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Sound Design in Motion Pictures
Case Study: Jurassic Park
Although it might seem that motion pictures are primary visual in nature (notice that we call them moving “pictures”), sound is, and has always been an integral part of the movies. Even in the silent movie era, movies were not completely silent. The music that was played along with the movie was necessary and effective to create the mood for each scene and alert the viewer to important events. Today we have music, but also sound effects and dialogue. All sounds taken together and the way they are integrated together is known as sound design. In this paper, I will explore the different steps and facets of sound design, using examples from the movie Jurassic Park.
There are seven basic steps in designing the sound in a motion picture: deciding what sounds are needed, collecting raw sounds, editing and manipulating the sounds, adding them to the visual, revising them, mixing them down, and delivering the project.
The first step, deciding what sounds will be needed, occurs during a screening of the already-completed visual, known as a spotting session. Sound design is a completely post-production process, meaning that all of the photography and editing on the video portion of the movie has been finished. The sound designer watches the film with the director and lists all sounds which will have to be made. In Jurassic Park, necessary sounds included helicopters, jeeps, computers, gates, birds, electric shocks, all footsteps, and of course, the dinosaur sounds. Sounds are broken up into several types, each of which is often worked on by a different person or group of people.
Foley sounds are recreated in a studio environment. Foley artists watch the scene and imitate the actors’ movements on film to record the sounds. Sounds such as footsteps, rustling clothing, sounds made interacting with objects, etc. are made in the foley room. Many times the thing which actually makes the sound bears little resemblance to the thing seen causing the sound on the screen. For example, the sound of the baby dinosaur egg breaking in Jurassic Park was created by a foley artist breaking a waffle cone mixed with a gooey sound made by squishing around the inside of a cantaloupe.
Hard sound effects (or hard SFX, also known as principal SFX) are the sounds which are indispensable to the telling of the story. They highlight important events, or are in a prominent position in the scene or story. Noises like doors slamming, cars starting, and animals are examples. In Jurassic Park, elements such as the helicopter, the electric shock as the boy is thrown off the fence, and the jeep scraping on the ground as the T-Rex shoves it could be added. Generally the head sound designer is responsible for the hard SFX.
Production sound is recorded at the scene of the shoot. This type of sound can be very helpful, especially in getting the proper ambient and room sound (see below). However, it can be difficult to obtain due to external noise.
Background or ambient sound refers to the general sounds occurring that set the mood or place the setting. These sounds are not synched with the visuals, and can include birds chirping in a jungle, or typewriter noise in a newsroom; pretty much anything that one would hear if one were in the place where the scene is set.
After the sound designer has decided which sounds are needed, he must collect raw material for those sounds not provided by the foley artists or the production recorder. There are several ways to collect raw sounds.
Field recording is actually going out and recording brand-new sounds outside of a studio. Most of the sounds used for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were acquired in this manner. Park designer Gary Rydstrom wanted the movie to have a completely new sound, and used very few canned sounds; rather, he had his assistant Bill Boyes take his microphone and recorder out and record all the animal sounds he could. Director Steven Spielberg had been very adamant that the dinosaurs sound like animals.
The problem with field recording is that unwanted noise can often seep into the recording—wind can blow on the microphone, or a plane might fly overhead. This problem can sometimes be solved by using a different mic, but if that still doesn’t give a clean enough sound, studio recording is the next step. In this scenario, sounds are recorded in a controlled studio atmosphere, guaranteeing that they will be noise-free.
The easiest way to gather sounds is to pull them from a commercial sound effects library. These sounds have already been put together, and include several different forms of many sounds. On the downside, the sounds are not original, so the exact same sounds may have been used by others. Of course, the sound editor can manipulate them to sound very different if he wants.
Once all of the sounds have been gathered, they are transferred into a computer for organizing, manipulating, and editing. There are many, many modifications that can be made to sounds using programs such as Pro Tools. I won’t go into too much detail here; simply note that the amount of processing and manipulating necessary varies from project to project varies significantly, based on the type and tone of the movie (a sci-fi movie will need more effects processing to create far-out sound effects than a romantic comedy) and the quality of the original recordings. Jurassic Park is a little bit of a mixture of the two. On one hand, it is a story grounded in the here and now, and most of the scenes involve very normal, everyday sounds. On the other hand, there are dinosaurs in it. Since no one knows what dinosaurs sounded like, Rydstrom was given a certain amount of freedom to create his sounds—and some of them are very surprising indeed.
For the dilophosaur (the spitter) a combination of swan calls, hawk and rattlesnake noises, and howler monkey screams were used. The swan calls came when the dino was sort of feeling out the situation—they sounded rather quiet compared to the noises of other dinosaurs, almost cute and curious. However, when the dinosaur raised its neck ruff, hawk and rattlesnake took over, the rattlesnake sounding like the noise the ruff might have made. As the dinosaur screamed, the howler monkeys were added in, giving the sound a high-pitched timbre that sends chills down one’s spine.
The raptors, possibly the scariest dinosaur in the movie, were given the voices of two harmless marine animals: a dolphin and a walrus. Boyes was able to capture a dolphin whistle from underwater; a very shrill sound with a great deal of intensity. When a low-pitched walrus roar was added, the sound ended up being both shrill and guttural, giving the impression of a high-strung but very large and dangerous animal.
Some of the dinosaurs used sounds that are even closer to home. The gallimimus (those of the small herd of dinosaurs terrorized by the Tyrannosaurus Rex) made horse sounds. Most banal of all, the sound of the T-Rex flinging the gallimimus around was supplied by Rydstrom’s own dog playing with a chew rope. Anything can become a sound effect in a movie!
The next step is actually placing the sounds with the visual and matching them up. This is done in the computer program with each set of sounds on its own track, many of them with two tracks for stereo. Some more manipulation and sound adding may be done at this time, based on the needs of the visual. In editing Jurassic Park, Rydstrom noticed a moment when the T-Rex grabs a gallimimus and the gallimimus looks up pleadingly at the T-Rex. He found the most poignant whinny he could find and placed it in that spot.
After the editor has gone over the integrated project many times to get everything as perfect as can be, it is time to mix the sound effects down with the dialogue and music. When this is finished, the soundtrack will be complete, with dialogue, music, and sound effects working together perfectly to augment the visuals of the motion picture—you hope. There is always the risk that dialogue, music, and sound effects will not mesh into the perfect whole as intended, but the more experienced the designers and composers are, the better a basic mix is likely to be. The main thing to remember in a mix is that the dialogue is the critical element. Effects and music are always secondary, and should never interfere with the dialogue (unless meant to for story purposes). A way to deal with ambient sounds under dialogue besides just keeping them softer is to keep the frequency range different from that of voices. That way, they won’t compete as strongly for the listener’s ears.
The overall purpose of sound design is to supplement and
enhance the story. Sound and visual must always work together for the
best results in motion pictures. As Jurassic Park sound designer
Gary Rydstrom declares in The Making of Jurassic Park: “There’s
a synergy that happens: if the visuals are working very well, then the
sound works well too. You can’t have one without the other, I think.
They create a whole that’s stronger than the parts.”
The Making of Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park DVD, Universal Studios, 2000.
Peck, Nick. "Sound by Design: Make Pictures Come to Life With Sound". Mix Magazine, 2001.
Foley Artists. Featurette on AMC, 2000.
Foley Artists. Jurassic Park DVD, Universal Studios, 2000.
This paper originated as a paper for Audio Production, Missouri Baptist College, Fall, 2001.
©2001 by Jandy Stone