Planning for Audio Part 1 – The Script & Pre-Production
Now that we have established what makes up and who performs the audio post process, let’s take a look at how to plan for a great sounding film. Please note, that some of the examples below may contain spoilers.
There are several stages of the filmmaking process for which a film’s soundtrack can and should be developed. So when should we start planning?
Stage 1: The script
A good screenwriter will write audio cues into their script to help story development and pace, whether it is as simple as a telephone ring or something as subtle as an eerie drone. Horror screenwriters often reference ‘creaky doors’ and ‘howling wind’ but all genres of film can benefit from writing audio into scripts. It helps build the world around the characters, adds depth and guides the reader - as well as the Director and Supervising Sound Editor later in the process. For a great example of using sound in a script see the screenplay for 'A Quiet Place' written by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. The sound in this film is integral to the story and in their script, they have underlined moments that are related to sound.
Stage 2: Pre-Production: The Director's Vision and Storyboarding
When a director starts to storyboard and plan their shots, this is a vital time to think about how sound can be utilised. Can sound be used to add tension? Would the scene be more powerful using sound cues instead of visual cues or a mixture of both? Can sound design be used to circumnavigate budget restrictions? How do we shoot a scene for an immersive and exciting soundtrack? How do we achieve good rhythm and lipsync for a musical/dance scene?
When planning a shoot, tension can be built into a scene with sound. In order to do that and make them relevant, sounds must be established on screen. In Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Sicario’, a group of American federal agents are transporting a Mexican Cartel prisoner across the Mexican/US border, when they reach an unexpected traffic jam - created by rival Cartels to enable them to assassinate the prisoner. To heighten the tension in the scene, Villeneueve added a dog barking out the window of one of the cars (this was not in Taylor Sheridan’s excellent script). Barking dogs signal warning and danger and instinctively we feel tension and alert when we hear them. This addition could have been added in post, but was made more effective by filming the dog barking out of the window and establishing it within the film.
Similarly, sound can be used to create a more powerful effect by hearing the action rather than seeing it. Towards the end of Roberto Benigni’s second world war film ‘Life is Beautiful’, the protagonist, Guido Orifice, is lead off in a German concentration camp by an German guard, after being caught trying to escape. We see the two characters walk down an alleyway, then off screen around a corner where the camera holds. Expecting the film to cut to them around the corner, instead we suddenly hear the sound of a machine gun, executing Guido. The shock and surprise of the sound creates a powerful effect. We are stunned that the guard has executed him, instead thinking he was being led to another part of the prison or to a convoy truck – we don’t see the action and we don’t need to – the scene is arguably more powerful and emotional by not seeing the execution and instead just hearing it.
In some situations, budget may restrict a director’s ability to shoot scenes a certain way and sound can be used to work around this issue. Sound effects can be used instead of large on-screen set pieces, such as hearing a car crash off-screen rather than portraying it visually, or hearing a creature/monster off-screen rather than seeing it. Budget restrictions often bring out the most creative and effective ways of shooting a film by use of imaginative techniques. For example, the horror genre lends itself very well to lower production budgets. It works both creatively and cost-effectively to hear terrifying creatures and events rather than seeing them, as it adds to the mystery of the unknown. Be aware though, that there are limits to using sound in this way and so it must be done very precisely and judiciously.
Furthermore, if the director wants an immersive and exciting soundtrack, then shot choices will help build that. Take the idea of a car driving past a group of people. If we shoot the car from a wide panning shot keeping it in the centre of the frame, then the sound designers will only be able to place the car sound effects in the front 3 speakers - behind the screen – not using the speakers surrounding the audience. If we shoot the scene from the point of view of one of the people and had the car coming from behind them (off-screen) and then rushing past their left side on screen, we can use the surround speakers to pan the sound effects through the room – from the back left of the room to the front. This also would free up space in the front speakers for dialogue or other sound effects. The sound coming from behind the viewer can surprise the viewer of the cars arrival (if desired) and creates a more exciting and dynamic soundtrack.
Certain genres and styles of filmmaking require a high level of planning for audio. Musicals and scenes where actors are required to sing or move to specific songs and tempos require planning with the Musical Director, Supervising Sound Editor and Editor. Director, Edgar Wright’s fast paced cutting of scenes and musical cues requires a solid editing style that enables sound to play a vital role in the rhythm of the scene. In his film ‘Baby Driver’, the actors were given hidden earpieces to hear musical cues, which they would move and react to. This created am amazing final result, which saw the actors being rhythmically-tuned for every movement and sound effect, with gunshots, car door closes and head movements all choreographed beautifully to the music.
In the next article, we will explore further stages of sound design development – the post-production phase.