Guidelines for approaching storytelling through sound design.
Knowing all the technical aspects of sound design can get you started on a path to become a sound designer, but it might be just a small part of the job, since the main purpose of this craft is actually telling stories. The way to distinguish a good sound designer from a great sound designer is how they approach sound to help tell the story, without actually getting noticed by the audience. Here are a few points to keep in mind:
1. Spotting is IMPORTANT!
The very first step you need to take before deciding how to tell the story of the film/video game you’re working on is to watch it all the way through and have a spotting session with the director/writer/producer. In this step you’ll define the tone of the story and what it should portray sonically.
When there is no spotting, sound can go in a lot of different directions emotionally, so it's important to have this meeting to get an overall feel for the story and target specific sound points. This can save you a lot of re-doing afterwards.
2. Story over all
Sound design is a conductor of emotion throughout the storyline. In other words, it defines the way the audience should feel. For example, if a character is in the middle of a traffic jam, you can use the sound of cars passing by, horns, hurried pedestrians and walla of the street to intensify the overwhelming feeling of the ambience for the character and, therefore, for the audience. The sound design that you go with can totally change the mood and intention of a scene. Ask yourself a few questions before starting to work on the sound:
What is the story telling us?
What does the character do and why?
Where does the character start and where does it end?
- What is the relationship of the characters to the environment?
Without sound, most viewers today wouldn't believe that what they are watching is real, so setting the scene sound-wise is very important. It shows us the world of the characters and how they live in it. But atmosphere doesn't mean to re-create the background exactly how you see it, because the same setting can change from story to story. You need to show what the story is asking you to do, and that comes by following the character’s point of view, which is never static, always in search of something. To portray this feeling, go beyond what you see on screen. Do a representation of the real world of the story, even if it’s set in space, in a dystopian future, or in the streets of NYC.
When we say that everything revolves around the story, we also need to help it move along. Dynamics of sound play an essential role in storytelling, helping the story flow and getting the audience interested in what is happening on screen. More importantly, it makes the audience care for or hate our characters. The worst thing that can happen is creating a monotone soundscape, even if the movie is filled with sounds. A few points that can help you achieve dynamic sound are:
Focus on what you want the audience to listen to, without making it an obvious, “visible” sound. Each sound has a purpose and it should transmit something to the audience without them noticing why they feel that way.
Silence can be used as an amazing weapon to convey emotion. Even though our job is to create sounds, it is as important to know when to leave space to let the soundscape breathe. Sometimes this can have a bigger impact on the audience than a loud sound would have.
Choose your moments between dialogue carefully. You don't need to fill every single second of silence with a special sound. Sometimes this overwhelms the environment and the audience ends up not paying attention to what the characters are saying, because they get distracted by a sound effect that popped out.
There is no set rule about how to approach storytelling. The only thing that you should try to achieve is portraying the emotional arc of the characters and the plot throughout the film. These are just a few guidelines that can help you start telling a story through sound. So, don’t forget: story comes first!
Natalia Saavedra Brychcy is a Los Angeles based freelance sound designer. For over 4 years, she has been working on a wide array of projects for television and film, from all over the world.