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Frank Kruse About Orchestrating Sound Effects

In this presentation, sound designer Frank Kruse talks about his work as a sound designer and sound editor. He uses examples from the films Cloud Atlas and Rush.

Frank Kruse - about screenplays

The work method depends on the director, of course. When I work with Tom Tykwer, for example, I will receive a script early on, quite often while it's still being written.

Tom is one of the few directors who assembles a team early on in the process. So you're quite involved in the process from the start.

Frank Kruse - about the process of film sound editing

Usually you won't get a call until the film is well under way. This means the clock is ticking right away and you will have to work like crazy to meet the demands of the schedule.

Frank Kruse - about the term 'sound design'

Many people do not understand the meaning of the term 'sound design': they think all you need to do is sync up the sound and underscore what happens in the picture. You can, of course, do this but it is not what defines a sound editor's or sound designer's work.

Film is always about telling stories and supporting the plot. You can, therefore, drop the occasional line of dialogue because you don't need to verbalise everything that happens on screen. Otherwise it feels like a filmed stage play. But for me, film is very different from theatre. I will always aim to maximise the potential of each channel of the medium.

Frank explains that the Supervising Sound Editor is the connecting link between the sound team, the director, producer(s), picture editor(s), composer, and other collaborators in the film production chain. He collects and re-directs the suggestions from various departments and distributes them to other members of the sound team.

A minimal sound editing crew would consist of a single dialogue editor and a foley editor (i.e. someone who will process and edit the recordings from the foley artists), as well as a sound effects editor.

Sometimes a team consists of only two people; in documentary filmmaking, the sound team might just be one person. It all depends on the circumstances.

Embedding audio post-production during pre-production

Frank Kruse - about the process of sound editing for film

It is also important not to lose sight of the 'bigger picture'. If you are busy editing footsteps and movements all day long, you occasionally need someone to tell you that your ideas are great but might not work within the context of the entire film for a number of reasons.

The communication and cooperation between director and picture editor is absolutely key for the sound editing to work. There needs to be a constant exchange of ideas.

Frank Kruse - about the process of sound editing for film

The widely held notion of the sound designer working inside his/her own bubble is one of the reasons why films rarely progress and instead stagnate at a certain level.

So far Frank has been very lucky to collaborate with great picture editors who welcomed suggestions from the sound team. Seeing eye to eye helps generate ideas and suggestions, which ultimately lead to a better film.

Frank Kruse - about embedding post-production in pre-production

As I am generally already on board with Tom Tykwer during pre-production, I can point out certain specialties about the script or the prep to the production sound mixer. I can make sure that the sound mixer will get enough time to record certain things. So it's important that directors have this at the back of their minds before shooting begins. If you wait until the shoot starts, you will be lost; the high stress levels and the time pressure make it impossible to organise anything during that period. Planning is everything!

Frank Kruse - about embedding post-production in pre-production

If it is not possible for the production sound mixer to make additional recordings, I will drive out to the set and record those things separately.

Frank Kruse - about embedding post-production in pre-production

I find it a very pleasant way of working when there are no images available yet and you can imagine the sounds of the film purely on the basis of the script.

For Cloud Atlas, Frank was able to think about the atmospheres in the film one month prior to the end of principal photography. This approach often yields fantastic ideas because they are not tied to any pre-existing images.

Frank Kruse - about embedding post-production in pre-production

You will never get the same freedom again of being able to think about the sound before the first edited version of the film arrives. Because as soon as it does, the time pressure becomes immense, and each scene has to be a precision landing, so to speak.

Finding a common language to talk about sound.

At 13:30, Frank mentions a very important topic. Many non-audio people struggle to find the right words when describing sounds or noises. This is particularly true if a director has difficulties expressing his/her ideas in regard to the sound, in which case a common language needs to be found.

To find that common language when working together with a director for the first time, Frank begins by working out a suggestion for a scene. This suggestion might be deliberately provocative and exaggerated in order to evoke a reaction from the director. Based on the suggestion and the director's reaction to it, a general plan of action might be established. Even if the suggestion is a complete miss, it will still help find the right direction for the film and for the collaboration with its director.

Frank Kruse about music vs. sound

Creating an audio track is very similar to composing music. Hence the title of Frank's presentation: the orchestration of sounds.

When mixing music and sound for a film, you have to decide which element is most important for the story. In other words: which element of the soundtrack helps best explain or underscore the narrative. In order for one element to be more prominent on the audio track, the other element has to be lowered in volume or even eliminated.

Again, this is where team work comes into play. When music and sound overlap, the music might have to be altered because the sound has to be in sync with the picture and hence cannot be moved. If the music is more important for the narrative, other sounds should be 'backgrounded' or even eliminated.

Frank Kruse about the film Rush

Ron Howard said he wanted to make this film for Formula 1 racing fans as well. Even hardcore fans should be able to recognise that the sound of the racing cars is authentic.

As all racing scenes were shot MOS, i.e. without sound, the audio tracks had to be created entirely in post-production. As mentioned above, Frank stresses the importance of the production sound mixer's contribution to the success of a film. The vintage racing cars were only available once for the recordings, as they needed extensive maintenance after each race. Luckily, the production sound mixer was a big Formula 1 racing fan and managed to make some truly beautiful recordings of the cars.

Frank Kruse - about creating the car racing sounds in Rush

Formula 1 cars do not produce a great number of interesting sounds, which makes them a bit one-dimensional. This realisation led the sound team to the conclusion that the story could not be told through the engines. Even when the cars sped up, their engines sounded relatively monotonous.

The challenge, then, was to make these cars come alive somehow. It's one thing to stand next to the race track with your trouser legs fluttering in the breeze——but in a movie theatre these extreme sound levels cannot be reproduced.

The goal, therefore, was to replicate the subjective experience of a race for the film's soundtrack.

Frank demonstrates this with the film clip at 32:00.

At 34:50, Frank shows us another nice example of how he solved a sound problem: at the start of the race scene, a racing car with a running engine is in the foreground. The racing car's engine keeps revving rather noisily but the focus of the scene is actually on a man behind the vehicle. The exhaust emitted by the car helps visualise the revving engine; notice how the sounds of the car are placed in the pauses between dialogues. The clouds of exhaust are deliberately placed to underscore the revving noise and, therefore, the scene's realism.

At 43:00, Frank plays a clip from the final race in the film. Frank first plays a clip from the complete sequence including all audio tracks; at 46:20, he plays only the effects track. This is an impressive demonstration of just how many special sounds are used in this sequence.

All of these sounds bring across the insanity of racing such high-powered vehicles in the rain.

These special sounds are barely noticeable in combination with all the other audio tracks. In other words, they blend in naturalistically. Although these sounds and noises don't occur in real life, they nevertheless help bring across the physical experience of the race.

Frank Kruse about Cloud Atlas

Frank Kruse about Cloud Atlas

Tom Tykwer hates to use layout sounds. That's why we were working with the final product from the beginning. It was absolutely essential for me to be part of the project right from the beginning.

In order to work like this and to communicate more easily, Frank moved his edit suite into the same building as the picture editor and the director. This facilitated communication between all involved parties.

Frank Kruse about communication

Even lengthy Skype conference calls and meetings rarely yield the sort of information you really need; nothing beats a three-second conversation in the kitchenette.

Merging the offices gave me the advantage of being able to have off-the-cuff conversations with Tom whenever he was in the hallway; these micro-meetings gave me better information and feedback than on any other production.

Frank's office was right next to that of picture editor Alex Berner. This facilitated communication between the two departments, as there was simply no other way to create the many transitions and transformations in the movie.

Frank Kruse about communication

Merging offices also brought the added benefit of working very closely with picture editor Alex Berner. We sat together in the evenings and loaded new sounds into the Avid and watched the film together. This triggered many ideas we would not have otherwise had.

The interlinking of the story with the various time periods and transitions was an important aspect his work on Cloud Atlas. At 1:32:00, Frank shows a clip that transports viewers rhythmically through three different time periods. The horse's hooves turn into a the rhythm of a train, before the scene flashes back to the young man who used to ride the steam train on the same stretch.

Walter Murch Filmsound Articles

Walter Murch explains the key principles of sound editing

Walter Murch - Sound Designer

The important thing is to have a concept of what you're doing not throwing sound in the film and seeing what will stick

Sound editing on feature films usually relies on a great number of sounds and noises that need to be added or replaced. But why?

Sounds need to create a mood. They can steer a scene in a particular direction.

Walter Murch about the funeral scene in 'The Godfather' (approx. at 2:20)

For the funeral scene in The Godfather I used the sound of a truck that I had recorded previously. The truck was driving through a narrow, quiet valley and because it had a damaged tire it was making a rhythmically pulsating and whirring sound.

The funeral scene in The Godfather is without music and without dialogue. So I dug up the whirring truck sound and used it as a background. This very distant, whirring and singing sound is the only truly distinct sound in this scene. Other than that, nothing much happens. But this noise creates a certain tension: you know something will happen.

Walter Murch about sounds and emotions

Walter Murch - Emotions guide us 3.00

We who do sound know if we add this kind of sound, then the audience is going to feel a certain way about a scene and not be able to tell why they are feeling that.

At 3:41 Walter explains how he used sound to bridge a transition between two scenes. The scene in question, from Apocalypse Now, is at 3:25 in the video. Walter used the howling noise of a helicopter rotor starting up and put it over Colonel Kilgore's speech. The starting noise of the rotor sounds like a siren at first but then swells to a howling noise, perfectly underscoring the soldiers' tension and anxiety; it creates a nervous feeling about the coming battle.

From a logical point of view, this starting noise makes no sense at all because the helicopter is not actually in the scene during Kilgores 'Charlie don't surf' speech on the eve of the attack; the soldiers are lounging around, getting drunk, and the helicopters are nowhere to be seen.

But for the mood of the scene the sound is vital in creating a tension and, more importantly, a seamless transition to the next scene: a temporal bridge between two events. The tension is resolved once we see the rows of helicopters lined up in the morning, rotor blades whirring and ready for battle.

Walter Murch about mixing film sound

In this short video, Walter Murch explains the process of mixing film sound. Don't let the running time fool you, though: Walter covers some highly complex theories in the short span of this video.

Walter Murch is not only a brilliant sound designer, he is also a scientist and spends a lot of time reflecting on the perception of sound and its propensities. The video gives a good general idea of the topic. More detailed information about the layering and mixing of sounds is available beyond this video. Walter Murch demonstrates how the creation and mixing of an audio track go hand in hand, using examples from films like Godfather and Apocalypse Now. He also wrote an article about the above-mentioned attack scene from Apocalypse Now: 'Dense Clarity - Clear Density'. Please click on the link below to read it.

Walter Murch - about the dialogue track - 1:49

The dialogue is like the spine of the film. The goal is: every word is understandable.

Film mixing is both an art and a craft: a re-recording mixer needs empathy and imagination to (re-)create sounds for an entire film.

Example: Apocalypse Now - 'Ride of the valkyries' air raid sequence

Starting at 2:28, Walter Murch explains the process of mixing complicated scenes, using the helicopter attack from Apocalypse Now. This famous sequence is highly complex, containing a multitude of sound layers, such as music, dialogue, helicopters, shots, and explosions.

All of these individual elements were expertly pre-mixed to make sure they would blend in with each other. However, when all these layers were added up, the result was not a nice, transparent mix but a pure cacophony of undistinguishable noise. None of the individual elements were audible anymore. In other words, it was a disaster.

Walter Murch - Apocalypse Now - Mixing the helicopter attack (2:54)

They just collapse in a big ball of noise...

As Walter explains at 3:00, the solution to the problem was to focus on the two most important sound elements in each sequence, i.e. in the first sequence: helicopters and music; the next sequence: helicopters and dialogue, or music and gunshots, etc.

You can watch the finished scene at 3:12. Again, it is helpful to listen to the sequence several times and listen to the individual sound elements according to Walter's explanation.

Walter Murch - Apocalypse Now - Mixing the helicopter attack (3:07)

Let's concentrate on the two most important things: helicopters and music. Anything else will just pull back. You could see people firing guns but you don't hear them.
In the next section, it is guns and helicopters but no music.

Your impression is that everything was happening all of the same time but, in fact, that is not really what's happening.

Try to focus solely on the music during the helicopter sequence: you will notice that it is actually absent during some of the sequences. The overall impression, however, is that it plays throughout the scene. Walter explains the phenomenon as such:

Walter Murch - Apocalypse Now - Mixing the helicopter attack 3:54

As a mixer, you allow the audience to see the forest and the trees simultaneously, to get the big picture of what's going on. And the mind is imagining sounds that aren't really there.

I discovered that the mind likes that kind of stuff.

NOTICE: Walter Murch wrote about this phenomenon in his article, 'Dense Clarity - Clear Density', in which he describes in detail how he mixed this sequence and how his theory applies to it.

Another interesting example is a moment in the film Jarhead: in order to illustrate how traumatic the experience of war is for Jake Gyllenhall's character, Murch removed the loud noise of the explosions and the screaming of the soldiers.

Walter Murch - Jarhead 4:23

The sound is trying to give you a sense of what something feels like rather than what it 'hears' like. But our only tool to do that is through what you hear.

The emotional effect on this soldier comes through the situation he is in and the decision to suppress all of these other sounds and just hear these tiny, tiny, individual blips of sound which are the grains of sand hitting his face.

More links on the topic:

Walter Murch article: Dense Clarity - Clear Density