Making It Real

Making It Real and Making It Feel

When I was working on the Bob Zemeckis film Cast Away it was very difficult coming up with sounds for the waves on the beach when the Tom Hanks character is alone on the island. The sound recorded while they were shooting those beach scenes in Fiji was almost all useless. It was just the boring “noise” of constant wave breaking in all those shots. It sounded like a giant pink noise generator.

We had to invent a sound for every single wave...

So, we had to invent the sound for every single wave we see in the movie, as well as the hundreds that we don’t see. The waves needed to be a character in the movie, an interesting and totally believable character. It turned out that both the interesting aspect and the believable aspect were harder to achieve than I thought they would be. The sound of the waves needed to mirror the Hanks character’s emotions. When he was calm, they needed to be calm, and when they were intense, he was intense. Each wave also needed to present its own little story with a beginning, middle, and end.

I started the wave work by gathering all kinds of water sounds, not just waves. That’s because I knew from the beginning that I would need to build each wave with elements, not just go out and record real ocean waves. Though I did that too. At least a month was spent going up and down the West Coast of the USA collecting wave sounds, from huge ones to tiny ones. The holy grail was always waves that were hitting the beach at ninety degrees, pretty close to shore. In that situation you get a nice pause between each wave break during which you can hear the fizz of all the bubbles settling into the sand. I made lots of recordings where I focused mainly on getting that fizzing. Though I also faked some fizz elements with things like Alka Seltzer tablets in a studio.

I wanted to make each wave dynamic, changing over time in volume and timbre. Each needed to sound unique, but still in the same family as its neighbors. That’s the “feel” part of the character I was looking for.

But the sound for each wave we see in the movie, and we see lots of them, needed to feel real too. You’d think that waves would be easy to edit. Nope. That’s because each wave is different: different amounts of bubbles, different amounts of impact, different amounts of curl, etc. That’s why we had to design the sound for each wave individually in order to make it believable and real.

​An average wave we see in the movie was made of at least three or four elements. Everything from actual ocean beach waves to water being poured into a swimming pool (to get the watery “curl and flow” sound), to Alka Seltzer, to cannons firing and explosions for the big wave impacts, and beyond. Myself and the sound effects editors would pass wave sequences back and forth, and each person would contribute something new in each iteration that would help sell the sound. It was difficult, fun, and wound up getting us an Oscar nomination that year the following spring. It’s still hard for me to look at a real wave and avoid thinking about how I could improve its sound.

Storytelling Functions of Sound

When someone asks “What does sound do in a movie” most of us are at least a little confused about how to answer that question. Obviously both music and sound effects can make you feel a certain way. Sound effects can clearly add realism to a scene; make it more exciting, more mysterious, or funny. Same for music. But beyond those obvious jobs, it can be hard to specifically say what sound is doing.

Suggesting a Mood or Defining a Place

Here are some of sounds jobs. Very often a given sound will be doing two or more of these at the same time:
    - suggest a mood, evoke a feeling
    - set or modify a pace
    - indicate a geographical locale
    - indicate a historical period
    - indicate changes in time
    - connect otherwise unconnected ideas, characters, places, images, or moments
    - define a character
    - clarify the plot
    - heighten realism or diminish it
    - heighten ambiguity or diminish it
    - draw attention to a detail, or away from it
    - smooth otherwise abrupt changes between shots or scenes
    - emphasize a transition for dramatic effect
    - describe an acoustic space
    - startle or soothe
    - exaggerate action or mediate it
    - indicate the geography within a scene*

                          *(for example: most jungle shots look the same, but sound can tell us
                             who is where relative to the camera when we cut from one jungle
                             location to another two hundred feet away)

If two different sounds are competing while trying to accomplish any one of these jobs, that can be a red flag, because unless they are orchestrated well together, there’s a good chance that each is undercutting the impact of the other rather than each amplifying the other.

This often happens when music and sound effects are attempting to make essentially the same statement at the same time. One of the most difficult aspects of sound mixing is finding ways to feature one sound or set of sounds in each moment and shifting that focus so that the audience feels they are hearing everything they are supposed to be hearing.

​Simply playing every sound loud is usually a disaster unless the goal is to create a wall of noise, which sometimes it is.

Exploding Bridges and Bowling Pins

In Sam Wasson’s fantastic new book about Francis Coppola and American Zoetrope, he quotes Walter Murch ruminating on the sound of colliding bowling pins. I remember those pins well.
When the helicopters attack the village in “Apocalypse Now,” a wooden bridge gets blown up by American rockets. As one of Walter’s assistants, my main job for many months was finding sounds to use in the film. We didn’t have access to any of the big movie studio libraries, and there were pretty close to zero commercial sound libraries in those days, certainly none that had Vietnam War related sounds, so we had to go out and record a high percentage of the sound effects we needed for the film.

We could have found a large wooden structure to blow up

Walter showed me the sequence where the bridge is attacked, a section of it shattered. It looked like several tons of timbers and planks splintered and flying through the air, banging into each other. We had recorded lots of explosions for the movie… grenades, bombs, gasoline, etc., but nothing where big pieces of wood get exploded. We could have found a large wooden structure to blow up, but that would have been expensive, and there was no guarantee that we’d get the wood aspect that we wanted. Very little useful sound was recorded on set while they were shooting the movie. It was way too chaotic, so we had to invent nearly all of the sound in post production. To make the sound of that moment feel authentic, I needed to find woody elements to add to the basic explosion sounds we had already made in post.
I tried lots of things: trees being chopped down and falling, hitting wooden telephone poles with sledge hammers, throwing pieces of lumber around, etc. I think any of those sounds could have been useful layers, and a couple of them were helpful, but they didn’t quite sell the moment. I wracked my brain to come up with situations in which lots of pieces of wood collide with each other. The idea of bowling pins bubbled to the surface.
I suspected it could be a waste of time. Bowling pins are small compared to the size of the structural parts of the bridge in the movie. Bowling pins don’t typically shatter like that bridge wood did. And the sound of bowling pins is so identifiable and familiar… wouldn’t people in the audience recognize that sound immediately, and wonder why they were hearing a bowling alley in a battle scene?
What the heck, I spent about an hour recording in a San Francisco bowling alley. They let me put microphones in various places, including at the back of the alley, behind the pins. When I got the recordings to the studio, they definitely sounded woody, and it was cool that there were a bunch of hits in close time proximity, so I wouldn’t have to build a mass of them individual hit by individual hit. But to my ears they were so obviously bowling pins, and the sound of them felt too small to be elements of so large a bridge.

We didn’t have digital sound processing in those days, but we could make a recording on tape sound bigger by slowing down the tape playback speed, then transferring it at the slower speed. I played the bowling pin recordings at half speed and one quarter speed. Now the pins sounded like they were about ten feet tall. What wound up in the movie was a mix of regular speed, half, and quarter speed pins colliding. As to whether it’s too recognizable as bowling pins… the idea seems never to have occurred to anybody but me. I still hear that bowling alley when I watch the scene, as I did yesterday. To everybody else, it feels like we had microphones all over that bridge. Such is the power of sound design.

The Connoisseur of Mistakes

Great art depends on accidents and mistakes.

Most non artists think that a work of art begins with an imaginary, grand design, which is then made real by using the techniques the artist has developed. That’s not the way it usually happens. It’s certainly not the way interesting art usually happens.

In the beginning there is most often nothing, and more nothing, and nothing for hours, days, and sometimes weeks and months. There are scores or hundreds of false starts. Then, when something does pop into the artist’s head it isn’t anything close to a grand design. It’s usually an inkling, a notion, a fleeting feeling. It’s an unintentional smear in one corner of the same canvas the painter or sound designer has been fruitlessly fiddling with all along. But it suggests something. It’s a start, only an idea, a hunch, but nevertheless something concrete to work with.

You don't "invent" a sonic world...

People think that doing sound for animated films or for live action sequences that are mostly computer graphics must be especially challenging because it involves “inventing” a sonic world. Not really. For one thing it isn’t accurate to say we “invent” anything. We discover, and the distinction between inventing and discovering is very important. To “invent” or “create” implies something comes from nothing. In fact, what we do is to borrow, and then when we’re lucky we find a way to use the borrowed goods in a new, original way. For example, there is no doubt that Picasso appropriated images in African art for some of his most famous paintings. (
So, if “creating” is really about discovering something that is already there in a different or scattered form, then how best to do this discovering? You have to become a connoisseur of mistakes, accidents, and the unintentional. Very few people in human history have been so lucky and/or so brilliant that they actually invented anything. Even Einstein, coincidentally peaking about the same time as Picasso, borrowed from the work of many others as he developed his theories, but it was an “accidental” image of someone falling through air and not being able to feel his own weight that was probably the key to developing his theory of general relativity.

At the start of a project I learn as much as I can about what the director and writer have in mind in terms of the story, the characters, and places (they usually haven’t thought much at all about sound), and then I start randomly listening. I listen to sounds in the library and on the street, randomly. As I do it I’m not thinking “I need the sound of thunder,” I’m just skipping around from category to category listening to whatever pops up. Most of it won’t suggest any connection to the project I’m working on, but it usually only takes a few minutes of random listening until I stumble upon a sound that feels deeply connected to the project, and often it’s connected in a way I would never have anticipated if I had just started making a list of what kinds of sounds I thought the project needed. When I’m going about my daily life during the project, I try to be open to the same kinds of obliquely but profoundly related sounds. Sometimes it isn’t the spectral content of the sound at all, but a certain rhythm or a certain change in dynamics.
In “The Right Stuff,” when Yeager’s rocket accelerates, the high pitched sound is a piece of chalk squeaking on a slate board. I had gone to an old school to record doors, but happened to hear a brief chalk squeak, and it occurred to me that several of those cut together could express the scary intensity of that rocket, like it was on the edge of exploding, screaming through the air.
I try to train my ear to get better at these things, to begin with as few assumptions as possible, and to be open to the unanticipated sounds rolling past me that glue the story together better than any grand design I could have dreamed up.

On a Roll

by Randy Thom
It’s a little-known fact that the sound of a rolling object is caused by impacts with the surface it is rolling on.
The more frequent the impacts, the smoother the sound. This is even the case with a hard sphere rolling on a rigid, flat surface. Though if it’s a near perfect sphere and the surface is near perfectly flat and hard, the sound generated will be minimal, because the impacts are minimal.
How is knowledge of this phenomenon useful to sound artists?
Let’s say you’re trying to produce the sound of a walnut rolling on the ground. Literally recording that action can render something useful, but realizing that what is really making the sound is impacts, AND DOESN’T REQUIRE THE WALNUT TO BE ROLLING AT ALL, opens the door to creating a more tailored, stylized sound that can be far more expressive and “musical” than what you are likely to obtain by literally rolling the walnut across a surface.

How Do You Simulate a "Roll"

To simulate the rolling sound while giving yourself a lot more control: don’t roll the walnut. Simply tap it on a given surface several times. This simulates what is physically happening during a roll. The taps should usually vary in intensity, the intervals between the taps should vary, and the distance from the microphone should vary, so that the result will sound naturalistic.
To give it more character and make it more “musical,” tap the nut on a series of different surfaces to simulate a more complex-sounding journey. You would have to do lots and lots of takes to get a similarly diverse and interesting a sound by merely rolling the nut.
By the way, varying how tightly you hold the walnut as you tap it will render a wider variety of sounds. Holding it more loosely will allow it to resonate, like a loosely held wine glass will ring way longer than one that’s held tightly.
For the Super Mario movie, I edited a sequence of exaggerated punch sounds to create the sound of Donkey Kong rolling himself rapidly along an i-beam. I’m using a similar approach for a fun sequence in the upcoming “Ultraman: Rising” movie.
This same approach applies to using library sounds to simulate a rolling object. The sound of a giant boulder rolling can be created by editing a series of explosion attacks closely spaced. The editing can either be done manually on a timeline (which is the way I usually work) or by using a sampler. Be sure to quickly fade down the decay of each explo so that it doesn’t mask the attack of the next explo. The SOUND IDEAS libraries are filled with great material for building this kind of sound design. Happy Rolling!