Sound Design

Before I launch into this, perhaps I should explain that this post is about the design of sound on film, not good design (sound, in some parts of the UK, was/is a slang term for good), anyway, back in the heady days of my final year at university, we were given two choices for our dissertation: write 10,000 words or make a film and write 5,000 words. I, as did many, went for the latter option. So, in groups of four, we set about conceiving and making a short film. We all took production roles, ones where we had an interest.

I took on sound.

By which I mean that, with the exception of the occasional boom operator, I was the sound department. I recorded the sound while shooting, did foley, got native background tracks and spot effects, and then edited it all together to make one track with the sole intent of being invisible. That’s what sound is primarily designed to be, invisible. It’s there, along with the picture, to make a believable setting. It has plenty of other uses, don’t get me wrong, though few people use it to it’s full potential. I vaguely remember writing an essay discussing why sound was equal to picture when it came to a film (trust me, it’s an overlooked aspect of filmmaking, many low budget films underestimate it’s importance and come away the worse for it). It’s very strange to have a goal of not getting noticed. I remember sitting through the final screening wincing at every spot where the sound stood out a mile off, only to have my director assure me it was fine. (There is a scene where a kid draws in the condensation of a window, for which I spent hours in my bathroom alternately turning the shower on and off, then recording short bursts of squeaky sounds as I drew in the condensation. Then I had to try and sync these with the picture, in the end I abandoned it at a stage where it worked, but wasn’t perfect -- it was driving me slowly nuts). I haven’t seen it since, so I can’t say that distance has helped lessen my fears.

Anyway, a result of this is that I pay more attention to the soundtrack of a film than most people do. So, it is with some annoyance I noticed the sound departments on some big movies getting a little lax. As I said, when ordinary sounds stand out, it’s bad, when they’re obviously wrong, that’s bad, so when I noticed the same sound being used on at least two big blockbusters, both badly, I knew it was time to break my silence (no pun intended).

The two movies in which I know it happens are Die Another Day and Terminator 3. It’s not only them, I’ve seen others which use a sound that is very similar if not identical, and equally bad. The sound in question is a metal door opening. It occurs shortly after the title sequence in Die Another Day, when Bond is brought before the Korean General. In T3 it appears when they are entering Crystal Peak to try and destroy SkyNet, shortly before Arnie blows up the TX. In both cases it obviously doesn’t suit the door, the circumstances or the sound volume. In fact, it sounds like something out of a first-person video game. These are big movies, done by professionals, why use what I assume to be some cheap effects CD sounds?

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