This guest contribution comes to us from Chris Didlick. Chris is the Head of Sound Design at Box Of Toys Audio, a music and sound design studio in London.
A phrase and rule of thumb I often read is that sound design should go unnoticed, it should not draw attention to itself for fear of awakening the audience from their enrapture and shatter the suspension of belief. Whilst I agree with this sentiment in principle, I wonder whether this advice hinders the exploration that might otherwise happen.
I love the use of silence and subtlety (in fact the absence of sound might draw attention to itself) and I am not suggesting that every sound jumps out and grabs you by the lobes; but perhaps sound design being noticed is not always a bad thing? Would we have the iconic sounds of the Predator POV, the sonic ordeal of Eraserhead or the stylised music and Foley of Kill Bill if that were really the case? Perhaps sound design has evolved to such a degree that this approach is no longer applicable?
For better or worse I can think of many examples where this ‘rule’ is ignored. If the meaning of ‘should go unnoticed’ is simply suggesting that sound design should not stand out as being poorly implemented, surely this is just common sense as why would anyone choose to implement poor quality, badly mixed, out of place sounds? This advice would appear to suggest that successful sound design compliments visuals, physics, story and emotion yet remains incognito at all times.
For sound designers the belief is that audio is 50% of the experience. We should not limit it’s application because of what has been done before as it is demonstrated time and again that straying from the norm will often provide the most innovative results. I am certainly guilty of looking to other sound design work as reference material both consciously and subconsciously – whether you would consider that as inspiration or perpetuating a trend, I’m not sure, but by doing so am I declining an opportunity to try something new? Of course there are industry standards and creative direction to be met but the very sounds and their implementation are always up for debate. The novelty of an audio decision may draw attention to itself but still live happily within the universe of the narrative.
It would seem that there’s a growing consensus in the community that the role of the sound designer goes largely unacknowledged. Whilst the goal here is not to draw attention to the sound for attention’s sake, soundtracks for films such as Blade Runner 2049 go a long way towards raising awareness by being notable in it’s own right yet staying true to creative principles. For example, I have spoken to several casual viewers who have remarked on the sound of this film, in particular during the market scene where K is approached by 3 prostitutes and you can hear what is perceived as a large passing vehicle or rev of a dynamo (technically this is part of the musical score but it would be fair to say the score straddles the roles of both music and sound design). For me, this is a great example of sound holding it’s own amidst other well-executed disciplines.
Conversely the sound design of the Blue Planet 2 series caught the attention of some viewers by being what they considered too prominent and exaggerated, effectively spoiling their experience of the show. What these two examples demonstrate is that being noticeable is not necessarily right or wrong, but perhaps it’s more about telling a story as effectively as possible. For Blade Runner, the market scene sounds were not strictly linked to the narrative at hand but expanded on the surrounding world in a positive way. In the case of Blue Planet 2, some found parts of the sound design to be distracting and working against the overall ambience of the documentary (to further confuse the issue many a sound designer, including myself, loved the BP2 audio).
So what makes a sound draw attention to itself and when is it ok for that to happen? My first thoughts go to dynamic sounds that reflect large visual events but there are many instances when the lack of sound in these moments have worked just as effectively. For example the initial impact of seismic charges in Star Wars: Attack of Clones is mute and yet somehow draws you further into their appearance. Does the lack of sound garner attention because of a trope established by the expectation of an explosive impact? Is it the very novelty of the sound treatment that captivates your attention? This could constitute new and different sounds; abundant in sci-fi and fantasy because a sound does not already exist in the real world for what is happening. These sounds tend to be noticeable because they are by nature atypical (and likely given extra TLC by the designer), but if well implemented are generally accepted by audiences because there is no frame of reference available other than the types of materials, mechanics and movement.
Another example of attention-grabbing sound design but in a more indirect way is the false alarms often used in the horror genre. The audio team rely on conditioning of the audience to assume a scare at the climax of rising strings, do not deliver, allow the audience to relax for a second and then BAM! Knife in the face. Once again in this instance the novelty comes from challenging established tropes and expectation in sound design. Could this mean decisions will be made to allow for the speed of sound, to design realistic punches or create something truly alien?
These are just a few of many questions that refer to predominantly diagetic sound design and a whole other can of worms awaits on the non-diagetic, surrealist and emotive side of the fence. It’s just too huge to be driven by a single directive. Ultimately the whole topic is subjective but perhaps the ‘rule of thumb’, if any, should be more inclusive and ultimately aim to promote good decision making rather than to by default silently support a visual project.
A big thank you to Chris Didlick for taking the time to pen this contribution. You can learn more about Chris and his work at www.boxoftoysaudio.com