How To Tell A Story With Sound

You might not think of it but sound plays a vital part in the creative process. Whether it’s a feature, short film, or album, sound has the ability to bring the process to life and evoke certain feelings within us. For a film, sound can tell us about the character, place and time, and for an artist, it can tell us a lot about who they are or their style. It touches and inspires us in ways visuals can’t. 

If you’re currently working on a film project, or have a project in mind and want to strengthen aspects of your story with sound, here are a few helpful insights that I’ve learned along the way using SFX and sound design. 

1. Understanding the Story

In order to build sound ideas, it’s key to know the story well, whether it’s your own or someone else’s. This might mean you have to watch something over and over to get all the details because they’re essential when it comes to sound. Pay attention to the characters, place, era, time and objects in the scene. Knowing these elements can help set the scene for when you want to add your sound. For example, if there’s a villian in the shot, using dark rumbles or eerie sounds can inform the audience about their evil presence. Think about where the story is going as well, do you need to add an off screen sound? A transitional sound for the scene? Or silence? Remember sound should always serve the story. You don’t need dialogue to make the audience understand what’s going on, sound can speak for itself if it’s done well. 

2. Quality

Depending on whether you have a decent budget for your film project, you can usually send it to professionals that will do it for you, but if you’re an independent filmmaker with little to no budget you can do it yourself by downloading a sound library or finding free sound effects online. For those of you who are indie, choose a sound library that has similar sounds to reality. There’s a lot of mediocre effects out there so it’s important to think quality. You want clear and clean sounding effects with variety, having quality will enhance your film’s atmosphere.

I saw a short film not too long ago and the only thing I remember from it was the average sound effects and design it had in it. The audio levels seemed too loud and the sounds they chose were inauthentic which distracted me from focusing on the story. So a heads up, quality does matter!

Tip: When editing and listening through the sound, be sure to play it back on quality stereo speakers. Sound coming through headphones can differentiate from the sound coming through the speakers. 

3. Timing 

Timing is a crucial element to help keep you aligned with your story. Make sure there are no delays, footsteps are in sync, objects placed down are in sync, etc. If sounds are even slightly out of time, the scene then becomes unrealistic. This is where your eyes come in handy in picking up details. Having precision is going to take you a long way in sound!

Now if you want to get creative you can think about doing transitional sounds that carry over to the next scene. An example of this is a scene from La La Land where Mia (Emma Stone) enters the restaurant and sees sebastian (Ryan Gosling) playing piano for the first time, the sound changes from piano to a crescendoed car beep, then changes to Sebatian beeping his car horn. Transitions like this can really serve the story and add extra details about the story.

4. Choosing & making the right sounds

Think about how sounds are in real life and how you can edit them effectively to match the screen. If someone is talking on the phone, you want to create a muffled radio-like sound. If there was an explosion near by, think about the high pitched ringing or muted background noise that might occur. If someone is walking on tiles in an open space, think about what type of shoes they’re wearing and the echo that might project and how it might sound. 

If you can’t find a certain sound you’re looking for, it might require you to get a little creative. When I was working on Out Of The Woods, I had a scene where the main character had quick flashbacks, I thought it would be effective to add a distorted glitch sound every time it would flashback. I searched high and low in the sound library but nothing matched to the sound I was looking for in my head, I ended up combining two different train brakes and EQing in order to get the sound that I was hoping for. It does take time, but it’s worth it! 

Your main goal should be to create sounds so good that the audience feels like they’re in the film or in the characters mind. It takes practice and patience to get good at sound, so don’t worry if it’s not sounding the way you want in the beginning, just keep going and keep getting creative!

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