June 14, 2019

How Sound Design Tricks Your Ears [Video]

Sound design in film is not only about creating a rich foley landscape, it's also about creating emotion.

In the world of sound design, everything from sound effects, music, and dialogue is added in post-production. And it's not always about matching exact sounds to whatever is happening on-screen -- sometimes sound designers use different sounds that will still work with the images (like sizzling bacon during a rain scene) if it will create a stronger emotional reaction.

Now You See It's latest video takes viewers on a sonic journey, opening on Star Wars' sound design. Watch it below.

Strange and familiar

Legendary Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt was tasked with populating a whole new universe of sounds. As the video shows, he did this by grounding a lot of the sound design in the familiar, so audiences would still have a connection with what they were hearing.

The TIE fighters are taken from the roar of elephants, but they also sound distinctly like dive-bombing German planes from World War II -- which links the sound to an established historical connotation.

The emotional range of Star Wars sounds

The video points out that Darth Vader's labored, mechanical breathing is a huge part of his character design. He could have been just a faceless villain in armor, but his breathing (which quickens while fighting and lends him some vulnerability) humanizes him instantly.

Likewise, Chewbacca's various roars are taken from bears, walruses, lions, and badgers. By mixing sounds, Burtt was able to give the Wookiee emotional range and a unique character.

Burtt almost always mixed and fabricated sounds, rather than simply going with available roars or explosions, to create something new and more emotional.

Gunfire in various films

The video next explores how the sound of gunfire in different films can reflect their various emotional impacts. For example, in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, the sounds of guns are taken from cannon fire, which fit the genre's more exaggerated storytelling. In No Country for Old Men, Anton Chigurh's silenced gun is piercing and menacing, as cold as he is.

One film that uses gunfire deftly is Saving Private Ryan. Gunfire sounds differently depending on not only the setting, but also the emotional state of the characters.

The video includes one iconic scene that opens on the sound of rainfall, but then morphs into the sound of distance bullets. It's an incredibly effective method to place the audience in the same emotional place as the characters, whose world is often interrupted with bursts of violence.

Exaggerated sound design

The video examines several films in succession, some of which emphasize or invent sounds for comedic effect or to add drama to action sequences. For instance, in American Psycho, Patrick Bateman's card holder has the sound of a sword being unsheathed.

In The Matrix, punches and gunfire and even camera moves are given highly stylized sound effects. The sound design even bends the rules of reality, just like the character bend the rules of their simulated world.

What's next? Explore even more pieces about sound design

Learn five things you should do while designing sound, check out our foley coverage from NAB, and examine the sound design of Captain America    

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