Monday Prescriptions – Sound the Alarm

Hi Film Folk!

The Film Doctor Team always have their ears to the ground to ensure we bring you the most useful info there is. What we’ve noticed is that there seems to be a huge disconnect between upcoming directors/film-makers and the sound community.

FD - Gollum

The majority of articles out there regarding storytelling (ours included) are about screenwriting, plot, camera techniques or performance. Meanwhile, the sound community have an excellent world of amazing online interviews and videos that don’t seem to get quite enough attention from directors/film-makers.

So, with all that said, not only will this week’s Monday Prescription be about sound, this week will be SOUND WEEK!

Every day this week we will be posting interviews and videos and inspiring quotes about sound on our Facebook page. So head on over, stay in tune and be prepared to come out the other side with a bigger appreciation for the craft of sound…

Sound Recording

“Films are 50 percent visual and 50 percent sound. Sometimes sound even overplays the visual.”David Lynch 


“Maintaining the focus on the story is always the priority for a successful soundtrack.”

Brent Burge


The camera exists to aid in the telling of the story, in showing the perception of characters/world, to create a series of moods and an overall ‘feel’ to the film. The same very much goes for sound.  It can display a character’s inner thoughts, the tension they feel (or that we should feel), the relaxation we should sink into,  surprise (or lack of it), the mood of the moment and the overall ‘feel’ of the film.

Any sounds used should exist to deepen or shallow the mood/tone/feeling you intend and build to the highs/lows/middles that the moment you’ve created needs and that you’ve chosen for it. It should be your decision. Just as one aims at a target, you should have aims for what each sound (or lack of sound) achieves. Does it frighten? Relieve? Soothe? Create laughter? Foreshadow? Does it make sense in the scene? Is it telling the story in the best possible way?

Using sound to simply accompany/translate literally what’s going on on screen can lead to a low impact experience. The audience might not know it’s sound. The critics might not. But your movie and your reputation as a film-maker could end up being appreciated much less than if you had considered the use of sound from the very start.

Sound, along with what we see on screen, is there as a supportive tool. Use it. It is not secondary. But know that both sight and sound kneel at the altar of story.

 “Many directors took their cues from books. Then many from painting (Peter Greenaway being a great example). Not many directors take their cues from sound and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Berberian Sound Studio director Peter Strickland



“Image and sound must not support each other, but must work each in turn through a sort of relay.”

Robert Bresson


There are many ways that an image and sound can be used to create various effects. Experiment (taking note of the context of the scene in your film) and you could end up with something far more interesting and powerful than just a straight audio-visual translation.

Here are a few:

  • Slowed down sound over fast moving/fast cut images
  • Sped up sound over slow moving/slow cut images
  • A voice-over telling you a different story to what we see
  • No sound
  • Sounds from earlier/future scenes
  • Happy music to saddening images (and vice versa)

Investigate and explore!



“The one thing that has not changed in determining the success of design is the raw material. The original recordings were key.”

The Hobbit, Brent Burge


Like with all other processes, good sound is achieved at the very start of the process and goes through many incarnations to become what we hear in the cinema. Badly recorded sound can not become excellent theatrical sound. The sound must be recorded in perfect conditions for how it will appear in final exhibited form.

Here is a basic guide to recording film/tv sound.

And, just as with your camera, your selected microphone must be on the correct settings for perfect results. See general settings here.

Then all this must be mixed in the studio so that the right sounds can come out from the right speakers at the right levels and at the right time.

Here is a basic guide to mixing sound:


As mentioned before, many indie films have sound design that has been given about as much thought as an extra’s well-being in a tent-pole movie. When a man walks, there are footsteps. When he stirs his tea, there is clinking. When a gun fires, we hear a bang.

Yet some of the best films play with these conventions and create a ‘soundscape’ or ‘palette’  compiled of different tricks and nuances that aren’t literal translations of what we would hear in real life. Silent gunshots, slo-mo singing, cooking pots with volcanic rumbles. All can add or subtract the feeling of fear, joy, paranoia, love, sadness and calm the character has and that we feel as a result.

Watch this video to see how both literal and surreal sounds were added and removed to great effect in the film Drive:



Cinematographers and directors can refer to the images in the frame (wide? close-up?), depth of field, the colour of objects, movement but how can we describe the sounds we hear or want for our movie?

Well – volume, recorded quality, its place on the musical/scientific scale, its effect (clunky? liquid? fiery?). Each term measures sound according to different facets. A loud noise is not the same as a roar. There can be distant roars…

Here are a series of fuller notes on the subject:

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s  Terminology

Acoustic properties: Loudness – sound volumePitch – the perceived “highness” or “lowness” of the sound

Timbre – a sounds “color” or tone quality

Dimensions of Film Sound:Rhythm – sound’s rhythmic qualitiesFidelity – sound faithful to its source

Space – sound’s spatial dimension

Time – simultaneous and nonsimultaneous sound



Now this might seem obvious but the levels of a sound can add all the more weight or delicacy to a scene. Whether that sound slowly builds, slowly fades, POPS up from nowhere, cuts out immediately or dips in and out of audibility, each technique has an impact on the way the viewer perceives what they are seeing on the screen.

For example, a long drawn out scene with only tense silence will be shocking if a bomb explodes early. A loud disco with bassy dance suddenly cut silent will give a sense of ‘ohhh, the party’s over.’


Often we see dialogue as writing and so, in many ways, a visual but it is sound. It can be heard as the characters are off screen or on and it is in the levels and atmosphere and tone that these lines are said that impact us.

Make sure you have the lines delivered how you intend the audience to feel and that the performance is shaped (in the sound mix) to be at the level that most resembles your intention for the scene.



All too often a film-maker will get a composer on board because they think it is a mandatory part of film-making. It’s something you ‘JUST DO’.

Nope. Wrong. It is an element that you must carefully consider. Do you want to use popular recordings? Is it likely you will be able to clear the rights to those pieces? Classical works? Create a score? Only use music in certain scenes or transitionally? Not use music at all?

It is a choice and you must decide, and decide because you know why. What does it add? Subtract? Think about it.

In Martin Scorsese‘s Goodfellas, music is used to reinforce the period the story takes place in,  to chronicle the story, help with transitions, to build emotion and allows the viewers to acclimatise themselves to the ‘everydayness’ of violence in the character’s world.

Here’s an example:


Now imagine that scene (or the whole film) without any music at all. What changes?



“In animation, I’m essentially building the world from the ground up. Nothing [sound-wise] exists in animation expect the recorded voices. The movement of the robots, the sound of the wind, the lasers—those are all created.”

Dustin Cawood, Skywalker Sound


The world of your film can begin with sound. Think of the happy music oft used in Chaplin or Keaton films. To hear those notes alone would bring a sense of joy. Think about the eerie sounds used in Suspiria or The Shining. Without images, those sounds scare and stress the audience. Depending on how you use sound, what seems like a little boy playing in a field can be transformed into a little boy playing in a field who does not yet know the horror that awaits him.

Using the right notes gives the audience a sense of what to expect (or to be uncertain of what to expect) from the world of your film. Even if they know the ‘genre’, each film always has a different tone – check out Silver Linings Playbook which was marketed as a rom-com but is more a drama and uses music to play with the character’s emotions and leave us unsure of what to expect.



To do any of this you will need to get up to speed with the words used to communicate the kinds of sound you want. Here’s a basic list:

ADR AmbienceDirect sound and Reflected sound 

Characteristic sound

Diegetic sound

Emotional realism 

Establishing sound



Non-diegetic sound

Natural sounds

Location sound

Point-of-audition sound Room Tone Semi-sync 

Sound designer

Sound hermeneutic 

Sound motif 

Sound loop 



Sound Editor




Simple. The number of channels the sounds you hear are compiled of.  To be exhibited using multiple channels (i.e. more than 2 speakers for a surround sound effect) the sounds must be recorded and mixed in multiple channels.

A normal stereo sound card has only 2 channels. 1 for the left speaker, and 1 for the right speaker. So in effect, a channel is 1 speaker outlet.

Here’s an example of a 7.1 home entertainment surround sound set-up:


The .1 refers to the sub-woofer (deep low-pitched sounds).

2.1 has limited exhibition impact and poor surround sound. It’s left speaker, right speaker and sub-woofer.

5.1, 6.1 and up have more channels for complete room surround. Half a dozen speakers dotted from front to back.

Why do the low frequency (deep bass) sounds have their own separate speaker?

Because the human ear is not very sensitive to these sounds and requires a lot of amplification to be heard. The lower frequency sound would be lost if played in the main speakers and the higher pitches would deafen you if the overall speaker volume was raised to make them audible.



“Don’t take stuff away that’s going to take anything away from the performances”

Michael Semanick, Skywalker Sound


“Sound does 50% of the job, along with picture, but sound is infinitely cheaper than picture. “

Francis Ford Coppola


“You’re often unaware of it, and with good sound, you should be unaware of it—but being guided by it.”

Michael Semanick, Skywalker Sound



Lots to the think about there, Film Folk, and there is much much more to learn to have a definitive knowledge.

Obviously the way you use sound will be governed by the types of films you want to make – the genre, style, tone and how much you want to experiment – but we believe that acknowledging sound as a mammoth influence on the audience, and not just a thin and necessary layer, will endow you with a power over the medium that you may not have had before.

We’ll leave you with BAFTA‘s Walter Murch interview (editing and sound guru behind Apocalypse Now, The Godfather II, The English Patient)


‘Monday Prescription’ No. 46 – Sound is not incidental. You can use it however you like but ‘get to know’ sound and explore the ways it can affect your story. It is an invaluable tool.


Don’t forget it’s SOUND WEEK. Be sure to catch all the interviews, videos and quotes we post on our Facebook page.

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Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below!
Have a great week!
The Film Doctor Team
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