It is impossible to overstate how important a role audio plays in the film viewing experience. While it’s perfectly natural to be drawn to the visual side of filmmaking, those striking visuals don’t hold the same weight without strong cinematic sound design to back them up. Whereas a painting is purely visual and a song can be purely aural, cinema combines sight and sound for a unified experience where one bolsters and elevates the other. Read on to learn about the role of the sound designer and other sound design jobs, the fundamentals of sound design, and to check out some examples from the movies with the best sound design.
Watch: How Tarantino Uses Sound Design for Violence
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Sound designer meaning
First, let’s define sound design
Sound design is a large and complex topic with many facets to unravel and several different job titles involved. Before we get to how sound design is made and the people who make it, let’s first make absolutely clear what sound design itself is on a base level.
SOUND DESIGNER DEFINITION
What is sound design?
Sound design is how filmmakers flesh out the aural world of a film to enhance the mood, atmosphere, and/or tone. Sound design components include sound effects or SFX sound design, mixing, Foley sound design, dialogue, and music. Sound design is the final and most important element needed to create an immersive experience for the audience.
It's important to note that the sound designer does NOT record audio on set. On-set audio is the responsibility of the Production Mixer.
Examples of sound design:
- Lightsaber: combination of a film projector's motor hum, TV interference, and waving a mic in front of the speaker to create "swooshing" sabers
- Velociraptor: mixing a dolpin's shriek with a walrus' roar to create the raptor's screech
- Saving Private Ryan — recording period artillery to maximize the authenticity of battle scenes
Sound designer definition
Fundamentals of sound design
Sound design for film is just as important in creating the illusion as imagery. With today's technology and ubiquitous CGI, what you see on screen is almost never "real." The same can be said for sound — what you hear in a movie is always manipulated in some way.
Perhaps the first thing to learn about sound design is the difference between diegetic vs. non-diegetic sound. Watch this video for a complete breakdown.
When done thoughtfully, sound design for film is a way to enhance the visual storytelling. It can give life, authenticity, and dimension to an otherwise flat, moving picture. What better way to explain sound design for film than a demonstration. Here's Tasos Fratzolas on the beautiful lies of sound design.
We have a solid foundation for what sound design for film is but how is it done? What are the processes and considerations of a sound designer. In the next section, we'll watch a professional sound designer walk us through a typical day on the job.
sound designer job description
What does a sound designer do?
The person directly in charge of crafting a film’s sound design is, you guessed it, the sound designer. On a particularly small production, the role of the sound designer may be all-encompassing. They might serve as the only person responsible for a film’s entire audio component.
On larger productions, the sound designer typically leads an audio team consisting of a combination of some or all of the following sound design jobs: Foley artists, Audio Engineers, Re-recording Mixers, Dialogue Editors, Supervising Sound Editors, ADR teams, Music Editors and Supervisors, and even Composers.
The vast majority of a sound designer’s work is done during Post-Production but that does not mean the best film sound designers cannot be involved in a film as early as the Pre-Production stage.
Some filmmakers have particular visions for the aural landscapes and know precisely what they want their films to sound like before filming has begun. Meetings and in-depth discussions can take place between a director and sound designer early on in the process to prepare for what is to come later on in Post-Production.
If a sound designer is made aware of certain sounds they will need in advance, they can work concurrently alongside the film’s production to begin crafting key SFX.
Cinematic sound design has many uses and is extremely important to the overall effect of a film. The following video showcases the ways in which sound design can be used to improve storytelling using real-world examples.
You can see that the role of a sound is crucial to "selling the illusion" of a film. The term movie magic certainly applies to the sound designer job description. Without good sound, the audience will have a much more difficult time engaging with the film.
Movies with the best sound design
The spectrum of sound design for film
Different films call for different styles of sound design. If you were to take something like 1917’s sound design and swap it something like the cartoon sound design of the Looney Tunes, the results would be bizarre and off-putting. Like most facets of filmmaking, the best film sound design adapts to suit the individual project at hand.
Certain films present creative sound design challenges for the sound designer and their team. A small-scale, talky drama isn’t likely to present as much of a creative sound design challenge as a war film.
The Academy Award-winning sound editing and mixing for Christopher Nolan’s WWII film Dunkirk made exceptional use of a unique audio phenomenon known as a Shepard tone. This is a great example of creative sound design being used heighten the tension of an entire film.
Does a particular film strive for utmost realism? How about a horror film that aims to send chills through the audience? Or maybe an animated film with exaggerated physics? Each of these examples requires a completely different approach when designing their auditory side.
Good sound design lines up with the director’s vision and always aims to match and enhance the overall vibe of a film. But what about when a film contains audible elements with no real-life frame of reference?
Sound designer definition
Designing unique sounds
Sound design is a specialized and highly technical craft but it can also be a highly creative field when presented with certain challenges. When sound designing a realistic film, the sound designer’s goals may be to replicate the way our world truly sounds. But what about when the world of a film is different from our own? How do you create sound design for something that does NOT exist in real life, and thus, has no recognizable sound to use as a basis?
This is where the creativity comes in. Thousands of audio libraries full of SFX can be dragged and dropped into an editor’s timeline but oftentimes it can better or necessary to design sounds from scratch.
Designing sound effects can be done electronically through audio software, synthesizers, and other digital tools. Fresh SFX can be captured the old fashioned way, by going out with a microphone and recorder. Crafting unique sounds is a process that rewards experimentation and creativity. Some of cinema’s most iconic sounds came about through wholly unexpected means.
The iconic sound of the boulder rolling after Indiana Jones was created through much more mundane means than you would probably guess. The film’s sound designer ran tests by actually tossing large rocks off of cliffs but the resulting sound was not satisfactory. What ended up being far more effective to simulate a massive rolling boulder was, oddly enough, the tires of a Honda Civic driving slowly over gravel.
Perhaps the most iconic creature sound design in all of cinema is Godzilla’s screeching roar. But would you have guessed that this roar was created by dragging a leather glove across the strings of a double bass? A great deal of experimentation and creativity goes into crafting cinema’s most noteworthy SFX. This video goes into the history of Godzilla including the creation of his trademark roar.
Sound design examples
Examples of sound design in practice
A sound designer working in the sci-fi, horror, or fantasy genres will likely be tasked with conceiving original sounds for unique sources. What does an alien ship sound like? How do you approach horror creature sound design? All of these are questions a sound designer will devise answers for.
Here's some excellent sound design and sound editing in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. Watch and listen to how sound is used to create suspense in the film's white-knuckle opening scene.
Let’s take a look at District 9's sound design as an example. In this scene, the sounds of the mech suit, alien weapons, computerized UI, the spaceship, and the creature vocalizations all required immense creativity in District 9’s sound design.
The Coen Brothers have a keen ear for cinematic sound design. Their filmography is jam-packed with excellent examples of sound design, including some of the best sound design in films. Their work showcases the variety of different directions a sound designer can take the material.
This can range from stylized near-cartoon sound design in something like Raising Arizona to something more psychologically-driven like Barton Fink’s sound design. John Goodman’s ferocious roars, hysterical dialogue, the rush of fire, and the long decay of his shotgun blast, are all sound design examples culminating in one cohesive moment.
In addition to individual sound effects, sound designers also create what are known as soundscapes. You can think of a soundscape as a bed of audio that music, SFX, and dialogue rest on top of. Creative soundscapes are a great way to enhance a film’s sense of atmosphere or style.
Many of the most memorable soundscapes find themselves at home in the horror genre. An eerie soundscape can be a great way to double down on the creepiness of on-screen visuals. The films of David Lynch almost always feature incredibly inventive soundscapes that he often crafts himself.
In this example from Eraserhead, notice how much atmosphere and dread are generated through the powerful and oppressive soundscape. The droning, surreal tones are layered with industrial noises that magnify the bleak nature of the environment surrounding our protagonist and the end effect is staggeringly effective.
How to become a sound designer
If you’re wondering how to become a sound designer for film, the path is pretty straight forward. The most common career trajectory involves starting out in lower positions on the sound design team and working your way up. If you are interested in sound design jobs for yourself, make sure you get involved with audio post-production rather than getting involved with capturing production audio.
A good place to start is to familiarize yourself with the history of sound design and to read some sound design books such as Designing Sound by Andy Farnell or Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice, and Sound Effects in Cinema by David Sonnenschein. Absorbing the fundamentals of sound design books is the perfect first step before you start looking at film sound designer job descriptions.
Sound editing vs sound mixing
Were the terms ‘sound editing’ and ‘sound mixing’ foreign concepts to you when they popped up in this article? To continue familiarizing yourself with audio post-production and to get a good handle on the distinction between sound editing and sound mixing, be sure to read our article on the nuances that distinguish them.