The Sounds of Silence

Somewhere between music and special effects lies the craft of the sound designer. Not quite a composer, and definitely not a Foley artist, the sound designer creates an audioscape that enhances on-screen action.
July 1, 2002

Somewhere between music and special effects lies the craft of the sound designer. Not quite a composer, and definitely not a Foley artist, the sound designer creates an audioscape that enhances on-screen action.

With technology-driven wildlife programs on the rise, sound designers are being kept busy. ‘Any film that has lots of graphics, especially 3-D graphics, lends itself to sound design,’ says Kate Hopkins, a sound designer with Wounded Buffalo, a sound studio in Bristol, U.K. ‘If the picture doesn’t look natural, it can’t have natural sounds around it; it just doesn’t feel right. Also, you’re often seeing things you can’t normally see with the naked eye, so what you hear is always going to be unnatural. Sound design is very important for these sorts of programs.’

Hopkins recently designed the sound for the BBC shows Lion Battlefield and Shark Battlefield. In the latter, she created a sound that illustrated a shark smelling a turtle from miles away. ‘The smell was represented graphically as drifting smoke,’ explains Hopkins. ‘As the turtle got closer [to the shark], the sound got louder. I started with treated wind sounds and bubble noises and added reverb. The turtle had a tune that came from a metal scrape that was slowed down and treated. It was very musical.’

Sound design can also fill the void that’s left when the natural world falls silent. ‘Underwater gives a lot of scope for sound design,’ says Hopkins, who designed the sound for ‘Seasonal Seas’ and ‘Coral Seas’, episodes five and six of the BBC/Discovery series The Blue Planet. To invent audio that would enhance images of sharks swimming, Hopkins used the sound of rolling water, but slowed it down to make it deep and boomy. ‘You can start with the sound of a normal wave, but add more base and reverb,’ she explains. ‘This turns it into something very big and ominous. Sometimes I made it a very literal sound, and other times it was more of a phonetic theme for the shark that didn’t necessarily mirror its movements.’

If the sound guy goes on break just when a rare and elusive animal decides to speak up, sound design can substitute for authentic calls, songs, grunts and whistles. Michael McDonough, a sound designer based in Salt Lake City, U.S., has created sounds for a number of large format films including Kieth Merrill’s Amazon and Island of the Sharks, a Nova/PBS film by Howard and Michele Hall. ‘You can’t record sound while shooting an IMAX film, because the camera is too noisy,’ says McDonough. But, when the sound designer received the tapes of wild sound for Amazon, which was filmed in the Amazon Basin, none of the audio was usable. So, he rummaged through his library for similar noises and tweaked them until they worked with the picture. ‘You can never get the sound as big as the image when designing an IMAX film,’ says McDonough. ‘But, you can make it rich and full.’

Hopkins and McDonough agree that although designed sounds don’t have to directly correspond to the action on screen, they should match the picture. Says Hopkins, ‘You have to be careful not to add spurious sounds, because they can jump out of the picture. It can detract from what the producer is trying to communicate. Sound shouldn’t be used as a thing on its own.’

Sound for most hour-long, natural history TV projects take two to three days to design; large format films need at least 10 days. ‘IMAX films have lots of speakers, so you have to move the sound all over the screen,’ McDonough says. Hopkins’ rate, including equipment, is about £400 (US$600) per day. For a large format film, McDonough charges about $1,200 per day, including equipment.

About The Author
Justin Anderson joined Realscreen as senior staff writer in 2021, reporting and writing stories for the newsletter and magazine. During his 20-year career he’s filled a variety of roles as a writer and editor at a number of media organizations, covering news and current affairs as well as business, tech, the film and music industries and plenty in between. He’s also spent time behind the scenes in television production, having written everything from voiceover scripts for documentaries to marketing copy. He has a degree in Journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University).