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Sound Behind the Scenes: Interstellar

Sound Behind the Scenes: Interstellar

Interstellar is definitely one of Christopher Nolan’s most adventurous and creative pieces of work, and when it comes to sound, the approach for such an experimental film was not an exception.

During an interview with The Hollywood Reporter back in 2014, the director described how he prefers to approach sound for his films. Speaking in detail, Christopher Nolan decided to approach this area in a highly impressionistic way, which is definitely a quite unorthodox approach for a mainstream blockbuster such as Interstellar; however, 5 years after its debut, we can assert that it was the perfect approach for an experimental film.

His approach was creative and audacious, Nolan said. And if we were to take a further look into how the film’s sound was developed, we could assert that, compared to other filmmakers who have approached sound in a rather bold way, Nolan did a great job. 

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In previous articles we’ve mentioned the importance of sound when it comes to storytelling —many people, especially sound professionals and directors with a vast knowledge of sound distance themselves from the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue, especially the clarity of emotions and stories. And that is a really important takeaway.

If directors really were to try to make the most out of sound and sound elements, they would end up trying to achieve that in a more holistic, almost layered, way, using all the different elements at their disposal: moving images and sound.

You will probably remember some viewers complaining about the movie’s sound after its premiere on Nov 5th in 2014, claiming that they were unable to properly hear some key dialogue lines, which led to a myriad of conversations about whether it was the fault of the sound mix or the sound systems in some theaters across the world where the film was played. Nolan took a step forward and addressed all of these questions directly —he said the movie’s sound was exactly as he initially envisioned it and even praised theaters for presenting it properly.

Aside from his tremendous work, Nolan is also renowned for being a passionate believer that sound is as important as the moving images, which is why he is fond of hearing how his projects sound in actual theaters. During the same interview, Nolan also said he traditionally visits up to seven different theaters across the world just to see how the movie’s sound is performing.

As mentioned earlier, Interstellar caused people to question whether the film’s sound was right. Essentially, when it comes to films like these, it is possible to mix sound in an unconventional way as they did. Of course, that can catch some individuals off guard, but people, in general, will appreciate the experience, which is what happened with Interstellar in the subsequent weeks after it premiered.

The Team Behind the Sounds

The movie’s sound was initially attributed to a very tight teamwork amongst German composer Hans Zimmer, mixers Gary Rizzo and Gregg Landaker and sound designer Richard King. According to the director himself, they made cautiously considered creative decisions —the movie is full of surprises sound-wise. In fact, there are several moments throughout the film where Nolan decided to use dialogue as a sound effect, which is why from time to time it is mixed slightly beneath the other sound effect tracks and sound effect elements to emphasize how loud the encompassing sound actually is.

As an example, if you recall the film, there’s this scene during which Matthew McConaughey is driving through the cornfield, which is also extremely loud and, to some extent, frightening —considering that Nolan himself was riding in the back of the car while filming point of view shots—. Nolan wanted the audience to experience first hand how chaotic such situation was by making them feel all the turbulence that was going on through sound.

Another example is when they are in the cockpit and you hear the creaking of the spacecraft. That’s actually a very scary sound, and it was loud enough for people to get immersed into the story and actually feel what space travel might be like. It was definitely all about emphasizing intimate elements. 

The movie is definitely a case study on its own. Nolan also described that sound designer, Richard King, managed to get high-quality sounds inside the truck during the scene mentioned above; however, he decided to echo them later in the film, with one of the key spacecraft scenes, in hopes of making it more similar and truthful to what astronauts experience and hear in real life.

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Nolan also resorter to other elements to describe the different planets the protagonists visit throughout the film, not just with moving images, but with sound as well. Nolan stayed away from the traditional layering of sound elements and chose to delineate the planes based on recognizable sounds —the water planet is a lot of splashing in contrast to the ice planet, which has the crunchy sound of ice glaciers.

*The images used on this post are taken from Pexels.com

Mixing Audio For Beginners - Part 3

Mixing Audio For Beginners - Part 3

Here is the third installment of Mixing Audio For Beginners. If you’ve been following this illuminating compilation of the intricacies and the basics of sound and audio post-production, we’re gonna be addressing further topics taking it from where we left off in the last post about Mixing. Otherwise, we suggest you start off right from the very beginning. So, without further ado, let’s continue.

Ambiance

We mentioned last time that when editing dialogues in a studio through ADR, it is no less than pivotal to create the right environment for recording new lines. Every time a sound professional is tasked with re-recording lines and additional dialogue in a studio, they always have to pay special attention to several aspects that, if overlooked, could ruin the pace of the scene. Each dialogue edit inevitably comes with several challenges, like the gaps in the background environmental sound.

There’s nothing more unpleasant than listening to audio or a soundtrack where the background ambiance doesn’t match the action going on from one scene to the other. This phenomenon is highly common during ADR sessions, which is why, aside from helping the talent match the intensity each shot requires, sound professionals also need to edit the background sounds to fill any possible hole in order for the scene to feel homogenous.

The problem is when the production sound crew captures room tone on a specific location and then, once production is finished, the audio post-production crew needs to replace dialogue and fill the holes with room tone. Of course, there are tools to recreate room tones based on noise samples taken from existing dialogue recordings; however, it is indeed one of the most common tasks under the umbrella of audio post-production.

Sound Effects (SFX)

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Whether coming across the perfect train collision sound in a library, creating dog footsteps on a Foley session, using synthesizers to craft a compelling spaceship pursuit, or just getting outside with the proper gear to record the sounds of nature, a sound effects session is the perfect opportunity for sound and audio professionals to get creative.

Sound effects libraries are a great source for small, and even low-budget, audiovisual projects; however, you definitely must not use them in professional films. Some sounds are simply too recognizable, like the dolphin sound every single time a movie, ad or TV show, shows a dolphin. Major film and TV productions use teams to craft and create their own idea of sound effects, which ultimately becomes as important as the music itself, for example. Think about the lightsaber sounds in any Star Wars movie.

After that, additional sounds can be created during a Foley session. Foley, as discussed in other articles, is the art of generating and crafting sounds in a special room full of, well, junk. This incredible assortment of materials allows foley artists to generate all kinds of sounds such as slamming doors, footsteps in different types of surface, breaking glass, water splashes, etc. Moreover, foley artists recreate these sounds in real time, which is why it is normal to have several takes of the same sound in order to find the one that best fits the scene —they are shown the action in a large screen, and then start using the materials they have at hand in order to provide the action with realistic sounds. Need the sound of an arm breaking? Twist some celery. Walking in the desert? Use your fists and a bowl of corn starch.

Music

Just like with sound effects libraries, when it comes to music, sound professionals have two choices based on their talks with production —they can either use a royalty-free music library, or they can, alongside music composers, create a score for the film entirely from scratch. Be that is it may, the director and productions are the ones who have the final say over what type of music they want to use in the project and, perhaps more importantly, where and when music is present throughout the moving images.

Sometimes video editors resort to creating music edits to make a scene more compelling. Other times, it’s up to sound professionals to make sure the music truly fits into the beat and goes in accordance with what is happening. The trick is to make the accents coincide with the pace of the on-screen moving images as the director instructed, and that music starts and ends where and when it’s supposed to.

Mixing

Assembling all the elements mentioned in the first two parts of this mini guide and this article into a DAW timeline and balancing each track and different group of sounds into a homogeneous soundtrack is perhaps where this fine art reaches its pinnacle. Depending on the size of the studio, it is possible to use more than one workstation and different teams working together simultaneously to balance the sheer array of sounds they’ve got to put in place.

*The images used on this post are taken from Pexels.com

Are Sound Effects Really Necessary?

Are Sound Effects Really Necessary?

The Golden Age (the 1930s - 1960s), taught us a lot about sound effects. Artists such as Orson Welles and Jack Benny left behind a great compilation of techniques and developments that are even used by today’s sound effects artists in their own productions and works. When it comes to live performances, live and studio recording and even workshops, sound effects artists have at hand a diverse array of manual sound effects, as they seem to be highly fond controlling and playing these over electronic sampler keyboards that come with recordings. Of course, plenty of sound effects artists also use high-tech electronic samplers and other backing track devices depending on the nature of the project they’re currently working on; however, there seems to be a consensus regarding the unique style of manual sound effects.

In the past, manual effects were not the only option —some sounds were easier to produce and to obtain, like cars, planes and nature sounds; but when it comes to sounds product of the manipulation of an object, of course, a lot of that sound is how you manipulate the object in question. That being said, a lot of experimentation is required to get the right technique to produce the desired sound. A lot also falls under the umbrella of what experimentation often means —you need to test microphones and how the effect sounds over them. Always trust your ears if you’re just getting started.

Are sound effects really necessary?

Sound effects allow filmmakers and audiovisual project directors to tell a compelling a story. Think of a drama: a well-crafted sound, sound effects included, makes every story better, irrespective of whether it is full action, music, dialogues, etc. Sound effects are important, yes, but in comparison to other formats such as radio, where dialogue contributes practically 80% to the drama, music 10% and sound effects 10%, then they are not that pivotal. But if we’re talking about a sci-fi film, well, that’s another story —in film, sound effects add realism and, unlike radio, where if a sound effect has been misplaced no one will notice, the slightest mistake can cause a disaster.

Is sound really as key as video quality when producing visual projects?

As mentioned above, poor sound and poor sound effects can ruin any production regardless of its quality. Understanding that sounds, especially high quality sounds in movies and even video games are closely related to also understanding the true nature of a successful filmmaker or game developer. Think of all the times audio and sound, or the lack thereof, have made you rate, either positively or negatively, any project in particular. Additionally, think how both elements, audio, and sound, determines the reactions an audience is able to digest about the moving images or frames they are presented. So, are sound and sound effects important in films? It certainly is.

Sound in Film

Films are often produced using three different types of sound: human sounds (voices), music and, of course, sound effects. All of them interact with each other throughout the whole project and are crucial for films to provide audiences and viewers with the realistic aspect they expect to, subconsciously, recognize. As mentioned in earlier articles, dialogue and sounds must perfectly sync with the actions being projected —avoiding delays and, of course, being realistic. If a specific sound doesn’t match the moving image on the screen, the realistic effect is gone and the action itself is not believable at all.

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There are several ways to achieve high-quality, realistic sounds, and that is by using original sound clips rather than uniquely resorting to sound libraries for the desired effect. Another way to provide an audiovisual project with realism is by incorporating the so-called asynchronous sound effects —which are often used as background sounds in films. These sounds, unlike the ones matching moving images, are not directly related to the action occurring in a moving image; they, of course, help a film be as realistic as it can and should be.

As for music, if you have ever asked yourself how important the implementation of music in film and audiovisual projects is, simply recall all the iconic film scores you’ve come across within the past —with all certainty, film music is perhaps one of the elements we remember the most about a film, and it’s one of the aspects that determines whether a film stands real chances of being successful or not. Movies like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and its iconic two-note melody, still brings back the memories of the big shark approaching its prey; what about George Lucas’s Star Wars? Years after the original trilogy was released, its musical score is still being used in today’s installments and is basically what builds up momentum during promotional affairs, and the list goes on and on. It’s practically impossible to simply overlook the importance of musical elements within today’s filmmaking.

*The images used on this post are taken from Pexels.com

What are some of the most common sound stereotypes and logic flaws?

What are some of the most common sound stereotypes and logic flaws?

Sound is full of stereotypes and, sometimes, full of common logic flaws as well. These are the product of the pursuit of what’s simple and easy; however, studios and sound mixers in general, even though they are conscious of what they’re doing, sometimes they seem to be fond of integrating what the audience, subconsciously, expects to hear. Here is a list of the most common logic flaws and stereotypes you often hear in films—but perhaps do not belong to them.

Animals

This is perhaps the most traditional category where logic flaws can be found. The most common stereotypes when it comes to including animals in the scenes are:

Think of dogs, for example —they’re rarely, if not never, silent. Dogs in films always appear either barking or whining. The same thing happens with cats —they always meow or purr. Cows? Yes: they always moo. And that exact same principle applies to basically all animals even though in scenes where most animals wouldn’t be making the slightest sound. Rats, squirrels, and vermin, in general, are always shown making their characteristic noises every time they are projected in the screen. Dolphins? The more than traditional dolphin sound. In almost every film that involves the ocean, filmmakers always include an unnecessary dolphin sound. It's always the same sound, sometimes a segment of it. Snakes always rattle, and the list goes on. In fact, animal behavior is also predictable —dogs, for example, always know who is the bad guy and bark at them all the time.

Bird noises are always the same. Hawks always do that traditional screeching sound. In fact, that exact same sound applies for hawks, eagles and other big birds. Whenever a dramatic part of an adventure film is about to happen, the screeching sound always comes out. If there’s a mountain or a cliff in the background, either a hawk or an eagle can be heard screeching. Owls, on the other hand, always sound the same —like the Great Horned Owl. In horror films, for example, when there is a full moon there is always either an owl or a wolf making its traditional howl in the distance.

Bicycles, bombs, explosions and other objects

Yes, we know you’ve noticed it before: all bicycles have functional bells and whenever they come out in the film they sound. Bombs, on the other hand, always come with a fancy beeping timer display (the bigger the better, it seems), and whenever a bomb goes off, it takes about one to two minutes for the explosion to fade away. Speaking of explosions, these, for some reason, always happen in slow motion —and you have to make sure you are running away from the point where the bomb will go off so that the blast can throw you in the air towards the screen (in slow motion, of course). Additionally, if the film being projected is an action film, if there is a bombing scene, the bomb will always whistle whilst falling from the aircraft.

Cars always screech even on dirt roads; car breaks? They always squeak, and whenever a car turns, stops or pulls away, its tires must always make that particular squealing noise. On films with more budget, whenever a car comes out and makes any particular movement, it must increase its acceleration even if it was initially moving under 25 mph. On long roads, whenever a truck comes out, we always hear the traditional truck horn (with doppler effect, of course).

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Now, what about computers? Every button a character presses on a computer or a laptop makes some sort of beep noise; the text being projected on screen must make some type of typing or printer sound for some reason, even though we never hear that noise on a daily basis.

Environment

Easy: if there is a castle, there is a thunder. Storms start almost immediately: there’s castle, and subsequently, there’s a crack of thunder and heavy rain starts to fall amidst a plethora of lightning. Besides: thunder is always in perfect sync with lightning, no matter how far away the lightning occurred —and the same applies for explosions, as discussed, fireworks, etc. The wind always sounds the same. Oh, underwater scene? Let me just add non-stop bubbles throughout the whole scene. Doors always squeak. Phones? Universal telephone ring. The scene in San Francisco? Easy —cable and foghorn sound. Trains? The same old classic horn.

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And a fun fact: in U.S films being carried out in big cities, there’s always a police siren or horn in the background, whereas in films from other countries that thing never, never happens. If there’s fight or some sort of commotion in the second floor of a house, the individual or people in the first floor never get aware of what’s actually going on due to other sounds that are actually capable of muting or masking the chairs falling over, the yelling, the screams, etc., like phones ringing, the washing machine changing cycles, animals making their characteristic sounds, or the maid using the vacuum machine.

*The images used on this post are taken from Pexels.com

How Sound Helps You Tell Your Stories

How Sound Helps You Tell Your Stories

sounds that serve as the framework within which filmmakers and directors create a specific atmosphere. When coming up with an audiovisual project regardless of its nature, sounds are always carefully introduced in order for them to represent what is happening during a particular scene: what kind of actions the performers and the characters are engaged in, and where does that situation, in particular, take place.

The importance of creating an enticing atmosphere

Sound design is full of all kinds of nuances, and these vary from project to project; however, the necessity for filmmakers to understand the material remains. A good way for producers, directors, filmmakers, etc., to start editing sound for a production is by actually going through the whole script whilst figuring out the nature of every scene therein. Thus, aspects such as background sounds receive a much brighter connotation as well as the actions taking place. This is a good way to start elaborating on sound effects and possible atmospheres that could pertain to a specific scene.

What about music and dialogue?

Despite the fact that both music and dialogues are pivotal for creating an enticing audiovisual project, these two traditionally come to mind before considering the sound design part. And whilst these, as mentioned, are unequivocally vital in providing the plot with guidance, they remain as, perhaps, the most obvious elements in a project’s sound design. Since every scene is different, these require a subtle, yet specific, manipulation of both sound and sound effects to make them feel real and complete. Of course, dialogue and music by themselves are simply not enough to build the framework within which films are conceived and constructed.

Background and atmospheric sounds and noises drive the plot and allow the audience to clearly understand where a particular scene is taking place. Normally, these sounds are perceived by the subconscious given their quiet and repetitive nature; however, they are essential to every single scene because of the drive the audience. If both background and atmospheric noises were removed from audiovisual projects, scenes would end up feeling and being perceived unfamiliar and even unnatural by the audience due to the lack of realism. Scenes taking place on busy and crowded streets, for example, always include iconic noises like car horns, engines, indistinct chattering, etc., whereas scenes taking place in the woods include birds, wind, grass blowing, etc. Both examples are familiar to the audience simply because of the atmosphere created through the inclusion of background noises. Otherwise, it would feel weird to the audience.

How does action sound?

So, we just covered how sound is meant to interact on a subconscious level, the next part of sound design is helping the audience understand what the characters being played are doing in a particular scene. This is also possible and done through the inclusion of action sounds. When we speak about action sounds we are basically talking about a rather more subtle group of sounds like those we hear when characters are holding something or their clothing, or when characters interact with other character or other inanimate objects. If a character is in an action-filled scene, like a physical confrontation or a fight, then sound designers would need to include the sounds of impacts, punches, clothing being moved, etc. Sound designers actually spend a lot of time during this kind of scenes to make sure that all the sounds that the audience would hear if the fight or confrontation was real, match what is being projected and played by the performers. During a fight, it is common to hear some hits louder than other, or even a combination of different types of impact sounds. Thus, the audience perceives the scene in a more realistic way, which is why the vast majority of sound designers strive to include and use effects that resemble a real sound.

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This same principle applies to the interactions characters have with inanimate objects. If a character is manipulating something made of metal, like a gun or a hammer, the sound designer will need to add that sound by adding the sound of a person touching the object itself. The same happens when characters use computers or mobile phones and we hear the keys being pressed and mobile phone beeps. These are sound that possibly go unnoticed by the audience in real life; however, by including them into a particular scene the audience ends up being driven by the storytelling component. A well-crafted atmosphere includes these and the sound mentioned in the first part of this article. Although quiet and subtle, both atmospheric and action sounds are key for providing the audience with a compelling narrative. These are small elements whose tremendous value is reflected every time the audience remains engaged throughout an audiovisual project.

*The images used on this post are taken from Pexels.com