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.