Sound: The Invisible Art

Ryan Schile: Sound Designer

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was promised on Friday, and not delivered until Sunday.  The Molepeople apologize for this delay.  It is mainly due to the fact that Jeffrey was unceremoniously crammed into a car on Thursday afternoon and taken on a surprise camping trip by everyone who had the ability to update the blog.  Everyone has returned safe, refreshed, and notably grimier.]

As Season One nears conclusion, I wanted to take the opportunity to thank Jeffrey and Clayton and all the creators of Our Fair City for allowing me to help bring their world to life. I also had a desire to explain to you, The Internet, why I love sound, and hopefully open your ears to an entirely new world. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll discuss the medium that first got me hooked on sound design: movies.

As I often say, when you go to the movies and you see a film that has great special effects, you say, “Wow! Those are great special effects!” When you go to the movies and you see a film that has great sound, you say, “Wow! Those are great special effects!” And that’s because the sound designer has done his or her job. Unfortunately, its most likely that the only time you, as an average movie-goer (take no offense, please), will ever notice the sound design is if it is noticeably bad (see Live Free or Die Hard dialogue-dubbing). If it’s good sound, you shouldn’t notice. The truth is, however, that if there was no sound designer to wave a magic wand-mic, those Hollywood blockbusters would sound…real. And you know what? When it comes to sound, “real” is real boring.

Sound design is such an essential part of creating that larger-than-life world, that movie patrons have come to subconsciously accept and even expect a wildly exaggerated acoustic environment that simply does not exist in nature. For example, the next time you see a cat, what do you think you’re going to
hear? Unless you step on its tail, most likely nothing. The next time you go to a shooting range, pick up your firearm and look at it. What will you hear? Hopefully, nothing. Now, the next time you watch a movie, keep a sharp ear out. If you see a cat, you’ll hear a cat. If you see a weapon being handled, you’ll hear a weapon being handled. If you see an infant, you’ll hear an infant (often when the baby is facing away from the camera). If you see a suburban neighborhood, you’ll hear one or more of the following: kids playing, lawnmowers, sprinklers, dogs barking, ice-cream truck. And those are just the basics. A sound designer will ensure that what you hear coincides with what you’re seeing on the screen. Even if what you’re watching is relatively mundane and, frankly, wouldn’t ordinarily produce sound. But I ask you this, movie-goer: Do you go to the movies to see the mundane? I think not! Here’s where the fun begins…

The uninitiated are often surprised by how many components there are to a seemingly simple sound effect. Let’s use my all time favorite hero as an example. As everyone knows, when you get punched in the face by Indiana Jones, it hurts. But do you know why it hurts? Yes, it IS because you’re being punched in the face by Indiana freakin’ Jones, but did you know it’s also because you’re getting hit in the face with a baseball bat, snapping twigs, a potato sack, raw meat, and old leather jackets all at once? I guess he packs quite punch! (*rimshot* Thank you, Andrew.)

As a more current example, I recently saw the movie Super 8 in which there was a great train derailment scene. The sound during that scene was loud, powerful and… animalistic? At one point, I actually laughed out loud during the scene. Not because it was wacky or funny, but because I finally witnessed a trick sound designers have used throughout the years to make explosions sound deeper and more “organic.” I remember thinking at the start of that scene that it might be a good opportunity to pick up some awesome techniques, so I listened rather than watched. Sure enough, during the derailment, a huge explosion occurred and layered in the sound was the unmistakable roar of a lion. I geeked out, laughed, and turned to my wife and said, “Ha! There was a lion!” She looked at me like I was a crazy person. It was awesome. There are countless other examples of how sounds we take for granted are often the result of incredibly crafty sound designers working long hours all in the hopes you won’t notice.

On the other side of coin, many seemingly complex sounds have very simple construction. When Indy is running from the giant boulder in the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the rolling, bone-crushing sound was created by a sound designer hanging out the window of his Honda Civic, pointing the mic at the tires as it coasted down a gravel hill. Later in the movie, when Indy is in the Well of the Souls, he is surrounded by thousands of snakes. The sound of the snakes slithering over one another was created by the sound designer, Ben Burtt, sliding his finger through a thick dip his wife made. (A sound designer apparently eats with his microphone!) In Star Wars, the effect used for the blaster-fire was largely created by tapping on a taut metal cable.

But my personal favorite is the alien probe in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (aka “The One with the Whales”). It generates a “whomm whomm whomm whomm” sound as it flies through space. That effect was created by the director, Leonard Nimoy, holding a microphone to his throat and going “whomm whomm whomm whomm.” When they’re not creating effects, sound designers have the luxury of using stock sounds that have been utilized for ages. One of the most obvious examples of this technique is the “Wilhem Scream.”

This scream was first used (three times) in the 1953 blockbuster epic The Charge at Feather River and it has been a staple of movie sound effects ever since. If you haven’t heard it, you’ve never seen a movie. Here is a link to a youtube compilation someone made showing “Wilhem” movies from 1953 to 1999.   And that doesn’t even include the last decade of movie-making.

I could go on and on, but my basic point is that I love sound and I wanted to share my appreciation with you all. So the next time you’re watching a movie, don’t just watch! Otherwise, you could miss out on half the art.

Thank you for being a follower of Our Fair City and come back for more!

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