In our BBP blog, we spend a lot of time talking about how to make cool sounds and when to cut those sounds. But, there's one key element to artful sound design that we don't often talk about: when not to cut any sound. I'm not talking about utter silence. I'm talking about choosing which moments you highlight with sound and which you allow the picture alone to carry. And how do you decide? This question is often one of the biggest issues that new and seasoned editors alike have and one that gets surprisingly little attention.
Using Sound as a Storytelling Tool
As sound editors, we have the ability to either clarify the story or to confuse it. Every time you choose to cut a sound, you should be asking yourself, "Will adding a sound help to direct the audience's attention, or distract them from what's important?" Remember, at it's heart, sound is a storytelling tool.
Our job may seem simple: something happens on screen and we put a sound on it. Every once in a while, something happens off-screen, and we put a sound on it. However, in my opinion, that's the wrong way to look at it. Instead, in my mind, our job is to help to tell the story with sound. Otherwise, you end up throwing the kitchen sink at every moment and creating a final editorial product that is almost impossible for your mixer to sort through and even harder for your audience to make heads or tails of. Choosing certain moments as stand-out design moments and letting other moments blend seamlessly into the soundscape is the only way to better the story rather than detract from it.
Four Key Questions to Get You There
Here are a four key questions that I think will help you to decide what to cover and what to leave alone:
1. Is the filmmaker attempting to redirect the audience's attention in a way that is crucial to the plot?
You can use this question in a wide array of scenarios, but most often, I use it to answer the age old sound design question of, "Should I put a whoosh on it?"
Every sound effects editor loves whooshes. How could you not? It's our best tool for emphasizing an important moment. A samurai goes in for a death blow: throw a whoosh on it! The camera trucks out to reveal a movie's titular monster for the first time: heck yeah, put whoosh on that sucker! But, unfortunately, improperly placed whooshes can be really distracting.
If you cut a whoosh every time the camera changes position slightly, the audience will never be able to understand the dialogue much less the plot. And, your mixer may end up hating your guts. This is a great example of the idea that as sound designers, we add sound not because "I put a whoosh on every camera move," but because "I want to emphasize the story here." In essence, you'll never be Michelangelo if you're painting my numbers.
So, when do you add a whoosh? I have two criteria, and they both have to do with directing the audience's attention:
Reason for a Whoosh #1: It's the F-Yeah Moment.
This is when you truck out to finally see the monster scorpion in a movie called Monster Scorpion. You want the audience to laugh, hoot, and scream, "F-Yeah!" So, by all means, please emphasize that sucker with a whoosh.
Reason for a Whoosh #2: You're over-emphasizing a camera move which is re-directing the audience's attention.
This is not a lazy panning motion to re-field a shot. This is when you zoom in on the secret ingredient to solving a mystery that no one previously noticed was in the shot. Please do help the audience to recognize that this moment is really important with a whoosh!
2. Is there a story to this sound?
This is the question that I most often pose to my editors when talking about off-screen sounds. This is area where you can either do a mediocre job or an excellent job. Here's an example to help illustrate my point:
Say I'm giving you a scene where two people are in a basement and are terrified of a monster lurking upstairs. They're having a conversation about what to do next, and then all of a sudden they both react to something off-screen. Then, they continue to look more and more frightened, and two minutes later, the monster is revealed right next to them. There are two very different approaches you could take to this scene and they have vastly different results.
The first approach: you cut a monster roar right before they look off-screen (because they're obviously scared of the monster, and what says monster better than it's own roar!). Then, you randomly intersperse more roars until the monster appears (to remind us that the monster is coming, because what says monster better than it's own roar!). You end with one final roar when it's on screen because this helps to connect the off-screen vocalizations with the monster. This is the most common tactic.
The alternative approach: you cut long and scary door creak before the characters look off-screen with fear. Then, after a moment of silence, you begin to cut slow and steady off-stage footsteps creaking down the stairs. Once the monster reaches the bottom of the stairs, you cut a low grumble from it as if it is considering its options. Then, you start to cut small objects being tossed over as if the monster is looking beneath each one. Each object throw aside grows in size and the grumbles become more and more aggressive each time the monster finds nothing beneath. Then, we hear the largest crash yet as the final object is thrown aside right next to our main characters. And just then, the picture cuts to the monster (finally!) and it roars for the very first time with an angry and blood-thirsty screech!
What is the difference here? Story! Sure, the first editor got the message across that the monster was there and then reminded the audience of that fact. But, the second editor created a sonic story that made the moment even better than it was without sound.
3. Is it Important to build anticipation here?
Please reread the above example. Do you see how in the first scenario, there was no anticipation? The sound editor was letting the actors and camera do all of the work in creating anticipation. He or she took a great moment with a ton of opportunity to give the audience members some seriously white knuckles, and squandered it. In contrast, the second editor told a story that added anticipation on top of a moment that was already rife with it.
I'd also like to point out that in order to build anticipation, you have to start small and build. That is why the long slow door creak is so effective in starting the moment when the audience thinks the monster may be approaching. If you start with a roar and end with a roar, you haven't taken the audience on a journey. But, if you start with a quiet door creak, build to footsteps coming down the stairs, then items being tossed getting larger and larger, then a final toss and.... ROAR!!! That is how you build anticipation. Cutting moments like this is how you become a key player in a film.
4. Is this the payoff moment after building anticipation?
As you can see, a lot of the answers to these questions are interconnected. In the above monster example, you can see that there is a story to be told that starts with creating anticipation and ends with a payoff. And, it is the "f-yeah moment" described in question one. If it's the payoff, then this is the moment you've been waiting for! Throw your whole dang sound design tool kit at it! Add a whoosh on the camera move, cut the biggest baddest roar you can imagine, and cover every tiny detail of the spit flying from that monster's mouth. Because you've chosen to hold back in all of the moments leading up to this one, the story can only gain from making this as big and amazing as possible.