It won’t be hard to find great directors who talk about the many general and specific aspects of cinema in their interviews.
How a movie is composed; what or who’s shown in a frame; how they’re presented, as well as the many things one can do with visuals, are topics that have been covered endlessly.
But let’s not forget that we can similarly lay a narrative tapestry through sound.
First Things First
It’s not surprising to see how some established film creators proudly break basic sound principles to highlight an effect.
However, unless the creative take is really worth it, or the scene calls for it, it’s good to keep standard audio practices in mind.
Especially if you’re still getting your feet wet in production.
Low dialogue volume, to the point of incoherent mumbling, will likely ruin a scene more than low resolution video quality ever will.
Wasting an actor or actress’s well-delivered dialog, due to a poor mix balance, is time and money wasted.
Speaking parts as well as background music; and everything in between, will be all the better with basic audio leveling.
All that said, cinema is a creative endeavor, and you’ll have ample room for experimentation once you have your fundamentals set.
Now, What is Sound Design?
From silent film live scores, to pioneering female director, Alice Guy-Blaché’s sound-synced films; Don Juan, and the eventual release of The Jazz Singer— sound has historically played a vital role alongside film visuals.
Sound design in movies, to put it simply, is a purposeful use of created or sourced sound to tell a story.
The grandest movies are, after all, multi-layered, and each layer is must be doing something to enhance the film.
Since the term Sound Designer was first credited to Oscar winning Editor and Sound Expert, Walter Murch, it’s apt to try and define the art of sound design through the film that got him wearing this badge.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Beginning with The End
The distorted sound of helicopters, and a Huey pass by.
A peaceful jungle slowly gets enveloped in fog, while an erratic but inviting guitar line builds up.
Percussive elements appear, and after another mangled helicopter sound — a dark thick bass line follows.
Tambourine rattles slither through the track, while Jim Morrison sings “This is the end, beautiful friend.”
This vocal is timed to appear as the Vietnamese jungle gets napalmed into oblivion.
As the music keeps on playing, we slowly get a superimposed frame of the main character, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen).
This historic opening scene is perfection due to the part played by ‘The End,‘ a ‘The Doors‘ track that lifts this superimposition-relying opener to greater heights.
It suggests Willard’s familiarity with the horrors, as well as the allure of war and destruction.
And without dabbling into anything too concrete, the lyrics also give hints of things to come.
The song is a wonderful example of great basic sound design under the non-diegetic category.
The Difference Between Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sound
Anytime you hear sounds that originate from the film’s world, it’s diegetic.
This includes character dialog, music heard by the characters in the story, sound effects, and basically every perceptible audio within the movie’s universe.
Conversely, those times you hear audience intended narration, background sound (The End), and other audio elements that’s outside of the film’s reality, is non-diegetic.
Note: Internal monologues, or voices that only the characters can hear are diegetic.
Going back to the film.
Before the image of Captain Willard’s face is put into focus, a ceiling fan gets superimposed.
Accompanying this visual is the sound of whirring helicopter blades instead of the expected ceiling fan audio.
It implies that the captain’s senses perceive the world differently due to his experience as a soldier.
If we use the cut from Willard’s face to the fan as indication, the militaristic sound of helicopter blades is likely an acknowledged part of the world.
The aforementioned is a smoothly transitioned example of diegetic sound.
There are a lot of situations where the line gets blurred, and it’ll be an interesting discussion for another time.
Making Environments Believable
Every little thing counts in making a film; sound is especially crucial.
Past the dialog and the film soundtrack, there are many details you can use to build the film world.
Clear audio choices that represent what a scene is trying to convey is imperative.
Footsteps, background shouts, explosions, crackling fire.
Characters talking over each other.
Or even the sound of crickets as an internal monologue unravels.
Sound can be tweaked to complement or contrast the visual to help the viewing audience immerse themselves into every scene.
Of course, not everything has to be obvious.
Early on in Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard enters a room filled with his superiors.
Gentle piano music plays in the background, similar to the kind you’d hear in old restaurant scenes.
When the uniformed superior first talks with Willard, things are normal only until the introductions are done.
A line of questioning becomes an interrogation, and a power imbalance between the shifty-eyed Willard and the rest of the men in the room happens.
Tensions are diffused only when one of the uniformed superiors invite Willard to sit and eat with them.
The piano music in this situation could have possibly been a subtle foreshadow of what Captain Willard was about to experience.
A sit-down food affair to disarm, in exchange for his task to assassinate Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando).
Meet Colonel Kurtz
Moments after Willard sits with his superiors, and as he makes sense of the unfolding lunch on display, he is shown a picture of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.
Then, a tape is played with a recording of his soon-to-be target.
What is impeccable about this is that the character introduction gives a feel of what kind of person Colonel Kurtz could be through eerie tape noises that are heard even before he speaks.
Thanks to the defining tape sound, the movie’s characters (and the audience) are drawn into Kurtz’s world from the time the tape is played until the player is switched off.
Helicopter Talk: Huey
Not long after the playback, a superior describes Kurtz as insane.
We are once again introduced to helicopter sounds.
There’s a reason why there are many of these spread throughout the film.
As Walter Murch himself states: “There was a lot of discussion between George [Lucas, the original director] and me, and between us and John Milius, who was writing the script, that what made Vietnam different and unique was that it was the helicopter war. Helicopters occupied the same place in this war that the cavalry used to.”
The way this is sewn into the fabric of the film is a masterclass in sound design.
And this helicopter fascination translated to the widely known pop-culture ingrained siege.
Note: The Bell UH-1 Iroquois Huey models were used in the film. The same helicopters used by U.S. troops in the Vietnam War.
Ride of the Valkyries
Who knows what Wilhelm Richard Wagner would think regarding the use of his piece.
One of the strongest ideas for Apocalypse Now was to borrow influences from the four horsemen of the apocalypse and what the source Valkyries may have actually represented.
The powerful scene of soldiers who change looks from uncertain faces to very much in the moment glee of mindless killing is a revelation.
This change happens right after Wagner’s piece is played from the helicopter.
Wagner’s celebratory music highlighted a visual of the manic U.S. soldiers that Coppola, Murch, and team were not afraid to show in a bad light.
The American soldiers aggression were a strict contrast to the Vietnamese victims and protectors, who were on the defensive.
Choosing this specific Wagner piece, might have also been a political statement.
The way it was used contrasted to D.W. Griffith’s more controversial music usage for Birth of a Nation.
The Path to Killing a Man
Ricocheting bullets, dropped guns, and shot flares were all standard audio.
The long journey to reach Colonel Kurtz provided many of the dangers that killed some of Captain Willard’s soldiers.
Fire extinguishers and a soldier’s percussive background for Willard’s internal monologue was brilliantly done.
Once Captain Willard and his remaining soldiers got close, a standout synthesizer piece, comprised of droning and creaky eccentricities ensured an otherworldly transition to the last leg of their journey.
The End of the River
It’s stark how quiet the last part of the movie is compared to the beginning and the middle.
When people say there is silence in death, the sound team might’ve ran with it.
Colonel Kurtz’s Camp with the sight of death all around is chilling.
While the population of his followers are sizable, the solemness of the place’s soundscape is maintained to a bare minimum.
The people do not talk, and only the sound of birds, flies, and other insects serve as background.
And when Captain Willard and Colonel Kurtz finally have a proper face to face, crackling fire is a constant while the sound of water on Kurtz’s face is given space to shine.
The line, “They told me that you had gone totally insane,” is beautifully matched with the sound of Kurtz’s all-knowing head rub.
Eventually, silence is dropped in favor of the upbeat. Willard starts his move to execute his mission together with an animalistic non-diegetic soundtrack; a wonderful audio bookend to match the beginning of the film.
Why You Should Learn Film Audio
If there’s a shared link between great movies, it’s got to be the intent to send a message.
Sound can be as potent for communicating emotion as any of the other elements that make a film work.
It is a territory that’s ripe for potential, with plenty of unexplored or underutilized areas to navigate.
Studying film sound is just as important as learning the video side of things.
It may even give your films the sharp edge you needed all along.
Note: See short documentary on the Apocalypse Now sound design here.