The role of Sound Effects in film…

There was an interesting post on the gearslutz forum a while back quoting something composer Danny Elfman said; the article/interview cited was called: “Sound Effects Suck.” But rather than be reactionary, what he has to say is worth thinking about, here’s a few relevant excerpts:

‘Elfman isn’t critical of any particular sound designer, as much as the entire freight-train dubbing mentality. “They’re simply doing their jobs, which is to provide every possible sound. It’s the mixer’s job to select sounds and ask, ‘Do we need to hear everything that you see and don’t see all the time?’ What contemporary dubbing is doing is taking all our imagination away from us.”

The situation on Batman Returns was his worst ever. Elfman wrote his music with dynamics in mind, only to find that everything was flattened out by the dubbing mixer. The film was so poorly dubbed that Elfman believes his music actually hurt the picture; had he known how the sound effects would have been used, he would have simplified his writing. “In the end result, I believe that if 25% of the score and 25% of the sound effects had been dropped, the entire soundtrack would have been infinitely more effective than the busy mess it became.” Many composers will argue that a good relationship with a director will help get their score across in the final mix, but unfortunately most directors “don’t have good ears, even the brilliant ones. With Tim Burton, I had my best and worst dubs back to back. I’ve never had a better dub than on Edward Scissorhands, and I’ve never had a worse dub than on Batman Returns. No director does this consciously, they just lack the audio skills to deal with such a complex science.”

So it sounds like he had an ‘interesting’ experience on that film, and its more than a bit self-aggrandising to assume that his opinion is correct & the directors isnt, for dubbing mixers work under direction. But whats maybe more interesting than Elfmans ego is that the title of the article IS reactionary in that it casts aspersions on ALL sound effects, rather than the actual issue, which was about the choices the director made in terms of the final mix of one particular film.

The actual issue, of final mix balances is also a two way street; many a time I’ve had lovely subtle sound effects prepared for a scene only to find when the score is mixed at the level asked for by the director, the sound effects are basically inaudible. And it isnt just a level issue ie turning up the sound effects may not solve the problem. One simple example I remember was during the final mix of Black Sheep; there was a scene where a giant were-sheep was attacking someone & in an attempt to cause a distraction the hero threw a haggis at it. We had a realistic sound effect prepared for the haggis hit but the orchestral score was played loud to reinforce the jeopardy & no matter how loud we played our haggis hit it wouldnt rate. In the end the only sound that would rate was a thuddy explosion.

As a supervising sound editor & sound designer, context is an important consideration for all sounds that are prepared, and it is where temp mixes are very valuable testing ground for possible conflicts & to get some indication as to the likely way a scene and/or moment may play. If sounds need to be heard & simply arent rating due to context, better to find that out sooner rather than later ie well before the final mix.

But what is the role of sound effects in film? Fundamentally sound effects (& ambiences & foley) exist for one reason; to help tell the story. If they are self-serving or detract from the audience suspending their disbelief and engaging with the story then they should not be there. But often it isnt an all or nothing issue, its by degrees… And thats where mix decisions become crucial.

Something else Elfman says is somewhat naive of the usual practice finishing films: “Sound people tend to look at each individual moment. They look at five seconds, and if something’s missing for a fraction of a second, there tends to be a panic. They don’t look at the context over the entire soundtrack and the entire film. ”

News for you Mr Elfman, and I dont know how its possible for you not to know this, but we have specific prodedures for both scenarios: individual moments & the context of the entire soundtrack.

As a supervising sound editor it is my job to insure that every imaginable sound effect is available, based on my own experience & my teams experience but also on the numerous spotting sessions & run throughs we have had with the director. Once you are on a mix stage it can be a serious & costly matter if the mix is held up because source material is not available or hasnt been prepared. So OF COURSE ‘sound people tend to look at each individual moment’ because every moment is potentially important, every footstep, every door open, every sound. When we mix, we tend to work through the film scene by scene, so again we are focused on moments but with the knowledge of all the previous ‘moments’ that have been mixed before.

But here’s where I dont understand the gap in his knowledge; every film I have ever been involved with have at least one double head screening & that screening is solely about overall context. Let me explain what a double head screening is. Once we have worked through the entire film, mixing scene by scene, we then output the mix, stitch it together & take it to a seperate screening theatre & watch it in a continuous run, like a normal audience will. Its called a doublehead screening because at this point the picture & sound elements are still seperate. This is the first time anyone in the team has seen & heard the film, accordingly immediately after the screening much discussion ensues & a list is made of changes to be implemented. Then follows another two days or more of mixing, making changes that are partly about details but often about the soundtrack as a whole. Its often the first time that we can do a reality check about overall loudness throughout the film, whether there is too much music (or not enough) & whether the overall film soundtrack is working thematically. And if budget & schedule allows another double screenign is held to check the changes in context.

So sorry Danny, but maybe its just that you have never been invited to a double head screening? Can’t imagine why… but it seems often composers are on to their next project by this stage….

Thinking further about the role of sound effects in film I came across a somewhat academic disertation by someone from University of Nottingham titled: In Defence of Vulgarity: The Place of Sound Effects in the Cinema – vulgarity? say what? It appears the author is out to develop a hierarchy of elements in a film soundtrack, which seems dubious from the outset, but some of what is discussed is interesting & as with some of Mr Elfmans comments bear delaying a reaction until some due thought has been involved… but this chart made me laugh, if only because there wasnt anything in it that I could agree with…

Academics are often unintentionally funny. I remember doing a sound workshop for a group of film makers a few years ago – it was mainly for short film directors, producers etc and during a Q&A at the end someone piped up, asking if I ever use the term diegetic and non-diegetic when working… I had to tell the truth & say depsite knowing what the term meant I had never used it myself nor heard another sound person or director use that term in the 18 years I’ve been working in the film industry. No prize for guessing the occupation of the person asking the question; she was an academic… Welcome to the real world!

14 thoughts on “The role of Sound Effects in film…

  1. Limb0

    Well, that chart is ridiculous (sfx=technical, Music & dialogue=artistic ???), his creator seems to be Italian and for this, I’m very proud to be an Italian 🙂
    I’ll read the Elfman article, I think that his experience is something important in spite of everything, like yours.

  2. Sébastien Orban

    Hi !

    I just wanted to chime in about the academic : most of the time, they like to talk. The subject do not matter while they can talk it about at lenght, the stranger the better. But talking is not enough : you have to DO.
    In my field (plastic art), there’s an ample litterature about nearly everything (subject, medium, stroke of paint, spirituality…) and nearly all of it is totally off from the artist point of view.

    Sometimes I have the impression that sound effect are in the same place as the typography of book : a good typography is something we don’t see. It’s there, it help us to read the book, it doesn’t disturb from it.
    Likewise, sound effect are here too to help us enter the movie, be entertain, touch by it. Not to be at the front.
    It requires lot of modesty in my eyes to do that kind of work.

  3. david v

    A big modesty and/or a big vicious spirit.

    Working with less codes than music or litterature doesn’t mean we, sfx poeple, can’t tell more, it just mean we are saying it underneath, talking directly to those spots that react without the possibility to be analised …

    But we could rephrase :

    A big modesty or a big complex of being left alone.

    Working with less codes than music or litterature doesn’t mean we, sfx poeple, can’t speak loud, it just mean we are saying it over 100 Db, talking directly to those spots that can’t react anymore …

  4. leyton

    having been on the academic side ( teaching fellow at a uni in music technology) my experience is that there are certain doers and certain talkers, and that is fine until you notice that the talkers never actually get anything done.. (this is particularly frustrating if they are your “boss” and they talk rubbish, whilst supposedly employed as a “doer” :-). there were, of course other profs that could both talk the talk and walk the walk, these are the people to seek…. on the otherside i did a “film music” third year paper a couple of years ago that the first essay topic was on diegetic vs non diegetic, but there was no class discussion about it and even less practical demonstration on this
    ( i think) very important idea but then agian the paper was light on content … and having been in the television music production scene for about 8 years, i have never , like tim, heard anyone use the word….

    the relationship of music to sfx is a special one and i dont bat for either side, even though i do music, as ive heard sfx create amazing “mood and emotion” and crap music leave me sterile.. both mediums can perform purely utilitarian roles AND those of the abstract, enhancing, and defining…i believe there is always a “best” balance to be found.. to paraphrase tim ..if you notice it its wrong… even for those of us that spend a lot of time critically listening to film sound…

    the BIGGEST issue i have with film sound is when it is two loud.. that is completely unnecessary… i went to a sci-fi film a few years ago and sat in the theatre with my fingers in my ears the whole time ( until i walked out)… it was damagingly loud and razor sharp… and those horsemen blokes in LOTR !!! bloody hell razors at high shelf corrall..shite!!!…

    oh and elfmans music is rubbish..

  5. Jose

    I think that both are complementary, is an art. It is easy to realize when the sound engineer and musician does not understand very well … the other day was looking for second time Before Sunset, its a movie that has no music at all, the sound was impeccable, the silences .. .. everything was in place…Its a team work, they need to understand, if they dont it will probbably result in a very lousy movie.

    I think Music is no necessary and sound design either, But if they help to tell the history like in most cases it can become a regular history into something really interesting.

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  8. Randy Thom

    If you read all of Mr. Sergi’s article you’ll see that when he refers to the “vulgarity” of sound effects, and lists sound effects in the chart as “technical” rather than “artistic” he is describing the common perception of sound effects, not his own perception of sound effects. He probably should have labeled the chart better so that it would be clear that it wasn’t expressing his opinion.

    Randy Thom

  9. robin

    You state that the sound workshop was “mainly for short film directors, producers etc”. You might consider that at the macro level of narrative control they work at, they do indeed need to know the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. And yes, this concerns you, as they will be making choices about which of your SFX to include based (in part) on that distinction.

    Though you may never have used these terms when talking to your sound design buddies, I sure hope the concepts have shaped your appreciation of film sound. Otherwise you’re limiting yourself. Your concluding appeal to the “real world” is especially ironic given that the difference between the “real” and the “narrative” worlds of film is precisely what these terms exist to describe.

    P.S. It is so lame to knock “academics” en masse. Such a cheap appeal to popular anti-intellectual sentiment! And in this case doubly inappropriate; you are stooping to the same level as Elfman when he tars all sound designers with the same brush.

  10. tim Post author

    thats a fair comment re generalising about academics although might I detect a raw nerve being struck? Calling someone “unintentionally funny” and being able to detect their occupation by use of a term is hardly “knocking en masse”

    And my comment about “welcome to the real world” was inferring “welcome to the real world of making films” as opposed to analysing them, after the fact.

    re the use of the term diegetic/non-diegetic – I would feel differently if a single person had used that term with me even ONCE, and not just me and my “sound design buddies” I mean writers, directors, picture editors, mixers. In my 20 years of experience, it is simply not a term used by practitioners when making films. And of course the concept is apparent to me, I would have thought that went without saying. And of course these concepts are discussed, but not via categorising them as diegetic or non-diegetic…

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