Sound design for film, TV, and commercials is a craft that is generally unfamiliar to casual viewers and those new to production. Sound design specialists are tasked with recording, acquiring, manipulating, and generating all of the sound effects and audio elements that support and enhance the visuals. It’s an important piece of the post production process and it adds another layer of depth to the viewer’s overall experience.
Francis Ford Coppola fashioned the term in 1979 to describe the work of Walter Murch, who provided the aural details in Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, which transported audiences deep into the jarring environment of the Vietnam War. “Sound designer” ultimately replaced positional names like ‘supervising sound editor’ or ‘re-recording mixer’ for what was basically the same position during the Hollywood studio era.
A sound designer works with two categories of sound: Diegetic and non-diegetic.
Diegetic sound is any sound presented as originating from within the film’s world. This includes elements like voices, sounds made by objects, or music represented as coming from instruments within the story space.
Non-diegetic sound is sound whose source is neither visible on screen, nor has it been implied to be present through the action. This includes elements like narration and sound effects that are added for the dramatic effect, or music soundtrack.
Sound effects is a generic term for what sound designers bring to the picture, but it really refers to a hierarchy of sound components including:
Hard sound effects.
These are sounds that are associated with an action or event but are not dependent on the performance of the sound such as car horns, gunshots and punches.
Background (or BG) sound effects.
These are sounds that provide a sense for the environment. It’s the ambiance and the surrounding noises that help a viewer easily identify and/or relate to the location on screen.
Foley sound effects.
These are sounds that are performed by a Foley artist, typically in sync with the action on screen and recorded in a proper Foley-stage or Foley-studio. This can include the swishing of clothing/fabric, footsteps, squeaky doors, and glass breaking. The process was born out of broadcast radio in the 1920s to help enhance live stories and then brought into mainstream filmmaking by Jack Foley who first applied the art to the movie Showboat in 1929.
Designed sound effects.
These are effects that are artificially created and used to heighten realism by giving sound to unreal objects. They are often necessary when the real sound is unavailable or too difficult to record. Sometimes they are the result of compositing a number of effects to create something totally unique. The effect is like a chord in music, a single sound built from a number of source sounds, which may have also been modified.
As filmmakers we have a responsibility to make the experience as engaging as possible for the audience. This often requires that we use every tool at our disposal, and sound design is one of the most effective tools we have.
Want to experience a master work in great sound design?
Enjoy the opening to the film Once Upon a Time in the West: