"That’s what I really love about sound. It will get you to see things you never actually saw."
You may know Ryan Connolly from Film Riot, a very popular YouTube channel that takes filmmakers on creative how-to journeys of the storytelling process. Over the last decade, the channel has published more than 1,000 episodes and has a shade under 200 million subscribers. Their content explains exactly how you can pull off shots created by big-budget movies.
Our site has featured many of his in-depth deconstructions, including tips on how to cut a bad-ass movie trailer, lighting a car at night with lanterns, and how to pull off Predator's invisible man effect.
In between publishing weekly episodes, Connolly has shot 16 short films and is working toward making his first feature. We sat down with him to talk about storytelling and asked him to share advice about the importance of sound in your films.
Here's what he had to say.
No Film School: You shot a lot of entertaining short films over the years. What have you learned that’s helped you as a storyteller?
Ryan Connolly: The thing I learned the most is what a story really is. What themes really are and how that matters to the character. We all kind of inherently know those things, but there’s a difference between knowing something and understanding something.
Like, we all know that touching a stove burns your hand, but to understand the actual science of why that is happening and why your flesh has that reaction. There is so much that goes into a moment, but we often don’t truly understand what’s happening until we start to look under the hood.
NFS: So true. Sometimes filmmakers can get lost in what the motivation is behind a scene.
RC: Exactly. We may know what a scene is. What the characters are. But the question is, how do you convey that and what really matters to those characters, and how are they going to interact with each other?
NFS: Is there any advice you can share to help get filmmakers through those scenes or moments they’re unsure about?
RC: You should always try something before abandoning it completely. Start with an idea. And then those kernels of an idea, if planted together will hopefully create this tree of understanding. For me, my personal exploration has been to hone in on what the theme is and how to properly convey that to an audience.
NFS: When you start writing the script, how does sound come into play?
RC: Sound is important to me. I actually write sounds into my scripts. I’m a big believer that sound is more important than the visual. The VFX can be not super photo real and you end up forgiving them. The image cannot be the best, and you end up forgiving it. We actually like the degraded images of 16mm. But if the sound isn’t perfect, you’re going to notice it, and it’s never going to go away, at least for me.
NFS: In your short Ballistic sound plays an important role, especially in the opening scene where there’s an explosive shootout. How do you find the emotion of a scene like that with sound?
RC: Sound is very difficult to get right, and I’ll often write what a scene feels like in terms of a sound. With Ballistic that opening scene has the lead character loading a weapon that launches an exploding projectile. I knew I wanted it to feel like something very specific, even though the actual sound effect is only a half-second long. So I sent that to my sound designer and we talked about it early on because it is a specific case.
NFS: So it’s safe to say approach elements in your script that are important early. Maybe even before shooting.
RC: Definitely. With There Comes a Knocking, it’s about this woman in a house alone. So you ask yourself, what does the house sound like? What does silence sound like? Because more often than not, silence sounds like something. You can make silence sound welcoming. You can make it sound terrifying.
The story revolves around this vintage door, so we thought about what the door sounds like and how does it make you feel.
Similar to music, dialogue can have a pacing, a tempo, and a tone that can be melodic when written well. Sound effects can do the same thing where all of them are playing the same notes. I’m thinking about all those things early. For this film, I was working with my sound designer Steve Horne recording doors and sounds even before we shot the film.
NFS: When you do get to your editing phase, and are trying to convey an emotion through sound, what do you try to lean on?
RC: Oftentimes I think your instincts drive a lot of things. And then your instinct turns into experience, and that experience is something that you can articulate.
In the early days, I feel something and I’ll try a bunch of stuff, and I’ll know it when I hear it. Eventually, after you do that enough, after you know what you’re feeling, you start to know where you want to land before you start.
It’s like an actor. When they first start they don’t know what their face is doing, so they’re under-expressive or over-expressive. Once they start doing mirror time and seeing it back, they learn what they can do. It’s the same thing in the edit. Instead of instinct, you start to work off knowledge.
NFS: One of my favorite moments is in your short Proximity. There’s a fight scene where you completely cut off the music. Care to share what drove your thinking behind it?
RC: The moment where the music dropped out was something I included while writing it, just because of what it all meant. I didn’t want it to be this glorification of killing someone. Instead, this was a moment about what this character was ultimately leading to. I felt music would distract from that moment, and I wanted it to be an unnerving intimate moment where the audience was in the mud with them.
Then it was all about the sound of the mud heightening your senses to what they are doing. Is it very realistic, is it hyper-real, are we getting stylized here? Sometimes it is as simple as this is all working, and I like what I am hearing, but it’s not taking me to the full emotional extent I want to go. That’s when you try different things to figure it out.
NFS: Have you run into any of those moments where you had to throw things against the wall to see if they work?
RC: All the time. With There Comes a Knocking, we had music and sound effects and everything sounded great, but emotionally, it wasn’t quite clicking into place and we messed around with it.
What ended up happening is that Steve found a drone sound and slid against the music. Meaning, it wasn’t harmonic to the soundscape and it had this dissonance that was unpleasant. It’s a sound effect we added underneath, it really is present unless I told you to focus in on it, but it made all the difference in the world.
NFS: Those serendipitous moments are really cool.
RC: That’s what I really love about sound. It will get you to see things you never actually saw. If you don’t have a budget for a monster, all right, let me hear that monster and that will work completely.
After 16 short films and 1,000 eps of Film Riot, you learn if something isn’t working to try something else until it does work. Sound is something where you have the luxury to do that.
For more, see our ongoing coverage of Sound Week 2020.
No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the Sound Week 2020 is sponsored by RØDE.