This guest post comes to us from Natalia Saavedra Brychcy, a freelance sound designer based in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, working remotely for different studios in Los Angeles and New York City. Natalia has been a sound effects editor/sound designer for over 4 years, working on a wide array of projects from all over the world.
Movies can be set in naturalistic scenarios or imaginary worlds, but, no matter where and when the story takes place, it has to be believable. That comes from creating a universe, which the characters naturally inhabit or will inevitably become a part of. When we think about portraying a certain setting through sound design, we mostly think about backgrounds and ambiences. But, what about the hard sound effects, that is, the artifacts and elements that the characters interact with? What can these elements tell us about location?
The first time I questioned myself about this was while working on a feature film from Egypt, named “Yomeddine”. Yomeddine is about a Coptic leper and an orphan, who decide to leave the leper colony they live in, to embark on a journey across Egypt and find what is left of their families. The film represents the way these characters live, very realistically. The elements they interact with not only have a very specific look, but they sound in a very particular manner. The main character, for example, has a wagon that he rides on throughout the majority of his journey. By what we see on screen, we can tell that it is a simple, wooden vehicle being pulled by a donkey, transporting things from one part of town to another. But, how can we make this wagon sound like it belongs to its location?
In one specific point in the film, I noticed that most people recognized when Beshay (the main character) was arriving, without even looking. So, this wagon needed to sound special, it had to have a personality of its own, like it’s been around in this village for some time. I started paying more attention, not only to Beshay’s personality, but also to how he lived and to the society of the village. I concluded that the sound had to portray a vehicle that feels kind of old, but that has some new parts, which have been added later. This reflects how the people in the leper village repair things with what they are able to find. Also, Beshay earns his living by scavenging for items in a dumpster to resell, so he always finds interesting things, which can be reused.
In the final sound design, the wagon has a constant sound that helps give the idea that it is stable, but at the same time we hear a lot of rattling and shaking from different types of wood, some of them thinner and others heavier, and also a rusty type of metal, to give the sensation that it is an older wagon. Also, it has a rattling of different types of things that Beshay found on his scavenger hunts in the dumpster. That way, the wagon has a personality and feels like it belongs to that specific place and to a specific person. It has a story of its own. As the film progresses, the wagon changes its “identity” from place to place, accompanying our characters as they are moving forward and facing tough challenges. The wagon is more broken at every step, but it is still moving forward, just like Beshay’s mindset and heart in the story.
Although a lot of the things that Yomeddine’s characters use or interact with can be found in most places in the world, there is something particular to them by being used by a certain character, in a certain time and location. So I ask, how does the setting influence how we think they sound? Maybe if the film was set in China or the Philippines or even Bolivia, where I’m from, the sound of the wagon would be vastly different. There’s no saying if this is true in reality, or if we just want to give that illusion in films. Still, I am sure that when approaching a movie through sound, the most important thing is to think about the narrative, not just the images, not the isolated sounds, but the story that the film is telling us. If the sound feelslike it belongs, it is because it has helped the film come to life.
I learned that asking ourselves a few questions and analyzing a few elements of the environment our characters are living in would help a lot to create sounds that we feel belong within the story and within the world we want to create:
– What’s the lifestyle of our character’s society?
– How does our character fit into this society and what is her/his role?
– What kind of culture does our character have?
– What kind of job does the character have and how does she/he perform it?
– How does this influence their personality and mental state?
– How does she/he relate to people around her/him?
I’m pretty sure that this list could go on. Having a starting point to guide us on how to approach a movie would lead us to really understand what the film wants us to create.
A big thank you to Natalia for her contribution to the site. You can learn more about her work at the following links…