September 18, 2019

When Sound Design Is Your Movie's Main Character

The Sound of Silence sound designers and director Michael Tyburski reveal how they created a symphony of sound effects.

When Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation hit cinemas in 1974, audiences marveled over the grandeur of its sound design.

This almost never happens. Sound design is often best when it's invisible. A soundtrack that calls repeated attention to itself is a soundtrack that isn't doing its job: centering the audience within the atmospheric, emotional, and visceral experience of the characters and the world they inhabit. So, despite the fact that sound design is paramount to successful filmmaking — and the cheapest way to raise your production value, to boot — the craft is often overlooked. 

Not so in The Sound of Silence, a new film that treats sound as its main character. In fact, Michael Tyburski and co-sound designers Ian Gaffney-Rosenfeld and Grant Elder told No Film School that sound effects were literally written into the screenplay. The film stars Peter Sarsgaard as Peter Lucian, a "house tuner" who spends his days diagnosing, methodically locating, and eliminating ambient sounds that cause anxiety in people's living environments. It's a fictional profession, but it's portrayed with such detail and sensitivity that it begins to feel plausible.

The film's vibrant soundscape breaks that cardinal rule — it announces itself — and it does so to glorious effect. For once, sound takes center stage. No Film School caught up with Tyburski, Gaffney-Rosenfeld, and Elder to discuss the delicate art of sound designing a movie about sound.

"A career in sound is this perfect blend of technology and creativity."

No Film School: Ian and Grant, I'm wondering if you could start by telling me why you originally chose to become sound designers. 

Ian Gaffney-Rosenfeld: I chose a career in sound because it is this perfect blend of technology and creativity. A lot of sound careers are very hands-on — you have your system set up correctly or not, that kind of thing. But then once all that back-end work is done, you get to do a lot of creative work.

Grant Elder: From an early age, sound always triggered feelings and memories for me. I think that drove me to research it. At first, that was through music. And then I started playing around with software, and that led me to the post-production industry.

For me, sound is really about connecting to how we're feeling when we hear things—our physical and metaphysical responses.

NFS: Michael, why write and direct a film about sound? What is compelling about sound to you?

Michael Tyburski: This movie allowed us to talk about and express sound in a way that was very specific. I think what inspired me initially was just making audiences aware of sound. It's something that we all have a relationship with and it's affecting our lives, whether we're aware of it or not. 

As for my own relationship with sound, I grew up in a very quiet place in the woods of Vermont. I moved to New York in my twenties. That transition from a quiet space to a very noisy, cacophonous city got me thinking about sound affects our daily lives, and even our emotions.

NFS: I can imagine the collaboration between the sound department and you, Michael, was more intense on this film than it usually is on a project.

Tyburski: One interesting thing was that I was able to meet Grant and Ian well before we started the post-production process. That was a big luxury. We were having conversations about sound and thinking about that as we were shooting. This [was possible] partially through support that Dolby gave us. It was very helpful to have conversations before we got into the edit and mix, which would be many months later. 

Elder: It was a beautiful open-world collaboration on a movie that we were all super excited about. 

Gaffney-Rosenfeld: Since we talked about sound at the script stage with Michael, that certainly gave him some ideas about sound before he went to shoot. And then when they started [editing], they were actually using us as a resource to start creating some sound that could evoke certain feelings.

"We treated all the sound elements in the screenplay as if they were characters."

Grant was putting together low-frequency rumbles and high-pitched ringing sounds and sending them over to the picture editors so that he could start to try some of these ideas in the edit. We always love to do that if we can. Instead of just improving the picture edit, what this meant was that when we got into our sound edit, it felt like we were all already speaking the same language. There were ideas that were clearly laid from the picture edit that sort of told us, "Okay, this is what we're going to try to accomplish in this scene. Sound is going have to build to this particular thing." Grant and I were able to elaborate on those ideas and then further explore them with Michael at the mix. Usually, on a project, it's a little more departmental, but it wasn't on this one.

NFS: Sound is one of the main characters in this film. Can you tell me a bit about how you built that out in the architecture of the film?

Tyburski: When you normally write a screenplay, you have characters in all caps as a way to introduce them. But because every single sound element felt like a character to me — and sound was going to be so important to the protagonist's journey—we treated all the sound elements as if they were characters. Something as subtle as a squeak in Peter's lab or a rush of air on a rooftop appeared in the script as if it was a character. In that way, sound was a character in the movie's DNA.

Before I even made the film, I did a radio edit where I recorded just the dialogue of the film with Peter [Saarsgard] and I in my apartment. I considered it the radio drama version of the movie. I needed this after getting tired of reading the screenplay for so many years developing the movie. Naturally, that radio drama transitioned into a timeline on my computer. I started laying in music and sound elements to start hearing the movie in a more visceral way. It became this kind of full-fledged animatic, eventually, with location photos and references. But the film all started with sound.

'The Sound of Silence'Credit: IFC Films

Tyburski: The cinematographer, Eric Lin, and I were thinking about sound as this invisible character also during production. We talked about negative space a lot—leaving a lot of headroom in frames. We were extra conscious of that while shooting Peter in very large environments, thinking about sound as something that's all around him in the empty space.

Also, a lot of our shots are very still. There's something about putting a camera in a room and having it blocked off... if you're just looking at a bland image, sound is heightened in the mix, since there is very little distraction of cameras moving.

NFS: The sound blended very well with the score. You must have approached that process very intentionally.

TyburskiI definitely wanted to combine the process of the score with the sound mix. I emulated a practice that I learned when I was at the Skywalker Ranch during a residency.

"We tried to think about the sounds of New York City as instruments in a symphony orchestra."

Elder: Early on, we spoke with Will [the composer] and started developing some ideas. He melded our sound design and his music together, which really push [the film] to the next level. For instance, there's a moment in the film where Peter's hearing the symphony of New York through sounds. The soundtrack then morphs into a symphony, changing into a major chord. The sound effects are pitched together with instruments from the symphony, and it creates this beautiful moment that helps our audience really connect to what Peter's feeling. 

Gaffney-Rosenfeld: We really did create a symbiotic relationship between music and design. You know, the main thing that I understood from reading the script is that sound in Peter's world is like a symphony because he has a musically-trained mind. So we tried to think about the sounds of New York City as instruments in a symphony orchestra. We tried to create [effects] that touched on every part of the frequency spectrum that you can experience in the city, from low rumbles to the high-pitched ringing that the main character suffers from, and all this stuff in between.

What we ended up doing was making the sound of the city quite subtle and detailed. You could pick out individual things that we had chosen to highlight. That sort of circles back to what Michael about his strategy of leaving lots of negative space. Michael gave us so much stuff in the frame of the picture to highlight [with sound]. Hopefully, we created something that the audience can actually react to because they're hearing more details than they would in their regular lives, where you sort of can drown it all out. I think we made a New York City movie that doesn't sound like your average New York City movie. 

'The Sound of Silence'Credit: IFC Films

NFS: What were some unique, specific challenges in terms of the sound design?

Elder: From the beginning, we were focusing on, How do we tell the viewer to feel what Peter's feeling? We use different techniques in different moments to help the viewer to deal with Peter's feelings. For instance, in the scene that I just spoke about, we used lots of sounds and creative ways of panning for this atmospheric, hyper, fun, and exciting experience.

Later on, there's a scene where we really dive into Peter's craft and inside of his mind. That was something that we worked together with Michael to polish. I cut and sound-designed that whole bill, and Ian took care of all the dialogue. So when we got to the mix, we actually ended up switching roles, which I think gave both of us really fresh perspectives—new ears on the elements that we were working with. 

Gaffney-Rosenfeld: Switching roles does create a little bit of a challenge because you start mixing elements that you haven't worked as closely with. But what we find happens is that you react more naturally and instinctively to those elements because you're hearing them with fresh ears. You're just taking them in and looking at the image on the screen and making the best choices for the film. That strategy creates opportunities for organic conversations during the mix.

Time is always a challenge, certainly, with a film like this. You want to give your ideas and creative processes time to blossom. We made sure that we fought against it by collaborating on sound ideas much earlier than the actual sound edit timeline that we were given. On most films, a technical thing will set you back, and you will spend time cleaning up production sound that you could have spent exploring new sound design ideas.

Elder: The tuning forks were quite the challenge! Those are a really cool element in the film. We needed a polished sound for the tuning forks, so we decided to get the tuning forks from set. Michael shipped to us for a recording session. Having that clean source to work with really helps you push the sound to the next level. I really believe in gathering and recording and starting with really great source sound. I think that's the foundation of every great soundtrack. 

The Sound of Silence is playing in select theaters now.     

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