as to estabilish themselves as the real glue of the whole sequence.
    The more the scene evolves, the more the footsteps pace blends in it, moreover they end up moulding the cinematic flow, and reach the climax in sync with the growing violence and the precipitation of events. At some point, the hail of taps exactly overlaps and echoes the burst of gunfire…

    Though the Coppola instance is more expanded in time and leans itself mostly to a parallel montage scheme than the Coen sample, nevertheless I thought it could play another majestic example of a sound idea that stretrches over time and over its primal significance, to structure the narrative process itself.

    Here you can see most of the sequence, missing only the first-preceding 40 secs, where Sandman starts dancing (the beginning of the scene is cut because the whole clip is merely a custom juxtaposition of 3-4 main scenes of the movie, edited by an YT user):

    “diz” daniele

    • Great example diz! I’ve actually never seen that movie, but the way you described it, the whole scene played quite vividly in my head.

      I must say that in my day job as a set builder (theatre), I, too, could use some more of that early cross pollination and influence. When it does happen, it really helps the whole production, sometimes in much the same way that David Sonnenschein describes it in his book – suggestive sound enhancing or even taking the place of expensive visual production.

      You don’t actually need to SEE the tiger to know the jig is up – just the sound of it breathing somewhere in the dark…

      Great post, Mr Thom!

      • Hi Christian, thanks for your reply.
        I have to share the tiger’s metaphor, so clear…

        I’d like to hint at some free thoughts arising from your notes on shifting the “cross-pollination” in the theatrical production. This strays a bit from the discussion about time, nevertheless it builds on the general issue of the collaboration between different actors in the production timesteps.

        I love theater, I think it yelds a privileged playground for experimentation in sound things. I mean, theatrical incidental music is nice and ordinary, and though it can sometimes sound a little detached or contrived, it’is commonly accepted and perceived as an emotional commentary to what’s happening on the scene.
        But we have sound effects, ambience, foleys… all of them mean an extensive uncharted land, they can really play an “acting” role, tied to their more diegetic nature. Not speaking of mere mimics, they can also work at abstract levels.
        So in theatrical creations the term “sound design” can match a really comprehensive implementation, providing a unique opportunity to summarize many sound specialisms.

        The theater features also the potential of the “live-stage” dimension.
        In this regard, theatre could possibly be compared to cinema in the same way that live sound relates to studio-produced music. No room for post-prod here, pre-production is king!

        I often picture some acts – be performance or spoken theatre, drama or comedy – with one or more live musicians on stage. Quite similar to the playing bands physically spotting here and there in some movies of the masters Fellini and Kusturica. Could it possibly be a foley artist playing live with the act? And what about an exclusively sonic-set design? We can even think of a piece or performance without visual scenery, wallpapers and theatre props, where ambience and live-generated sound fits in the plot to create an abstract fictional scenography.
        Guess it would be a bit profane, but wouldn’t it be so curious, visionary and charming too?

        Now I realize I always end up stretching far and wide… so looooooong posts!
        Thus pardon – thanks again – and best regards,

        “diz” daniele

        • Diz – love your idea of sonic set design and on-stage foley! You got me thinking…


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