Tunes and Tones: A Writer/Director’s Perspective on Sound
Guest Contribution by Pierce O’Toole
Writer/Director Pierce O’Toole shares his thoughts on music and sound design, and how they play into his creative process.
As a writer and director, my biggest concern on any project is the story. Every project has a story that you are trying to tell. When I approach sound, the lens I view it through – or the speaker I hear it through, I guess – is one of story. While this is true of every element of the filmmaking process, sound is unlike any of the others because it’s the only element that follows me through the entire process.
When I begin writing, music is very important. At first, it’s just something atmospheric or energetic, like The Album Leaf or Daft Punk. As I get further along in the writing process, I get a better sense of the story and the tone. At this point, the music has to match. If it doesn’t, it can make it harder to write. I build playlists that I listen to on repeat. I’ve had several roommates that hate me for this, especially when the playlist is less than ten songs. I don’t ever tire of the music, no matter how many times I listen to it, because that music helps put me in the world of the story. I’m not listening to the music; I’m absorbing it.
On the directing side, music can be helpful shorthand. In my experience, most sound engineers and actors are also musicians. Because of this, referencing a piece of music can give a very clear sense of what you want out of a scene or a performance. Even if someone can’t appreciate all the nuances of the piece, they’ll get a sense of the tone. It’s a good tool for getting everyone on the same page and making the same movie.
Production is a different story. Some directors, such as Quentin Tarantino, like to continue musical influences by playing music on set when the camera isn’t rolling to create a mood. For my process, the music stays out of production. It has had its influence on me and it’s my job to communicate that to the cast and crew.
During production, you’re in a constant state of balancing. The goal is, of course, to get the perfect take – to capture the scene with the best performance, cinematography, and sound possible. This is also almost never going to happen. The reality is you have to decide where to make your concession. Sound is usually the victim here because it’s seen as the “easiest” to fix later. That is a mistake.
Yes, ADR exists and is common practice, this is true. It’s also true that no matter how good the ADR mixer, it’s not going to be a perfect match. Additionally, it’s an unfair demand of an actor, asking them to come in weeks or months later to recreate the performance they gave. It will never be the same performance; it can be close, but it will never be the same. It’s important to remember this during production, and to maybe do another take for sound. Watching something where the composition is off is easy; listening to poor sound is very difficult, no matter how good the visuals are. During production, my goal with sound is pretty straightforward: Don’t neglect it. Treat the sound as importantly as the visual. It’s a simple, technical goal, which is okay, because the real fun is in post.
Post-production allows me to return to a place of discovery. Sitting with a sound designer, I once again ask myself questions about story and tone. At a bare minimum, sound design needs to make logical sense. It’s poor form to see a door open and hear a car engine rev up. That’s an obvious baseline (usually). The real question: how do you push past simple?
Now, any editor or mixer of any worth is going to have the basics covered. Instead, I try to think of it as a time to have conversations about the scenes. I think it’s a good idea to just watch the movie and stop when an idea or question comes up. It’s not about a eureka moment – though those will come – it’s about communication and trial and error. A lot of trial and error. I try to go into these sessions with an open mind and a willingness to try anything. Sometimes taking a sound, stretching it out, and playing it backwards is the absolute correct decision. Sometimes it’s total crap. But you have to try it to find out which it is. It’s important to remember it’s a process, even when your patience is tried.
When I reach the mixing stage of post, I’ve been through writing the film, prepping the film, shooting the film, and editing the film. Spending that much time with something has the potential to create a desire to just be done. It can also do the opposite and make you want to endlessly tinker. Both of these situations are toxic to the process. One leads to you putting pressure on the mixer which leads to rushed work that isn’t as good as it could be. The other leads to you pissing someone off because they feel like you’re wasting their time. So when either of these feelings come up, I think that’s a good time to take a step back. I can leave my ideas with the mixer or editor and they’ll keep working, and come up with ideas of their own. They are collaborators, after all, not order-takers. They’re going to take your ideas, process them, and add their own touches to it. This is not a bad thing. It’s that collaboration, that communication and sharing of ideas, that takes you from the logical sounds that are expected to the emotional ones that are not.
For example, I wrote and directed a short film called Day One. The film is about two women trapped inside a storm cellar after a nuclear bomb obliterates their town. Once they are trapped, a low, rumbling sound becomes the background to everything. It’s subtle, only really noticeable during the silences in scenes. The decision to have this background sound came out of practicality. The shooting location was near a very busy road, and the sounds of traffic could be heard faintly in the background. Background noise is not a great thing when your film establishes that your characters are trapped because they can’t venture out into a desolate, radioactive wasteland. We had to come up with something that would both be the sound of the storm cellar and mask the sound of traffic. We could have gone with something logical: an electric hum of the lights or a muffled noise of a generator. Instead, my sound designer had the brilliant idea to take part of the sound of the nuclear blast and make that the sound that would continue in the background.
If you stop to think about it, that sound doesn’t really make sense; there is nothing in the location that would be making it. However, it creates a feeling of foreboding and dread as it never allows the violence of that moment to leave the film. It fits in with the tone of the film and helps tell the story. It’s better than a logical sound; it’s an emotional one. It’s a sound that enriches the experience of watching the movie.
In the end, that is the ultimate goal. It’s not to make sure a gun goes bang or tires screech or glass clinks on the ground after it shatters; it’s about finding something that strikes an emotional chord. It’s about the gunshots in Zero Dark Thirty feeling like they hit you in the chest. It’s about a water fountain in Kill Bill making the tension of a sword fight unbearable. It’s about the harmonica music transforming from score to on-screen sound as it becomes the haunting anthem and introduction to the main character in Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s about the silence as a body plummets from a building in The Departed, making your heart drop into your stomach.
Simply put, sound design is about transporting someone into the world of your story, letting it envelop them, and making them feel something.