Small touches for great sound design

Big bangs and booms are the quickest way to catch a viewer’s attention. Yet, in the midst, mixers and designers can find moments to work in small details that add to a scene’s realism. I am always on the prowl for those small details that give that slight lift. This is something I like to do – turning location ambient into effect. In The Maid, when Rosa Dimanno, the main character goes underneath the ‘wayang’ opera stage to look for a football, the ambient music of the troupe on stage takes a ghostly turn. Every few bars, I added a subtle low beat. So subtle that it is not really heard but ‘felt’. Then, slowly, I add on more ‘other worldly’ cues letting the music climax. At the point just when the ghost child makes his appearance, I removed all the ambient for the length of a heartbeat, followed by the big ‘bang’… a mixture of samples and recorded material. However, that said, I always do an A-B comparison to see if it is necessary, whether it adds to the story. If it comes across as trying to be clever and not adding anything to the scene, I will throw it out. At the end of the day, it is all about levels, pans and placement. To me a great mix is when the viewer gets into the story, and doesn’t pause to even notice that gunshot, or that scream. It should and must be very natural without questions asked. You don’t want to create a veil between the audience and the characters by playing something too loud or being obvious. You want to support the energy and the tension in the room. More than adding layers to sounds, many are finding they have to add sounds to a score. Quite often, music is going to carry the film so the challenge is not to try to figure out how to poke through (the score), but how to complement it in a way that makes it better. Apart from adding layers to sounds, I also add sound to a score. Or else, I will hear what the sound designer has done and wrap the score around his work. It is a must that both complement each other. Otherwise you will end up with material that ‘fight’ each other and cancel each other out. One of the musical ideas for Rule #1 was to use ‘world music’ instruments, hints of frame drums and various other instruments and samples from other continents. It is to lend the musicscape a sense of ‘otherness’ that mainstream audiences may find alien yet familiar. Likewise, in the plane of existence that our two protagonists operate (they see ghosts and hunt down the ‘possessed’), I wanted to create a musical representation of the unholy world they are in. I drew inspiration from anti-music heroes that I was, and still am a fan of, like Einstùrzende Neubauten and Suicide. Besides the usual reverb, panning and levels, it is also about bearing to what’s on screen. Directors need to understand that a great sound job doesn’t necessarily have to include dialogue, effects and music all playing at the same time. What tends to produce a powerful sound sequence is figuring out how to gracefully pass the ball back and forth from one department to another, rather than using all of your arsenal of weapons firing all at the same time.

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