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Posted by on Apr 25, 2014 | 10 comments

The Details That Matter

Forest Scene by Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, photo by flickr user Cliff. Used under Creative Commons license. Click image to view source.

Forest Scene by Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, photo by flickr user Cliff. Click image to view source.

Guest Contribution by Randy Thom

When someone tells me that they admire the sound design work my team has done on a project they often go on to say that what they like most is the little sonic details we’ve covered in a given scene, like the sound of an object being picked up by a character in the background of a shot. I thank them for the compliment, but I’m usually left with an awkward feeling, because “details” are actually low on my list of priorities. I think sound design is an art form. I aspire to be a good artist, and I think sound work is similar to painting and other art forms in lots of ways. Great paintings are praised for the feelings they evoke. It’s pretty rare that the work of a master painter is praised for its “details.” In fact, the most intricately detailed paintings, the ones that depict a scene absolutely realistically in a straight forward “photographic” way are almost never considered great works of art. Great craft maybe, but not great art.

As we know, paintings range from “realistic” to “impressionistic” to “abstract.” Film sound design can be any one of these three, or all three in combination because it takes place in time, and the level of subjectivity can shift from one moment to the next. But I would say that most great sound design is basically impressionistic. It doesn’t attempt to be “realistic” in the sense that it slavishly tries to reproduce exactly what would actually be heard in a given situation, though when it works well it gives you the “impression” that you’ve experienced something real. Generally speaking, my goal is to enchant the audience with as FEW details as possible, rather than attempting to supply as many details as I can shoehorn into a scene. Fewer details will make for a stronger “vector of feeling,” if you will. Fewer details give the artist more control. More details will often confuse, muddy, and distract unless the “details” are qualitatively different from the sound you want to feature. For example, a purely tonal sound in a bed of “noise-based” details will tend to stand out, like a fog horn amid a thousand little splashes. Generally, fewer sounds will often be better sound if they’re done well. The audience doesn’t want “reality,” they want a story. If we supply them the essential sounds they’ll supply the details. But what are the essential sounds in a given moment…..?….. THAT’s where the art is.


  1. As a sound designer who was obsessed with details and is now realizing the elegance of the less is more approach this article just hits home for me…its always about the emotion!

    Please write more op-eds like this Randy, your wisdom is much appreciated.

  2. Interesting point of view, and I really like the perspective of doing only what’s necessary to frame a scene so the audience can impart their own experience into it. Scott McCloud illustrates (literally) this concept beautifully in “Understanding Comics” using pictures with varying degrees of detail. I’m commenting to challenge the idea we are producing art with our soundtracks though. I’ve contemplated the art vs craft question many times (even wrote about it for Designing Sound). Ultimately I think we are craftspeople and the role of artist belongs to the creative lead(s) of the project. Painters generally have all the skills necessary to produce their artistic vision, so I think its a difficult analogy to relate to. A painter could be complimented on brush technique (a detail) and that would still have an intrinsic relation to the artistic vision. I think of other multidiscipline artforms like architecture. I’m a huge fan of the Greene and Greene Brothers craftsman homes from the early 1900’s. They are works of art. The feeling I get being inside one is special. And the level of detail is extraordinary, but secondarily important as Randy points out. I’m only interested in the detail, because of the amazing emotional impression it made on me. That is the intrinsic inquisitiveness of humans to things that inspire them. Had I done the art glass or wood work in the Gamble House and received a compliment, I would expect it to lean towards remarks on the details I created, because the gestalt of the piece was not my central role. We are contributors and our contributions get noticed. We are the secondary agents of the artistic vision, so that makes sense to me. That said, I love it when a compliment does reflect the artistic intent behind it. It means we nailed (for that person at least). But if a compliment or analysis doesn’t reflect it….I chalk it up to the complimenter not having a clear idea of why a detail contributed to the experience. That’s most likely due to their inability to associate it, but there’s also the chance that a detail WAS so remarkable that they don’t associate it with the whole. Great topic Randy…Thanks for sharing.

    • I find a flaw with this logic. I have personal friends who are painters. People who are often commissioned to create a painting on a specific subject or theme, and creating those commissioned pieces can involve a process of revisions. The client will come back and say, can you make this section brighter, or, “I’d like there to be more gold in these fish scales” (an actual quote). Is the painter then less of an artist, because she is working within a client’s vision? A person is not less of an artist (or just a craftsperson), simply because they are creating in service to another’s vision. Art can be individual and collaborative. I think that it is a narrow mindset to consider our work simply “craft,” and one that can fundamentally alter one’s approach to the creative process in a negative way.

      • I’m deeply passionate about sound design and think its the greatest thing ever. Any negative associations created by calling it craftsmanship are not intentional. Sound can be art, but the kernel of inspiration in the majority of films, games, plays etc is simply not rooted in the sound design anymore than its rooted in the costume design, lighting design, vfx or hair. If the argument is that we are all artists in a collaborative, I say take a good look at which way the prevailing tide of influence flows on a project to see if that’s true. I’ve had projects where my contributions influenced and even inspired changes in the overall work. But even in those examples to say the film or game is my artistic vision would be an overstatement. I don’t think this harms the working relationship whatsoever with a client. I think it’s healthier to put my personal artistic desires aside in order to fully serve the spirit of a project and it’s true visionaries. I am still passionate, I draw deeply from life experiences and I have a vision for the design of the sound, but the actual artistic boss is still calling the shots.

        • That’s why I said “can” instead of “does.” I have no doubt that you are passionate.

          To simplify…I just feel that the term “craft” implies a more structured, by the numbers, approach to the work which it describes. Certainly, there are tasks where that description is perfectly accurate. However, I don’t feel the term can encompass the moments where we are asked to truly create, to add depth to the narrative, or explore the depths of our own aesthetics to serve an idea or emotion that can only be described in abstract terms. Any time you leave a piece of yourself in a film/game/etc., you’re working in the realm of art. I also feel that can be done while serving, to quote your words, “the spirit of a project and it’s true visionaries.” The overall piece certainly is not your or my artistic vision (on that we are in total agreement), but your vision IS a part of it. Art and design are about decisions. Decisions don’t necessarily get in the way unless your ego is informing them. If you can keep your ego out of it, then you can create art in service to another…in service to a larger work.

          …and now I’ll stop being argumentative. ;)

  3. Very true! As a sound fx editor one often feels like we have to put in all possible sound elements for every scene or moment in a film. If we do a scene and have not layered in that much stuff I sometimes almost feel like I am not doing my job! But this is not the reality…ultimately what matters is the story and sound, if anything, should focus the story and create a sort of ‘sonic depth of field’ to guide the audience from a moment to the next. I recently have had several chances to mix stuff that I also edited and designed and as much as fx editing is about putting in…mixing is about taking out. I do believe however that as an fx editor on films where I am not mixing I feel I have to provide all possible content that may be needed and the mix can then dictate what is taken out. But when I have a chance to edit fx on a film knowing I will mix it I definitely enjoy being able to really edit for the mix and orchestrate things in the edit knowing what stuff I will probably not need and so on. Ultimately its about telling the story with as little as required…whether that is editing in a lot and then removing or editing selectively even prior to the mix. Great post Randy and I totally agree regarding comments we often get from clients that sometimes makes us feel that they really don’t get what we try to do and how deep of an art form sound design can be!

  4. hey Randy!

    this was a really, really juicy bit of thought- I thank you for sharing it, and I don’t even feel like I have the will to comment until it bounces around my brain for a good while….

  5. Fantastic piece! To branch off the idea of “impressionism”, I would submit that some of the most successful sound designers present a sonic “caricature” of reality. I’ve found this hyperreality of sound with image makes a very compelling story even more dreamlike, as demonstrated many times by Mr. Thom himself. I would also concur with the request for more op-eds in the future. Thanks!

  6. Thanks for the great responses, critiques as well as agreements. It’s certainly true that none of us in film/video/game sound are lone wolf autonomous artists, free to do as we like. If you want to keep working in these industries you have to serve the client first and foremost. On the other hand, most of our clients, especially the bright ones, prefer if we come to them with a coherent sonic “vision” based on what they’ve told us about their desires for the project. It’s wise to be prepared to cover all bases quickly if necessary, of course, so we make sure that the object being picked up in the background has been, or quickly can be, sonified. But we don’t present the client with five alternates for every sound. That just makes us seem like we’re flailing without a point of view.

    The differences between “art” and “craft” are probably impossible to define. My working definition is that I use craft to make art. A great craft piece may be elegant, and flawless in a sense, but it may lack in the “intriguingly mysterious” department. Great art for me is intriguingly mysterious above all. It asks more questions than it answers, and they are the kinds of questions that compel you to want to know more. And, as I think I may have have said in this sound forum before, using different words, the most mysterious and compelling aspect of almost all works of art come to us artists in the form of a mistake, or an accident when we’re sweating away at the craft work on the project. We aren’t smart enough to invent art using logic, but sometimes we’re smart enough to recognize something wonderful when it falls into our laps. A great craftsperson knows how to avoid accidents. A great artist knows how to use them.

    • I really enjoy the viewpoints here, and work in much the same ways people in the artist camp describe. I agree its counter productive to have a semantic discussion about art vs craft from this point, but the one thing I’ll add because I don’t see it mentioned in the discussion is the sense of purpose and responsibility I feel to the vision of a project. It educates me, inspires me, sends me on crazy field recording sessions and provides me with a wealth of experiences I would never have in my life had the project not been brought to me. That vision IS the muse, and I feel like it’s bigger than me, my cave of perceptions and the creative opportunity space available to me prior to a project’s arrival and discovery. I find this aspect of our work exhilarating, and want to promote it over the internal forces that drive designers. When I work this way creativity is literally an afterthought.

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