As sound editors, speaking about sound design with clients requires a kind of foreign language. I often find myself making silly noises in an effort to either interpret what a client is looking for or to pitch an idea of my own. There’s a shorthand however, that both editor and filmmaker are aware of. An entire language has been laid out for us in the incredible work of sound designers past. I’m talking about films that are ‘in the canon’ for having memorable sound design moments.
I took a poll at the office and we made a list of the films our clients reference the most. Some or all of these may immediately call up very specific sounds in your mind. If not, these are films I suggest you check out, not just to immerse yourself in these creative sound design showcases, but to be ready when a client inevitably brings them up to you as well.
If you work on a show with monsters it’s likely at some point that you’ll get a request for a Godzilla-like roar. This vocalization of “The King of the Monsters,” found in the original 1954 film is iconic as it comes.
MAD MAX UNIVERSE (1979-2015)
There’s a ton of great sound design in George Miller’s mad max movies, but clients typically mention them for the aesthetic. To make something ‘feel like Mad Max’, means to create a ‘post-apocalyptic’ soundscape. Wispy empty desert winds, harsh insect activity - barren, lonely, depressing. Of course if they’re talking about vehicles, that’s a different story. In this case, Mad Max means throaty, harsh, powerful and scary sounding cars, trucks and motorcycles.
THE STAR WARS UNIVERSE (1977-PRESENT)
With so many breakthrough sound design moments, this is probably the franchise I have had clients reference the most in my career. And it’s not just light sabres, TIE fighters and robot sounds (although, it often times is). Clients are so intimately familiar with these films that they’ll reference the room tone of the Cryo Chamber where Han gets frozen in carbonite or the dying sounds of the Millenium Falcon as it struggles to restart - ultra-specific references. Props to the sound design team for embracing this challenge from the very first film and creating an entirely new language of sci-fi sound design.
THE MATRIX (1999)
The most referenced part of the Matrix? Slow motion (slo mo). Bullet time wasn’t just a revolutionary visual achievement but one of sound design as well. Adding a bass drop and ‘ripping through time’ sound effects are so common a trope, that it’s easy to forget this was introduced in large part within these incredibly rich sounding films.
JURASSIC PARK (1993)
The trumpeting T-Rex roar is up there in the pantheon of most iconic sound design moments in film history. It’s fun to try and put yourself in the sound team’s shoes with the challenge of creating the sound of something that lived 65 million years ago with only the visuals and their imaginations to go on. This one is constantly referenced by clients, especially if you ever work on a property with dinosaurs!
Light cycles - a fusion of synthesis and motorcycle - are a great touchstone for retro-futuristic sound design. But this film comes up in conversation all the time for a myriad of reasons. A client could be referencing retro gaming sounds or could present you with a neon dream world. So far as this unique visual style is often imitated, we as sound designers are asked to recreate this very unique palette.
STAR TREK SERIES (1966-PRESENT)
I know, it’s a bit of a cheat to include something that started as a TV series, but you can’t have a list like this without including Star Trek. The doors, the communicators, the buttons, the beaming… this series is so rich with incredible sound design. This is another property that has been around so long, it’s a shorthand with almost everyone. When a client says ‘I’m looking for a Star Trek-type door’ I instantly know where to take things.
Some other notable references often requested by clients:
The slow motion jumping sound from The Six Million Dollar Man TV series
The giant rolling ball sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark
The sand worms from Tremors
The heat vision sound from Predator