by Matt Yocum
Discover the process of creating realistic and emotional sonic environments.
Backgrounds in film sound are the foundation of an effective and comprehensive soundtrack. The ambient sonic elements that exist in a scene or location present many opportunities for creative sound design. There are countless ways to select and manipulate sound effects while building your scene in order to guide the story.
Sound artist Matt Yocum (Pet Sematary, The Cloverfield Paradox) highlights some of his most insightful tips to creating immersive and rich backgrounds for film. In the video, Matt uses sounds from CORE 2.
Some terms in the video:
- Pre dubs - essentially groups of sounds. Goes back to the earlier days of mixing and analog workflows.
- Beds - layers of sounds, belonging to the same pre-dub group
- Specifics - distinct sounds, unique to the location of the scene
- Panning - the positioning of sound effects on different sides of the sound field; ex. left or right
Backgrounds are integral to the immersive experience because they have the ability to convey the literal environment a character is in, as well as the emotion the environment is portraying such as pleasant, dangerous, fantasy, or empty & still. Backgrounds have the ability to immerse the audience through the use of surround sound or Atmos, so listeners are stimulated from all angles. Backgrounds are also an essential tool because they can amplify any genre of film – dramas, sci-fi flicks, horror thrillers and more all benefit from well-built backgrounds and ambiences.
Rules of thumb:
One rule to keep in mind is to differentiate Beds vs Specifics — Matt describes Beds as groups of sounds, layered together to set the base of a scene's ambience. Examples include room tones, wind, crickets, traffic washes, etc. Beds can be effected by the overall emotion of a scene, and express this emotion to listeners. Specifics, on the other hand, are distinct to the location scene and environment, such as vehicles.
Another general rule to remember is to establish the backgrounds at the top of every scene to introduce listeners to the new location and new feeling which comes with it. Lastly, it is fundamental to remember that backgrounds should not overpower expository movements or distract viewers from intimate moments.
Questions to ask yourself:
Think about what kind of tone the narrative is asking you to convey. Is the the scene is jubilant, tense, or mournful? If you’re in a city, is it welcoming or sketchy? What should the environment convey to our character and audience? What season or time of year is it? How does that affect activities and wildlife? Consider what time period is the film set in – you wouldn't want a modern car in a period piece with rumbling and rattling steam powered motors, or a plane sneaking into the background of a piece set in the 1800’s. And as always, review the location. Be mindful of country and city specific details like animals, birds, motors, electricity cycle hums (60Hz in North America vs 50Hz which is used throughout Europe and most of Asia), etc.
All in the details:
As mentioned above, Specifics are distinct to the locations scene, they give us details on the canvas - textures and singular events that inform us further about the environment. They reinforce the tone established by Beds. Specifics can also greatly help the rhythm and pacing of a scene by keeping the world alive around us and keeping moments from going stale. A good rule of thumb for placing Specifics is to spot them between lines of dialogue so there isn't any overlap. Specifics can be panned liberally around a space and given varying amounts of reverb to simulate distance or closeness which also has psychological implications. Lastly, it is also important to consider the contrary, in such that a lack of specifics can actually induce a feeling of awkwardness or stillness which may be helpful for your scene.
Background sounds imply offscreen surroundings and promote creative interpretation in listeners, and with the right techniques, you too can create captivating sound scapes.
Here's the link to Matt's film template which can also be found in his previous blog post: File Management Tips for Organized Pro Tools Sessions
Matt Yocum is a sound artist based out of Los Angeles.