Why Movie Sound Matters

Why Movie Sound Matters

Oscar season is a strange time for me. I love seeing films recognized and celebrated (especially those that might have been looked over in the past, like Parasite), but I get frustrated that awards viewers see categories like Sound Editing and Sound Mixing as opportune times to get a snack or go to the bathroom.

 

It’s great that both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences have separate categories for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing because they are significantly different disciplines. Quantifying the quality of mixing and editing can be difficult, if not downright stupefying, for someone unfamiliar with the process.

 

It’s first important to understand that, in most cases, most of what you hear when watching a movie was added or modified by a team of sound professionals after the film was shot. And the sounds that are edited into a film need to appear to be coming from the source on screen. The production sound (what was recorded on set by the production sound mixer) is sometimes

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Ford v Ferrari

used in the film, but there are times a scene or entire film is recorded MOS—meaning without sound. In those cases, everything needs to be constructed after the film has been put together by the picture editor.

 

Ford v Ferrari wouldn’t have nearly the impact, especially for car aficionados, if the Ford GT40 Mark II or Ferrari 330 P3 didn’t sound right. But there’s no way the film crew would be able to use the original cars for filming the race sequences. “Those are all kits,” said Donald Sylvester, Oscar-winning sound editor for Ford v Ferrari, during a panel before the Academy Awards. “They probably have Mazda engines or something reliable.”

With only 105 GT40s ever made, the sound team needed to track down one of the remaining ones to record, which turned out to be a difficult, and likely expensive, project. Many owners didn’t want to let anyone anywhere near a car valued at millions of dollars, let alone close enough to record—and possibly damage—it. In the end, the sound crew ended up using a car in Ohio that had been built out of original GT40 parts, but wasn’t one of the original 105. Without that sonic authenticity, the storytelling of the movie would have suffered.

 

But just using the recording of a car engine isn’t enough. On a film I recently worked on, I built layers of sound to create a believable environment inside a car. Door locks and windows, the sound of an accelerator pedal being depressed, gear changes, the clunks from the suspension, turn signals, the noise of tires moving over pavement, and squeaks from the seat leather as the driver shifts position all add realism to the scene that would be missing with the engine sound alone. And those are just the sounds from the car itself and don’t include the other layers of what’s happening outside the car (such as individual cars driving by, birds chirping, the lawnmower of someone cutting the grass at a house being passed, or a distant police siren).

While those car sounds were collected out in the field and then edited together in a Pro Tools edit suite, sometimes sound for a film is created in a studio by foley artists. And very often the materials used to create the sound in the studio have no relation to what is supposedly producing the sound on screen. Classic examples 

of this include squeezing cornstarch in a leather pouch for footsteps in the snow, snapping apart celery for bone breaks, and a watermelon being stabbed or smashed for some gruesome horror-movie injuries. Great foley artists are exceptionally talented individuals, and if you have 14 minutes to spare, I highly recommend the award-winning short film The Secret World of Foley that came out a few years ago and documents the work of some of these artists (one of whom, Sue Harding, worked on 1917).

 

Many times when a sound editor does their best work, it’s imperceptible to the viewer. Take, for instance, difficulties that can crop up when editing dialogue. A set is very rarely a pristinely quiet environment. A production sound mixer can do their very best to record the dialogue as cleanly as possible, but the shuffling feet of crew members, humming of the on-set kitchen refrigerator, or an A/C unit that wasn’t turned off can all make their way on to the recorder. And even if a light gel was flapping throughout the scene, if it’s the take the director wants to use, the sound editor needs to make it sound like the extraneous 

flapping was never there. (That example is from my own work experience.) Even differences in room tone between takes that are put together for a smooth visual scene experience would easily take a viewer out of the suspension of disbelief. But if the dialogue editor does their job well, you’d never know there were any issues.

 

Then there’s the sound designer. Not every movie has a credited sound designer, unless it’s a film that 

includes things that don’t exist in our world and the sounds need to be created from scratch. This could be as low-key as what an iPhone app that exists only in the movie sounds like to the lightsaber sounds created by Ben Burtt or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, which were given voice by Gary Rydstrom.

 

This is a more quantifiable aspect of sound editing. Obviously Rydstrom couldn’t go out into the field and capture the real sounds of dinosaurs, as Donald Sylvester did with the GT40, so it’s easier to recognize the work that went into creating the sound of a dinosaur and how it fits into our perception than it is which extraneous sounds were deftly removed from a noisy dialogue recording.

 

But everything described above only encompasses one of the two awards. Without sound mixing, all of that work wouldn’t matter. Now, this isn’t the production sound mixing I referred to earlier that’s done on set. (The nomenclature can be confusing, I know.) This is done by a re-recording mixer once all of the sound editing is done. In order for the editing to sound believable, all of the layers that have been painstakingly put together by the edit team need to be joined into one cohesive soundscape. Sound levels are adjusted and how the sound moves around in space to match the action on the screen is set.

This is an art in itself and requires a trained ear, creativity, and the use of plug-ins like reverb and compression. Subtle changes in dB levels can completely alter the audience experience. There’s a moment in Logan (shown above) where Charles Xavier has a seizure that causes him to practically paralyze those around him. The high-pitched sound that lasts throughout the seizure until Logan is able to administer Xavier’s medication slowly becomes more intense. It was a genius sound moment, and in the theater I could see audience members becoming more physically uncomfortable as the scene progressed, mirroring the emotions of the characters, until the massive relief once the seizure and high-pitched sound stopped.

 

Both sound editing and mixing complete the world on screen, draw audiences in, and create visceral reactions in those of us watching. At their best, all of this is done without distraction or without us realizing what’s causing it. To remain engrossed and invested in the film, the sound of the GT40 or the roar of the dinosaur must seem accurate enough that we believe it to our core. To feel incredible relief once that high-pitched squeal finally ends, it needs to sound absolutely right. The next time you finish a movie, think back to the moments that worked well and I guarantee you a major reason is because of excellent sound work, even if you didn’t perceive it at the time.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

1 Comment
  • John Bishop

    Mr. Higgins you write with passion and thank so much for sharing your thoughts in the unvarnished language of professional sound engineers. The best Cinemas present the art of movies exactly as directors intended them to be experienced, in both sound and image. Only careful design can bring this genuine cinematic experience into homes at that level, RAYVA Theaters by Theo Kalomirakis being an example of that process.
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    When CineLuxe touches on truths such as you’ve revealed, it helps educate enthusiast of the arts, and movies, the 7th Art in particular. Authors like Michel Chion have taken that notion to its highest level. In his book Audio-Vision he describes the very best way to experience a movie in a term he coined; audio-viewing. Great sound makes the image better, and vice versa.
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    Having driven and been driven in a few modern and classic exotic cars, I can attest to the importance of sound in those experiences. Harley Davidson has a patent on theirs!
    Sunday night as the Daytona 500 rained out, we screened Ford v Ferrari in my RAYVA prototype theater; It’s the Cinema Level 2 system. It’s a Mavericks Architectural Cinema with James loudspeakers for sound, and a Barco Cinemascope LED projector on a Stewart Filmscreen for image. We had a great movie experience from a movie that deserved more from the Academy than what it got. But that’s another story. This was my second audio-viewing of FvF. My first was at Palladio Luxe Cinema, a great boutique cinema venue. David Thomson in his book, How to Watch a Movie is right. Every time you see a great movie, you get more from it, especially if the presentation is cinematically genuine.
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    A few years ago I was with a residential cinema outfitter, Realm, in Norwalk Ct when we booted up a new showroom theater for the first time after sound calibration. This is a DCI screening room with a Barco 4K Laser, an 18’ SFC Directors Choice screen, and a Meyer Sound Dolby designed ATMOS system with 48 channels. We ran MadMaxFR, the movie that won the same Academy Awards for sound that FvF did this year. This was not an audio-viewing of the movie as the screen wasn’t in yet, so we just listened to it. And the group of us were so stunned by the quality, detail, and localization, that we sat there for 2 hours in amazement.
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    Sound is a powerful component of the movie experience and that night left us no doubt. Of course, adding a SOTA image later took it to the moon.
    FvF captured the sound brilliantly as you so aptly suggest in this post, and for those who have heard those cars, especially on race tracks or in vintage car races like I have (Pebble Beach) it was the frosting on the cake of a great movie that included great cinematography and acting performances as well. FvF shows what movies can be, and experiencing them as the director intended is a cinema luxury indeed.
    Cheers,

    John Bishop
    President b/a/s/
    EVP Mavericks Architectural Cinema div James Loudspeaker
    Director Cinema Experience Engineering RAYVA Theaters

    February 18, 2020 at 5:36 pm