The importance of sound design in your films.

It’s almost October, the beginning of the Halloween season. Which means we are about to be bombarded with a whole new set of horror flick trailers; designed to raise the hair on the back of your neck.

Admittedly, you may not be one for horror movies. Thin plots, generic characters, and production values that put effect before affect—they can leave a lot to be desired.

There is one thing that horror films–particularly their trailers–do exceptionally well. A little too well actually!


And more importantly, the design of it.

George Lucas is quoted as saying,

“I feel that sound is half the experience,” 

And with each new horror film trailer, it’s incredibly apparent just how true that sentiment is. They show us that a carefully constructed soundscape can force you to let go and feel a primordial rush of adrenaline while sitting safely in the comfort your living room.

Those jerks! Or, those wizards?

It's dangerously easy to think of filmmaking as a visual medium—don't. You can almost always tell the difference between an amateur film and a professional one just by closing your eyes and listening to the story.

Most of us aren’t making horror films or trailers for them. It’s also easy to think that these types of movies overcompensate on sound to make up for several things they lack—story being the most prominent. And, while that may be true–the sound design in this type of film can show us a ton about sound in any film. Primarily we have an incredible amount of control in how we make our viewers feel—and it’s not entirely, or even largely based, on our visuals.

As visual storytellers, we always have to think about how to bring a story to life—to make an experience undeniably engaging for an audience—and sound design is one of the most important, but often overlooked, ways we can do just that.

To quote George Lucas again,

“Filmmakers should focus on making sure the soundtracks are really the best they can possibly be because in terms of an investment, sound is where you get the most bang for your buck.”

How does the importance of audio apply to the types of films you create?

Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Sound

So how do these masters of sound design do it? Well to start, there are two types of sound used in filmmaking: diegetic and non-diegetic. 

Diegetic sounds seem to occur naturally within the film – they happen on screen or are implied to exist just out of the frame.

Non-diegetic are those that don’t naturally occur on set – sounds like narration or voice over, sound effects for dramatic/comic effect, or even soundtrack.

Now, let's use our collaborative film, created with 34 filmmakers, “To the Makers and Artists”—a far more relatable film than most horror films—and breakdown how we arrived at the sound design to make you feel the story more than just the visuals would allow for.

In terms of sound we might first be struck by the non-diegetic sound.

Sure there is a poetic voice over and a soundtrack to draw us into the rhythm of the piece.  

But if we really want to understand the sound design of this piece we need to think about how to break it down into its parts—to get a sense of how much sound goes into making a piece like this feel inspiring.

Take another look. How would this film feel if we had included only voiceover and soundtrack?

Here, we've removed the sound design.

Flat, right?

That’s because we’ve used only non-diegetic sound, or non-naturally occurring sounds. You only hear what is being told to you by the music and poetry—you’re not hearing what you’re seeing.

It’s a very disconnected viewing experience.

Now, we’re not saying that every film, or even every part of a film, needs diegetic sound.

Like any storytelling tool—just as you can use something to push a certain feeling, you can also remove it to push in the opposite direction.

The lack of diegetic sounds is a great storytelling technique if you want your audience to feel removed the scene or film. You’ll often see this technique used in dream sequences, or when you want to create a feeling of dissociative – something so difficult or emotional that you need to provide your audience with the space to remove itself from what is happening on screen.

However in ‘To the Makers and Artists’ we don’t want our viewers to feel detached from the action. We want them to feel like they are inside the act of creation. To feel inspired.

If we watch this piece with just the sound design we can start to separate out what sound design does for our piece.

And here, we just have the sound design.

Having watched the film this way we are more connected to the piece—there are the sounds that we might truly notice missing from the film: the band saw, the lighting of the blowtorch, the water swishing in the bucket.

That is how integral sound is to our understanding of the way the world works—our senses are so closely tied that our brains will try to fill in the gaps to keep up it’s understanding of the world. Observant viewers will notice the absence of diegetic sounds. 

More often than not, we don’t want people to have to work very hard to feel like they’re inside of the film they are watching.

And even for a non-observant viewer, seeing a blowtorch lit without hearing the gas running and the pop of the ignition, would leave a glaring hole and sense of discontinuity in our film.

Adding Your Sound Beds

Now that we’ve taken care of those big sound pieces, we can start adding environmental or ambient sounds that exist beneath our film's action—we often refer to these as sound beds.

The average viewer probably won’t notice the absence of crickets chirping in the beginning of our film before the door to the workshop opens. But the film simply won’t be as rich or as engaging—it won't be an inviting place that the audience can settle into.

We’ve broken our film into in its parts, now let’s go back and listen to it as a completed piece again. This time listen for all the layers that make the film not into only into a delightful visual landscape but as soundscape.

Better yet, close your eyes and just listen to it. See how many of the layers you can pick up as you listen.

From a film that alienated our viewers to one that brings them in the emotion and feeling of making something by hand—all by just adding a mix of diegetic and non-diegetic sound.

What a difference, right?

George Lucas was on to something when he discussed just how important sound is to our experience with film. 

Wondering where to start with recording incredible sound beds for your own films? Check out our post “Sound Affects. 5 Ways to Capture Better Audio Right Now.”

Be sure to join Storytelling Parade to win incredible prizes from Rode, our friends who make capturing incredible sound easy and affordable. We’re giving away entire boom setups, featuring:

and of our favorite on camera microphone:

Seen any films or trailers recently that have incredible sound design? Share them with us in the comments below.

David Singer