Sound Production in Film

Date: Nov 23, 2018
Category: Art Category


The majority of people considered movies to be visual art, which leads to a belief that image is the most important element of a movie. However, they ignore the fact that even during the silent era of movie history video was accompanied by some kind of sound effects (most commonly – music). Therefore, despite the importance of a visual part, sound is an element of a movie that allows people to feel the atmosphere and become part of the action (Viers 2011). Up until recently, the 2D movies used sound as an important tool for involving audience in the action. Thus, it was not surprising when new technologies allowed sound to have “volume” by being transferred from different parts of the movie theatre. This technical advancement has once again showed that sound design is essential for a movie, and a proper mix could make the video better, while a wrong choice of sounds and mixing will make a movie less interesting and trustworthy (D’Angelo 2012).

It is interesting that, while watching a movie, the majority does not pay any attention to the soundtrack. Still, people are influenced by sounds in a movie even if they do not realize it. Therefore, after watching a movie with a bad soundtrack, people know they are displeased, but do not realize what the primary reason is.

This manual is an introduction to sound production in movies. Its aim is to make an emphasis on the importance on the sound element, which complements the visual one. Moreover, this manual shortly explains different stages of sound production as well as makes an emphasis on some essential tips and elements of good sound production. Finally, the significance of soundtrack is shown on the example of one of the so-called “sound-sensitive directors” – David Lynch and his works.

Sound Production Techniques

Over the time of film production development the number of people responsible for sound (at the stage of post-production) has increased from one person back in the mid-20th century to dozens of people nowadays. This happens because modern movies are filled with various sounds, and they make the soundtracks of old films look empty and simple (Holman 2005). The number of people working on sound at the stage of post-production is constantly increasing. Whole teams of sound specialists are hired to work on movie sounds after the crew is done shooting. Currently, there are separate studios that specialize in sound effects, editing, and sound mixing.

In the process of movie soundtrack preparation, there are two major stages: Production and Post-production. At the Production stage, sounds and dialogues are being recorded on set, along with cameras that record video material. Post-production, which consists of several complex stages, works with sound recorded on set as well as with additional sounds and effects. This chapter provides a better understanding of different stages of soundtrack creation as well as a short description of people involved in the process.

General Principles of Sound

Sound in movies is usually divided into three groups: dialogue, music, and all the audio information not related to the two mentioned elements and called “effects”. Some turn this scientific differentiation into categories with emotional accents: sounds linked to explicitly described people, objects, and actions; environments; emotional clues; dramatic or physical transitions (Sonnenschein 2001). While the first categorization shows the clear description of three types of sounds, the second one describes the meaning that each combination of sounds can have for a movie.

A large part of a film soundtrack is recorded and adjusted at the post-production stage. Although sound is usually recorded during principal photography, it still goes through adjustment and tuning stages afterwards. There is no set scheme for preparing a soundtrack since it largely depends on movie budget. Still, there are some basic stages, through which each soundtrack has to go: sound is recorded on set; dialogue editing and ADR; creating sound effects; sound processing; music composition; sound mixing. As it can be seen from this list of steps, the main part of soundtrack work is done at the post-production stage.


The majority of directors prefer to record sound at the principal photography stage. Although there are possibilities of recording dialogues at the post-production (later on, this manual will describe ADR as a technique of recording dialogues after the principal photography is complete), there are complications, which can result in the loss of acting authenticity if the dialogues are recorded after the shoot is complete. Therefore, a couple of people (boom operator and recordist) work with sound on the set.

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One might believe that in the digital era, sound is recorded directly on camera, thus no one requires additional people working with sound. Although it is true for some cameras, a sound crew is still necessary in order to get high-quality sound, which could be later adjusted at the post-production. Sound on the set is not recorded on camera, although it is synchronized with the video and properly marked in order to perfectly match the image on the later stages.

The recordist that works on the set tries to record all the dialogues with minimum additional noise (sounds of the crew or external environment). On the set, a recordist may also require a moment of silence from the crew in order to record the location sound (Weis 1995). At the post-production, it might be combined with any dialogues recorded after the shoot, thus making the dialogues authentic to a particular location. Thirdly, a recordist can record any specific sounds on the location, which will give the post-production crew an understanding of the place and its character.

There are two major ways in which sounds (mostly dialogues) are recorded on the set: with the help of a boom operator and mikes hidden on actors. A boom operator is a person who holds microphone above and in front of a talking actor. He tries to get the boom (mike) as close as possible to the actor, while keeping the boom and its shadow out of frame. Booms are enhanced by hidden mikes, which are usually put on actor’s chest, and a radio transmitter that is attached to the person is hidden somewhere on the body (most often – around the waist). Very often, a combination of boom and hidden mike is used in order to get as much on-set sound as possible.


After the video part of the movie is complete, recorded sound is passed to the post-production stage. Many people have a wrong perception that, if sound recording became digital thus gaining higher quality, it does not need post-production. That is not true. Although the technical qualities of equipment have significantly improved over time, there are still practical considerations, such as impossibility of the total noise elimination on set (Holman 2005). Therefore, the post-production remains an integral element of creating a movie soundtrack.

The first step at this stage is to define which sounds should be present in each point of the film. The supervising sound editor is responsible for collecting and categorizing all the information. When the requirements are clear, the sound team starts working on different parts of the future soundtrack. A supervising sound editor can enter movie production at different stages. While some directors prefer working with editors from the script stage, others invite sound effect team only at the post-production stage. However, in order to achieve good results, the supervising sound editor has at least to stay in touch with the sound crew on set, in order to coordinate the work of the whole sound department.

Dialogues that were recorded on set are getting cleaned from additional sounds. Additionally, the dialogues themselves are getting adjusted. Sometimes, words are cut from different takes in order to form a smooth final dialogue. As it was already stated, sometimes dialogues are not recorded on set. There might be different reasons for this. For example, sounds on the location do not allow achieving the appropriate level of silence on the set, or the dialogues recorded on mike picked up additional sounds, and they cannot be used in the movie. In such cases, dialogues can be recorded in a studio after the production is over. This process is called ADR or looping (Weis 1995). Actors watch looped videos and try to both perform and match lip movement in the film. This is generally considered to be less genuine as sound recorded on the set, while sometimes, it is necessary. After the dialogues are recorded and cleaned, they can be edited in accordance with director’s requirements. For example, an emphasis can be made on actor’s words by raising the volume of his or her voice.

The next stage of working on soundtrack is the creation of sound effects. While dialogue editors work on the existing material in order to improve and polish it, sound effect specialists usually create everything from scratch. Even if sounds are recorded on set, they are not creating required emphasis and atmosphere if added to the video. Thus, specialists working with sound effects are trying to create appropriate atmosphere in every scene by adding various accents and feeling to each episode of the video. Despite the fact that sound effect teams create the sound from scratch, even they have something to start with – stock libraries with a lot of different sounds. There are five types of sound effects used in film industry: Foley sound effects, hard effects, background effects, electronic effects, and sound design effects (Viers 2011). The process of creating Foley effects happens simultaneously with watching the video, with footsteps being the most common of such effects. Hard effects are usually the ones found in the library, as they are the most common sounds coming from various objects on the screen: gunshots, car horns, etc. the background sound effects are not created by any particular object and rather present the atmosphere of a place. Such effects, also known as ambience, will be described in the section on David Lynch, as he is famous for creating special atmosphere on different locations in his movies (McDonald n.d.). Electronic sound effects are currently used as production elements: electric static, zips, etc. the last group of sound effects is the trickiest one as these effects are specially designed for each case. Quite often, sounds used in a film to describe an action have originated from a totally different source.

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Almost all sounds require digital processing in order to become the “final product”. The most common way of adjusting a sound is distorting it. Sounds can be slowed down, sped up, or even run backwards. Thanks to digital technologies, nowadays it is possible to change and adjust sounds in multiple ways. Combinations of sounds can be used in order to create new sound effects. Therefore, creation of sound effects is a combination of real sounds and digital work.

While talking about soundtrack and sound effects one should never forget about the role of music in a movie. While a supervising music editor is responsible for the whole process, composers are the ones who work directly with music. The catch is in the complexity of requirements for movie composers. While working on the music, they should keep in mind not only the visual part and its consistency with the tune but also other sound effects that are present in every scene. It is extremely important to combine dialogues, sound effects, and music in one scene and make the soundtrack interesting and organic (Weis 1995). In each scene, there are dominating sounds, which may require sacrifice from other parts of the soundtrack.

The final part of soundtrack creation is recording of the mix. The mixers, who blend all the tracks together and make them relative to the image, have a very complicated task of properly adjusting all the elements within the mix. A director or editor can be present in this process in order to state which tracks should be more important in each of the scenes (Holman 2005). The complexity of the mixer’s work is in matching hundreds of sounds, which were created at different times and by different people. The tools used by a mixer are equalizers and filters, which, for example, can used to eliminate unwanted frequencies and boost the needed ones. Mixing is the final stage of soundtrack production.

Sound Design for Different Genres

Each type of movie genre requires its own peculiar sound design and effects. The same scene will have a different soundtrack depending on the movie genre. For example, a satire movie will be full of clich? sounds, which will be over-exaggerating feelings and attitudes. In addition, a slapstick comedy will exaggerate emotions even more, thus reminding the viewer that this is just a movie. Neither of the stories will require the viewer to identify oneself with the situation, as they rely on the secondary emotions (Sonnenschein 2001). In case of a romantic comedy, the story will be different since this type of movie requires empathy, and thus, primary emotions should be involved. This type of movie requires a different rhythm and even a shift between primary and secondary points of view, which is organized through the soundtrack. Thriller films are also full of clich?s. In many cases, sound designers use low-volume sound that supports the anticipation. Then this sound is broken with a loud and contrasting noise. Thrillers very often use the “intruder” technique wen the existing environment is entered by a foreign element (Sonnenschein 2001)

Special attention in sound design is paid in science-fiction movies. These films are also very interesting for sound designers because they allow their imagination to flow without limits. In sci-fi films, on one hand, there is a viewer, who expects each device, alien, and movement to make a sound; while on the other hand, there is a vast space of possibilities since as neither of the sounds exists in everyday life. Therefore, sound designers are welcome to create effects that have never existed before and use a vast variety of tools. For example for T-1000 (Terminator II), passing through metal grates the sound editor used the sound of dog food that is ejected from a can (Weis 1995).

Realist cinema does not provide sound designers with as much freedom as sci-fi movies. However, this genre has its peculiarities and challenges. For example, each space in the film should have its own atmosphere, which is created through sound ambience. This, each location becomes a complex task for sound editors. Secondly, while “keeping it real” the sound effect team has to create appropriate audio emphases for each scene. Therefore, although realist films do not provide a lot of space for inventing new things, they still set essential tasks of making the soundtrack interesting and complex, while keeping it related to real life. As David Lynch states in his interviews, in realist movies, the background sound is realistic, but at the same time, it enhances the mood (Sider 2008).

A Case Study of the Sound in the Work of David Lynch

Many researchers state that directors begin to pay less attention to sound design in movies. Many Hollywood films do not rely on soundtrack as an essential element of the film and emphasize only the visual part. Luckily, there are still directors who believe that sound is as important as the picture. David Lynch is famous as one of the sound-sensitive directors. From his movies and interviews, it is clear that Lynch pays significant attention to soundtracks. Even if one closes his or her eyes, the music and sounds will keep the tension and excitement. This special attention to sound design made Lynch a good example for the proper use of sound in film.

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It is hard to find another director who would pay so much attention to sound in his movies. Many times, in his interviews David Lynch stated that sound was extremely important for his work. He has even said that soundtrack forms 50 percent of movie influence. That is why Lynch involves the composer and sound designer at the early production stages. This director believes that only by understanding the world created in a movie it is possible to make a proper soundtrack. This is also the reason why he prefers working with same people on his movies. The favorite composer of David Lynch is Angelo Badalamenti, who worked on such movies as Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, as well as Twin Peaks series (McDonald n.d.). With the sound editor Alan Splet, Lynch made such movies as Eraserhead, Dune, and Blue Velvet. By cooperating with the sound department from the early stages, Lynch has managed to create movies in which audio is as disturbing as video.

One of the most famous patterns in Lynch’s soundtracks is the creation of environments just by using sounds. This is especially visible in Eraserhead, when different locations have their own particular sounds. They are very visible and clear to viewers, but seem to be unnoticed by the characters. Alan Splet worked with Lynch on Eraserhead soundtrack for a long time, and the result of their work was outstanding (D’Angelo 2012). The scene of Henry having a dinner in Mary’s house is full of unusual ambient sounds. Firstly, there is loud noise in the street, which disappears as soon as they enter the house. Instead, it is replaced by a very disturbing sound, which creates an unsettling feeling. Therefore, each place has its own sound, and these sounds are so unusual and disturbing that they have more influence on the viewer than the video. Eraserhead is only one of examples of Lynch’s work with sound. In fact, each of his movies has a very special atmospheric depth, which is created by the soundtrack (McDonald n.d.).

It is interesting that Lynch gets so involved in the audio parts of his movies that he uses music not only at the post-production stage, but also at the principal photography stage. The director turns the music on while being on the set. Sometimes, he listens to it alone in order to feel the scene and its tempo, while in other cases, the music is heard on the whole set (Sider 2008). Lynch believes that it creates a mood not only for actors, but also for the cinematographer, who understands the patters of camera movement through music tempo. Music that creates mood on set is so important for this director that he is ready to sacrifice sound recording on set for the sake of creating a proper environment via audio influence.

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