Instructor - Norman Hollyn


Lesson #8

Oct 14, 2003

Added Material

Assignments for Next Week

Handouts for this Week

Lesson for This Week


Sound Design

Sound and music are two more tools in your aresenal, which you can use to help tell the story that you've figured out through your scene analysis that you'd like to tell. Tonight we will beging dealing with these issues, with a discussion of sound.The English Patient

We will take a look at a scene from THE ENGLISH PATIENT, a film directed by Anthony Minghella and edited by Walter Murch (the same duo behind 1999's THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY). The scene involves the interrogation of the Willem Dafoe character, Caravaggio, by a Nazi officer, Muller (played by Jorgen Prochnow). We will discuss the role that sound played in both the interpretation of the scene and in the execution of the editing process. Murch, who often edits and mixes the sound in the movies that he cuts picture for, is quite articulate in the interview that we hand out tonight.

The interview that is being handed out deals with how Murch approached the editing of the scene from a character's point of view. Once he decided who changed and why, it was an easy next step to creating a beat that emphasized that change.

The fascinating thing about his analysis is that it is quite possible that, after putting the scene together, the audience won't get Murch's underlying analysis. But because he's analyzed the film in a way that works within the context of the entire film, it will ring true nonetheless. The audience will respond to the dynamic between the Willem Dafoe character and the Nazi major whether they see Murch's reasonings or not.

In this way, we discover that a true and consistent analysis will not only help the audience understand what the characters are doing, but will never introduce a false character moment that will pull the audience out of their experience.

Comments on Sound

The variable optical soundtrack has traditionally been placed on the left side of the film, whether stereo or mono. Click on the image to see a description of all of the soundtrack options.
© British Broadcasting Corp.

Technically, sound is placed onto the film in any number of ways. The most common over the last several decades has been the optical soundtrack, as shown on the left.

The soundtrack is mixed down from the combined dialogue, music and effects tracks (called the D–M–E) to the minimum number of channels necessary to place on the film. A print master is created from this mix. Up until this point, all of the sound has been on tape or digital drive formats. Now, it is sent through a machine which takes these analog or digital sound waves and converts them into optical/visual waves. An optical negative is created which is sent to a lab and developed.

During the finishing process at the lab, this optical negative is printed onto the print film of the images which has been created from the cut negative (more on this process in a few weeks), resulting in a positive print of the film with both a picture image and the optical sound track.

Modern digital soundtracks have changed the placement of the track appreciably. Some of the sound is placed on the frame lines or on separate CD-ROMs which are locked together with the film using time code. However, there is always a soundtrack placed near the sprockets. To see a description of all of the various soundtrack formats click here. The article will pop up in a new window. Click on the close button to come back here.

Finally, Randy Thom in an article on the Filmsound web site, makes the point that music, dialogue and sound effects can "each do any of the following jobs, and many more:

  • suggest a mood, evoke a feeling
  • set a pace
  • indicate a geographical locale
  • indicate a historical period
  • clarify the plot
  • define a character
  • connect otherwise unconnected ideas, characters, places, images, or moments
  • heighten realism or diminish it
  • heighten ambiguity or diminish it
  • draw attention to a detail, or away from it
  • indicate changes in time
  • smooth otherwise abrupt changes between shots or scenes
  • emphasize a transition for dramatic effect
  • describe an acoustic space
  • startle or soothe

    Note that an excerpt from this article appears in this week's handouts.

While I think the last point is almost too specific, the list is a great one so long as you realize that the creation of sound is all within the purview of the editorial process -- both traditionally and conceptually. You can't work with sound design without accounting for it in the editing room. Thom mentions that what was great about the sound design of APOCALYPSE NOW began with the script, since it gave the characters "the opportunity to listen to the world around them." You need to do the same in the editing. This week's description of the silence in THE ENGLISH PATIENT is particularly apt here for it is not only the characters who need to be aware of the world's sound, but the audience as well. In your log lines I keep asking you to be aware of the atmosphere and the setting of your films. Sound and music is but one part of this.


Interview with Walter Murch, editor of THE ENGLISH PATIENT
What is fascinating to me about this interview is how Murch, after researching the feelings and backgrounds of prisoners of war and the Germans' view of weakness. It caused him to edit the scene in a particularly effecting way, altering the script and making use of sound and music in the process.
Designing A Movie For Sound
Randy Thom has designed sound for some of Hollywood's biggest films -- the STAR WARS series, for instance. In this article he talks about what sound can do ("Sound may be the most powerful tool in the filmmaker's arsenal in terms of its ability to seduce") and how to edit a film with sound in mind.
The Roles Of Sound
Acccording to Tom Holman, sound in film has both a narrative and a grammatical role to play. You've probably all worked with him in 507. Here is an excerpt from one of his books.

Assignments for Next Week

Recut Scenes 76-79 from ROSWELL
Using my recut notes, rework the scene. In addition, using the CD disk of music cues that I've supplied, add music to the scene. You may use one of the cues, more than one of the cues cut together, or you may choose to spot the music in more than one place in the scene. I ask that you try out more than one piece of music and that you stick to the music from this CD. We will be discussing music next week -- the aesthetics of the choices, the possibilities of spotting it (that is, where the music begins and ends), as well as the technical means of cutting it into the Avid and working it. For this week, import the file off of the CD. I've given the TA a copy of Toast Audio Extractor which is usually used for saving the files off of a music CD and placing it onto a location on your hard drive (other people use Quicktime). After you've done that, then bring it into the Avid using the Import... command under the FILE menu. Import it into a new bin (you can call it "Music"). Then use the keyframing and rubber banding techniques in the Avid in order to adjust the volume.
Read Chapters 12 and 12A
These chapters talk about preparing for sound and music.
Log Line #2
Once again, you will be creating a log line based on an actual movie that you have seen (don't use the same film you used for your first log line). It can be recent or old. Give it plenty of thought and try to desribe the core of what makes the film special. Go back and re-read the notes I gave you from your first log line. What was missing from your log line back then? Did you miss detail? Did you work just enough details in to "sell" the story and the uniqueness of the film to me? Go back over the notes from the last log line and see what it is that you missed out on.

Additional Material

(Page will open in a new window. Close it to return to this page.)

Bruce Nazarian's article "Post Audio FAQs"
This Frequently Asked Questions article includes many articles on sound in film, as well as an excellent bibliography. The article is posted on Sven Carlsson's Film Sound site, which also has a great glossary of sound terms right there on the home page.
The Motion Picture Sound Editors
association has a site which has current news, lists of awards and a series of links. Not very much in the way of papers or source material, though. A bit out of date, though the links site has some very interesting technical sites on it. A small, but interesting, set of discussion groups of which a few are open to the public.
Log Lines by Rob Tobin [WARNING -- This link may be down from time to time.]
A student from a year or two ago, James Masi, gave me this link to an excerpt from a book by Rob Tobin. In it he talks about creating log lines that incorporate the "objective" and "subjective" storylines. This is actually a great way of describing the two levels that you should put into your own log line. I've been talking about how you need to talk about your characters, the setting and what they do. I've also talked about how you need to describe what the characters want and do. Tobin's description is actually a much more succinct and clever way of talking about it.
The Changing Face of Audio Post-Production
Bob Grieves, a well-known sound editor in Los Angeles, writes an article for the Editor's Union newsletter. He makes some good points about decentralizing the work. He also his concerns about how the art of sound editing might deteriorate, become a service. His point here is a good one -- sound is so powerful a force in the editing process that is a shame when it is relegated to what I call "see a door, hear a door." -- filling in the obvious.
Film Sound Org
A comprehensive site which not only has a glossary, but it has a series of articles by Randy Thom, Walter Murch and a number of other sound theorists. Well worth the trip.
Editing sound on SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Two interesting articles by Elizabeth Weis provide some insight into the creation of a complete soundtrack. The article "Creating Sound For Jonathan Demme" describes the work on SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The article "Sync Tanks" is a general overview, with some very nice quotes from New York sound editors and sound supervisors, of the sound post-production process.
Film Sound Q&A
An excellent series of questions and answers with some of the best sound designers in the field -- dealing with questions about foley, micing, how you make sound underwater, and more.
The Sound of Sound
Rick Altman's general overview of the history of sound in film is worth looking at.
DV Magazine's Audio Articles
Jay Rose writes a column for DV Magazine on a variety of sound issues. This link will take you to the listing of his columns.
The theory of sound in motion pictures by Walter Murch
A highly theoretical article, but fasincating nonetheless, It is a transcript of a speech that he gave to sound mixers, editors and enthusiasts (if that word makes sense in the context of sound), in which he discusses the complexity of the sound experience.
Surround Sound
There are various ways of obtaining surround sound in theatres and on DVD. This scholarly paper explains the differences between them all with some diagrams on where they are located on the film.
Lisa Baro's North Beach Post's web site.
Lisa gives a lot of valuable information on post-production (and on-set production) sound. Her manifesto for this San Francisco based audio company states:

This very, very opinionated web site was designed for my current and future clients. They're usually new or first time do-it-yourself guerrilla filmmakers, trying to make do with low to no budgets. They usually function as writer/ director/ producer and sometimes editor. They either shoot on 16mm, or record on miniDV or BetaSP and then transfer to film. Many new directors come to me with no idea what audio post is about and this site tries to address this.

How Optical Sound Works
The Web Site "How Stuff Works" has an interesting set of pages on how the optical soundtrack works, and how it evolved to its present state. This page has a cool Flash film which gives you a sense of why light shot though this optical soundtrack can turn into sound.

Though I've tried to accomodate other browsers THIS SITE IS DESIGNED FOR BEST USE WITH IE for the PC, SAFARI for the Mac, and FIREFOX for both the PC and the Mac. It also looks reasonably good on the iPhone. Lucked out on that!

All material, except where noted, ©1999-2008 by Norman Hollyn. Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Send me an e-mail at my office
Last Modified - September 30, 2008