The artistic threshold of originality of sound design in film

Sound design is the art of recreating the world acoustically.

The possibilities to do so are almost infinite. The primary job of a sound designer is to meet the demands of the film, to support the intention and genre of the film.

When the film is transferred to the sound designer, it is usually in a state of rudimentary acoustics. Car chases are muted. Gunfights sound like bang snaps, no bird twitters in the mountains and no rumbling thunder announces the upcoming storm. In pubs, people move their mouths but remain silent.

This silence is the basis for the sound designer’s work – the acoustic world of the film arises from it. As different as films are, as different the sound designer’s concepts must be. The understanding of the film’s narrative intention is the basis for the development and artistic execution of the concept.

Some films may call for a light support, a sound design that depends on the authenticity of the ambiences, which means that the best sound design sounds as if it had always existed and never needed intervention. The historic village, the construction site, the car park, the fairground: everyday locations in films that are narrated through the auditory layer; the audience is supposed to get a feeling for space and time.

The concept of naturalness exists in stark contrast to the concept deployed in comedy, action or horror films, that rely on the enhancement and exaggeration of sounds and ambiences. The concept of authentic sound design however is right up there with the artificial one because there is no such thing as an ambience that you pull out of the hat, matching the film, the scene. Every note in the sound designer’s work is a note recreated under artistic aspects, a sound arranged from a multitude of components that he chooses or generates.

In the course of this, every sound, every ambience tells a story that exceeds the mere recognition value. It is the mood that inhabits every sound and every ambience. Depending on what is supposed to be told, every sound designer can play with a choice of components to create all sorts of moods.

The squeaking elevator that threatens to fall, a funny squeak, deployed contrapuntal in a comedy or the squeaking of an elevator in tower blocks which have not seen maintenance in a while will tell completely different contexts in each of these cases.
The design options of a door alone are manifold – it can sound scary or ancient, jammed, powerful or elegant.
Or the perception of protagonists on the edge of madness, who subjectively perceives sounds as sharp, piercing, shrieking or also dull or distant – the sound designer can give rise to a sound like a painter with his colours on the canvas.

No matter, whether the normality of a scenery or the subjective irrational perception of a protagonist is depicted tonally, when the audio layer blends with the visual layer: if it is not perceived as strange, the sound designer did an excellent job and fulfilled his artistic task.

Kirsten Kunhardt