The craft of sound design is a crucial but often overlooked element in the film making process. Jon Creamer asks the designers behind shows including House of the Dragon, Atlanta, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Crown and Our Universe how they create a perfect harmony

Sound design is often the unsung hero of TV and film making, bringing creatures and characters to life, adding tension, drama and emotion and pulling the narrative along.

Halo’s Jay Price, whose credits include Our Universe, Welcome to Earth and We Are Lady Parts, says that “sound is an extremely influential storytelling weapon in a filmmakers’ arsenal, that can often be overlooked” but its effect on screen can be profound. “It can make characters evil, friendly or menacing, a place inviting or threatening and grip the audience’s attention like nothing else as sound is deeply visceral.”

Markus Stemler, Oscar nominee and Bafta winner for his work on All Quiet on the Western Front, whose credits also include Rush and The Matrix: Resurrections, says that good sound design “will pick up the very essence of what a character experiences in a scene and translate that into a sonic world that will support, mirror or enhance that experience.”

“We are storytellers,” says Lee Walpole of Boom Post, whose credits include The Crown, Generation Kill and Landscapers. “Sound is there to serve the picture. Frequently this means world building, bringing a rich and authentic world to life, expanding what you see within the confines of the screen.  We then use sound to guide the viewer’s attention. This can be as much about what you don’t hear as what you do hear.”

Paula Fairfield, the Emmy and Bafta winning sound designer behind Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, says of her creation of the voices of the dragons in the Game of Thrones universe: “I love that idea of trying to bring something to life to make you believe that it could actually exist,” especially in the realm of the fantastical. “My approach to it is to keep one toe in reality. It’s like a little bridge for us to walk across into this land of fantasy. It allows us access because there’s something familiar we recognise.”

Formosa’s Trevor Gates, Emmy winning sound designer on Atlanta and The Haunting of Hill House, says sound design exists to “tell a story and make your audience feel something.  Sound design does not have to be complex, and it does not have to be surreal.  It can be simple and naturalistic.  Sometimes it’s something you see on the screen, and sometimes it’s not.  But it needs to make you feel something.”

Early doors

For sound design to achieve all that, getting involved with the creation of the project as early as possible is key. Markus Stemler argues that dialogue with the production sound mixer ahead of the shoot can add extra layers to the finished project if designers can flag up “potential sound treasures on a set that are unique and tricky to recreate in post.” He points out that on All Quiet, “they had built a huge authentic battlefield, so we tried to record a lot of things like mud movement, soldiers screaming, tanks driving or prop explosions. These things can work fantastically as a starting point for the design work.”

Formosa’s Gates says the sound designer can also flag up potential issues if involved early. “I can offer suggestions on what I believe is important and what effort may need to be taken to preserve performances are captured on set.  If we can minimise our need for re-recording ADR lines for technical reasons, we’re setting ourselves up for success.”

But much of the work will also have to happen later in the process. Paula Fairfield says that for “the last bunch of years I’ve been working in the fantasy genre and that’s all tied to vfx, and the vfx chains have been very bogged down. I have to see where they’re going visually, so it’s sort of a delicate dance.”

Direct action

Sound designers take their cues from the project’s director or showrunner, but the trick is the interpretation of those discussions. “After having done an idea pass to the script or early lock, I will typically meet with the director and talk through the project in general terms first discussing overarching themes and ideas then go through in detail scene by scene,” says Halo’s Price. “I find it more constructive to have the conversation centred around the mood, feel or shape of the narrative. That’s more important than what sounds to use at this stage.”

Markus Stemler says sessions with the director are more about the “general feel” they’re after. “It’s less about whether to use carrots or beans, it’s more about whether it’s supposed to be sweet or sour or spicy.”

Each director will want something different from the sound designer. “It can range from an incredibly detailed sound spot through to being empowered to offer up a first pass of my interpretation for feedback,” says Boom’s Walpole.

At other times, the development of the project’s sound can be an intensely cooperative process. “In the case of Rob Savage’s The Boogeyman, Rob and I were developing and refining the voice of the creature through the entire post production process,” says Formosa’s Gates. “We would talk, I would build something weird, Rob would come work with me for several hours, rinse and repeat.”

Often, the sound designer will be left to find the character themselves. “I start from scratch on everything,” says Paula Fairfield, particularly when creating creature sound. “I find something interesting and then stretch it and twist it and smash it with a whole bunch of sounds to then spit out this final creature that lives and breathes on its own. It’s an endless playground of exploration.”

Inspirational sound

“Influences can come from anywhere and it is always important to keep an open mind especially when experimenting with new sounds,” says Price. “It often starts with building sounds for the scene and after a while it starts taking its own form. I find that the narrative starts asking things of you from a sound point of view rather than me trying to find things to attach to it.”

Stemler similarly notes that “in time the film kind of tells you what it needs, and I tend to get most of my ideas once I’ve fully dived in.”

Formosa’s Gates says that “as sound designers we are always listening. We’re listening to the world as we walk through it.  We find interesting ambiences, distant rhythms, creepy doors, irregular electrical hums, and I think it’s important to always have some type of recording device available whenever you need it.”

Picking up vibrations

Because sound designers are collectors too. “I have a massive library that I’ve been collecting for years and years,” says Paula Fairfield. “And we have a huge community of sound recordists all over the world, field recorders who are recording things in places I’ll never get to and selling them in our marketplace. When I start a project, one of the first things I will do is go shopping.”

Halo’s Price says he uses a “combination of recording sounds myself, sound libraries and processing and manipulating sounds. The availability of bespoke and commercial sound fx libraries means that I am continually building and expanding an already vast library of sounds.”

“There is an incredible amount of top notch general and small boutique libraries out there and it grows every day,” says Stemler. But making your own is important too as “you perform it exactly to match the action, angle and intensity in the scene. That can make a huge difference. In the end it’s always a mix of the recordings from set, libraries, FX recordings from the foley team and the stuff you capture yourself.”

Getting sounds direct from the action helps too. “We always visit location while the sets are dressed to record any bespoke props or location details,” says Boom’s Walpole.  “Then I look at what aspects of the soundtrack I think could benefit from a specific record session.”

After that collection and creation process, the next step is “getting weird, one of my favourite parts,” says Formosa’s Gates. “Using tools to bend, twist and manipulate sound brings me a lot of joy. I allow myself enough time to turn the lights low and start turning knobs, not coming out until I have something cool.”

The emergence of immersive mediums like Dolby Atmos, have given sound designers an even bigger sandbox to play in. “The further degree of sonic spatial separation is great,” says Walpole. “Although you have to be mindful of the stereo collapse.  Used carefully, Dolby Atmos can completely immerse the viewer within the soundtrack and dramatically heighten the viewing experience.”

Gates says that “The obvious impact [of Atmos] is that we have more control for an immersive experience and create more clarity in complex sonic environments because we simply have more bandwidth – more speakers to put more sound in. The outcome can be breath taking. The detail and clarity of the sound reaches new heights with Atmos.”

“Who doesn’t love Dolby Atmos?” says Fairfield. But along with all sound designers, says it’s important to not lose sight of the prize. “It always has to work in a very fundamental way. Atmos is like sweet extra icing. The real crux of it is that the work has to tell the story, support the story. The format that you’re listening in is just extra.”

“It is a craft where the tech and tools are always getting better,” says Price. “Yet in many ways, although the toys change, the principles of sound design approach will always stay the same.”

The sweet spot

Whatever the process, good sound design comes “when it is woven into the fabric of the show in a way that serves the narrative and goal of the storytelling,” says Price. “When it is not just there to copycat the picture but to add a different element that enriches the storytelling. It can communicate emotion in the most subtle way and betray the true intention to the character’s on screen thoughts, feelings and motivations.”

A good soundtrack is one “that serves the picture and enhances the show.  It should not distract or feel imposed,” says Walpole. And it should “make you feel something,” says Fairfield, and draw you into the action. “The dragons are a good example. I want you to feel like you can reach out and whoop them on the nose.”

It’s also never simple. “Most of the time you won’t find the perfect atmosphere or the perfect car crash, so you have to build it out of single elements,” says Stemler. “It’s similar to writing a music score where you have to think about each instrument of the orchestra and what it can contribute to the story.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Televisual magazine

Jon Creamer

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