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Posted by on Dec 6, 2013 | 7 comments

Credit Where Credit is Due

Photo from Vancouver Film School flickr stream. Used under Creative Commons license.

Photo from Vancouver Film School flickr stream. Used under Creative Commons license.

Guest Contribution by Charles Maynes

With all the talk of what “is” or perhaps “isn’t” Sound Design, I think that largely we forget to recognize that ALL of the sound that is in a film, Television program, or interactive experience is “Sound Design”. Often times, we quickly forget the contributions of our dialog, and especially our music department in the way those sound groups fit into our end result. To claim a “reason” for that is somewhat self-evident- mainly that humans are a verbal creature in the manner of communication, and if we see a person moving their mouth, we usually have a need to hear some sort of communication come from it- even if its a baby crying, or an exhausted person panting after their exertions. Those sounds connect us to the story that the director and picture editor have laid before us (as well as the script writer). And it is a device to attach us to their narrative. Sound effects, of course have a similar sort of necessity as to making action we see onscreen be believable- whether it is someone walking across a space to giant robots destroying entire cities, we usually have an expectation to hear something that attaches a sort of aural reality to the depicted event.

In our community we also seem to really sort of attach more importance to work that is largely loud, and depicting action on a grand scale- things like Terminators, Transformers, or warfare such as Saving Private Ryan or action films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While that action is generally exciting and visceral it doesn’t necessarily make it superior to less frantic films…. Some films manage to imbue a huge amount of tension in relatively straight forward, and representative sound treatments. Ren Klyce, who has been a long time David Fincher collaborator has some amazingly satisfying sound design in films such as Seven, Fight Club and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And though those films have some lovely loud moments, it is largely the more intimate dialog scenes which give the largest impact as sound design pieces; where sound effects, or effects design, seem to be in a very subdued posture in the mix. Other films which tend to follow that lead are most of the Coen brothers films, whose sound Skip Lievsey has been responsible for. The amazingly detailed work Skip did in “No Country For Old Men” being quite salient; in that it is rare to see so much emotional effect come from such a reserved track…which really is a testimony to Joel and Ethan Coen in the manner that they allowed every resource, from their casting, camera angles, and lighting to create a very emotional, immersive experience.

One thing that we also might consider is the reality that our images do largely dictate the sound approach we embark on. A film like “The Matrix” will have an entirely different set of requirements than something like the film “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. Most films (and TV/games) will require the sound design to not be a dominant force in the presentation and will have a more rounded audio aesthetic, which will hopefully capture the attention of the audience for the sake of the story- and not just sound…something Randy Thom wrote at length on in his piece on designing a film for sound (I would say, that commentary is far more important and inclusive than any of my words…. And Randy wrote that in 1999….) actually that piece should be perma-linked on this site!

To get to the point of foley, as Shaun wrote in his masthead for the months topics, Foley is exactly the sort of glue which allows our films characters to have weight and be believable. This is a paramount concern for animated features even more so- since the characters movements and sound have to communicate their innate scale and emotion to us in that. Foley sometimes can entirely communicate the mood and intention of a character- in the way they walk or handle items, or even just the sound of their clothing. Foley was originally considered sound effects recording synchronized to picture, and it allowed the artists to use all sorts of items to sonify the actions on screen. Artists like John Roesch and Dan O’Connell are as in demand for their manipulative skills with their props, as they are with their great selection of props for their work. In fact it is that awesome talent which allows them to create sync sound effects for nearly anything that is thrown at them- from explosions, to creature vocalizations to more mundane Human sounds. And it has largely trended that foley has seemingly took an even lower spot in the hierarchy of importance, much to the disservice of our clients. And though some directors dislike foley in the manner that ADR is sometimes avoided due to the issues of the performances, Foley is as ADR is- something that can enhance the story telling telling…and, sadly -when it is done haphazardly, can stain a filmakers trust in those devices.

The other thing that foley brings to the table (when employed by an astute sound team), is a great resource of detail which cut effects can sometimes lack- the sound of web gear on soldiers, the movement of a bat suit, even the satin squeak of a dress swish can speak volumes in the realm of sound design for a story. In our usual budgeting though, foley is constrained to a bare minimum of coverage (at least in props)- when a more exhaustive coverage can bring a level of detail to a track that is spellbinding. The late, great, Chuck Campbell was probably one of the greatest Foley fans in Hollywood (as is Soundelux’s Wylie Statemen). And in Chuck’s case, he used his foley as the main body of his effects tracks- using cut effects as extensions of what the foley did. My favorite film that embodies his approach was the Steven Spielberg film, “Schindlers’ List”- which to me is one of the most compelling films of my lifetime.

To work with great foley artists, and editors is something which will invariably elevate the sound design of nearly any project- it is my hope that we can raise awareness to its profound value in our sound universe.

7 Comments

  1. Great article Charles! I love your opening statement

    “largely we forget to recognize that ALL of the sound that is in a film, Television program, or interactive experience is “Sound Design”

  2. Thanks, Charles, for continuing to stir the pot in revealing ways. I’d only add a comment about one of your sentences.

    To quote you…
    “Sound effects, of course have a similar sort of necessity as to making action we see onscreen be believable- whether it is someone walking across a space to giant robots destroying entire cities, we usually have an expectation to hear something that attaches a sort of aural reality to the depicted event.”

    I would say, yes, absolutely. But we should also push for the reverse, even though it seems like blasphemy to many:

    VISUALS SHOULD SOMETIMES BE DESIGNED TO MAKE SOUND BELIEVABLE.
    VISUALS SHOULD SOMETIMES BE DESIGNED TO MAKE SOUND MORE POWERFUL.
    VISUALS SHOULD SOMETIMES BE DESIGNED TO ALLOW SOUND TO DO WHAT VISUALS CANNOT DO.

    Sound is not destined to follow visuals, enhancing them, correcting their problems, etc. Sound can and should often lead.

    Randy

    • wow…. yes, Randy, that is an awesome comment! thank you for being such a giant positive force in this art form, I certainly am deeply indebted to your leadership and lovely passion to elevate it. And, as I have gushed so many times, the foley on Horton hears a Who was utterly breathtaking…. It was truly a definitive bit of sound design..

      Charles

  3. Very nice article Charles! Would be lovely to see some more behind the scenes of great foley artists. I love seeing what the true masters of foley can do, and it seems it is sadly a lost art form to many productions that don’t have the budget or talent to do it correctly. Was interesting to watch Ben Burtt talk about the old Disney sound effects work when they would build devices to perform to picture…..well clearly not exactly what modern foley is considered obviously, but kind of the same idea…and interesting nonetheless! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSf8Er2gV_Q#t=203

  4. Nice article Charles!

  5. Charles, your article is wise and poetic. I agree wholeheartedly with your comment:

    “Foley sometimes can entirely communicate the mood and intention of a character- in the way they walk or handle items, or even just the sound of their clothing.”

    Detail and weight are helpful for believability and to glue the sound effects together, but it’s the attention to the differences and nuances of the performance aspect of footsteps and other movements which can be bold or tentative, happily rhythmic or off kilter, reinforcing the personality of the characters in the story and the dance of their interactions. Objects have character too, and a good Foley artist and recordist can make the floor surfaces, page turns and whiskey pours sing of the substance and history of those objects, as well as those who manipulate them. Sound generally contributes greatly to the character of the cast, props and locations of the film.

    In France it is not unheard of to have the director at the Foley recording session. Sound design too often is seen as decoration, but In many ways sound design is more like performance. Foley is the most actorly part of the sound of a film, after the dialog and ADR, which it closely resembles.

  6. Charles, thanks for your inspiring article. I have sometimes said when teaching that foley is the flesh and soul for actors and makes their heart to beat. And very good comment of Randy.

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