Sound Design for Film and Television

Seminar Paper, 2007

13 Pages, Grade: 1.0


1. Introduction

Sound in film and television is meant to support the story of a narrative, documentary, or comercial film or television program. Sound may tell the story directly, or it may be used indirectly to enhance the story effects of the movie. Although there are separate perceptual mechanisms for sound and picture, the sound may be integrated by the audience along with the picture into a complete whole, without differentiation. In such a state, the sound and picture together can become greater than the sum of the parts. Thereby, sound for film is usually meant to integrate many elements together and not to draw specific attention to itself. The relative roles of picture and sound can change with regard to storytelling from scene to scene and moment to moment. In most instances, film and television sound is constructed in post production utilizing many pieces of sound, mixed seamlessly together to create a complete whole. This process is today known as sound design.

2. Developement of sound design

Sound design is a technical creative field. It covers all non-compositional elements of a film, a play, a music performance or recording, computer game software or any other multimedia project. History of development of sound design in theatre is very long. Today is known that in India and China there were theatre productions, around 3000 BC, accompanied by music and sound [7]. The renaissance comedia dell`arte- style also used both music and sound effects, to make the theatrical pieces more ridicule. Possibly the first use of recorded sound in the modern theatre was a phonograph playing a baby’s cry in a London theatre in 1890. It would not be, however, until the 1950s, when Hollywood directors started directing Broadway productions, that sound design would start growing. Still, there was no sound designer in those plays. It was the stage manager's duty to find the sound effects and an electrician played the recordings during performances.

Sound design in film is directly connected with the developement of sound in film, and although this history is not so long as the history of sound design in theatre, it is actually film, who inaugurated the profession of sound designer and opened a new creative field for sound professionals. In the original film world meaning of the title, as established in the 1970`s by Coppola and Walter Murch, a sound designer is an individual ultimately responsible for all aspects of a film's audio track, from the dialogue and sound effects recording, to the re-recording of the final track. The title was first granted by Coppola to Murch for his work on the film Apocalypse Now (1974), in recognition for his extraordinary contribution to that film [7].

From the inception of motion pictures, various inventors attempted to unite sight and sound through "talking" motion pictures. Nevertheles, sound with film as an idea seems to have started fourteen years before the invention of the motion picture, during the phonograph's infancy. It is known that the Edison Company experimented with this as early as the fall of 1894 under the supervision of W. K. L. Dickson with a film known today as Dickson Experimental Sound Film. In 1913, a different version of the Kinetophone was introduced to the public. But, due to the technical imperfection this early film-sound attempt caused the disaproaval from the audience. For that reason the idea of sound movies was till 1915 almost totally abandoned. However, there still were quite number of the inventors, which continued with the experiments in this field. Thus in 1922, german inventors, Josef Engl and Hans Vogt, patented the "Tri Ergon" process, relied on the use of a photo-electric cell to transduce mechanical sound vibrations into electrical waveforms and then convert the electrical waveforms into light waves, optically recorded onto the edge of the film. The Fox Studio bougth the patent in 1927, but their attempts were interupted with the success of Warner Brothers, whose Vitaphone system was first embraced in August 1926, debuted the first sound film named Don Juan. It was the first mainstream film that replaced the traditional use of a live orchestra or organ for the soundtrack. However, in Don Juan there was no dialogue. The popular perception of film sound burst on the scene in 1927, with Warner Brothers' Jazz Singer staring Al Jolson. Although, originally conceived as a singing picture with no dialogue, Al Jolson ad-libbed some dialogue on the set and the "talkies" were born. Further, in 1928, Lights of New York was released by Warner Brothers as the first all-dialogue film. Although Disney's cartoon Steamboat Willie (1928) was the first film for which was completely created a soundtrack in post production including sound effects, music, and dialogue, it was considered the King Kong released in 1933 by RKO, was the first film that started sound design history. Murray Spivak, who did the sound design for the movie, was the first person to manipulate sound in a creative way[1]. The next step was stereo sound, reached 1935, when Alan Blumlein invented the first stereo variable area soundtrack. In 1940, Walt Disney's Fantasia was the first film to be accompanied with a multichannel format called Fantasound[2], which inaugurated quite a number of crucial innovations: the click track, dispersion-aligned loudspeaker system with skewed-horn, the pan-pot, control-track level-expansion, overdubbing of orchestral parts, simultaneous multitrack recording and the development of a multichannel surround system. After quite a range of inventions (cinerama, cinemascope etc) influented with the devlopement of television, the one of most important steps was inventing of the original professional Dolby A-type noise reduction, introduced in 1965.

From that time sound recording and reproducing systems are constantly developing and imroving. Eventhough there have been more and more demands for top-quality sound, the profession of sound design is still struggling to obtain acceptance. Despite this continual, extraordinary advances in technology, the profession of sound designer was very late recognizioned as a creative field, not strictly based only on technique. The role of sound designer in creative process of filmmaking also was`t clearly defined. Between 1980 and 1988, USITT`s first Sound Design Commissioner oversaw efforts of their Sound Design Commission to define the duties, responsibilities, standards and procedures which might normally be expected of a theatre and film sound designer in North America [7]. Previously it was common to consider the sound professionals,, which paticipated in sound design process as the part of the sound editing team. Today the term sound editor reffers only to those who are working with already recorded sound material, and sound designers is the titel used for the professionals who are participating in the sound recording (similar to the difference between director of photography and film editor). The role of supervising sound editor, or sound supervisor, developed in parallel with the role of sound designer is to be the head of the large sound department, with a staff of dozens of sound editors, required to realize a complete sound job for the movie. Sound designers, on the other hand, are expected to be creative, and their role is a generalization of the other creative department heads.

3. What makes film sound?

Sound plays a grammatical role in the process of filmmaking. It also provides a form of continuity or connective tissue for films. The basic two characteristics of sound in film, are:

- hyper-reality (Sound recordings for film and television are often an exaggeration of reality. Heard in isolation, the soundtracks seem overhyped, but heard in context, they assume a more natural balance. All these because of the fact that the single sounds in film often "melt" in auditory streams, and to be distinguished better, they should be additionally emphasized.)
- correlation with a picture (Sound often has an influence on picture. Scenes are different depending on how sound plays out in them. The sound also has a profound impact on storytelling, and on a film rhythm. The same scenes played without sound often seem much longer, than played with a background music.)

As already mentioned, there are two basic roles of sound in film. These are: story telling and story supporting. Story telling is the most important characteristic of the films in the "sound era", and is possible in film using dialogues, monologues or off-narration. Story supporting relates on the sound effects that inhence the tension in film and suggest the audience how to feel. Special sound effects and music are the basic tools which enable it. The sources for the sound used in film could be: recordings made during principal photography on sets, sound effects libraries and costumized recordings, and music, both that composed from the film and from pre-existing sources.

The basic roles of sound in film are accomplished utilizing different types of sound in film, such as:

- speech (dialogue, monologue, over voice),
- music (recorded music, rerecorded music, live music, background music, etc.)
- sound effects
- hard or "cut" effects
- Foley sound effects (mixed with music)
- ambience (backgrounds)
- design sound effects

Speech is the most revolutionary thing which appeared in film history. It changed totally the visualisation of movies, which now differate very much from the films in the silent era. Today the speech is one of the most important tools for understandig the story of the film, so it is very important to be understandable and as more realistic, as it could be. Dialog editors depend on several sources for their tracks: on set dialogue (recorded during the film shooting, synchronious with the action), wild lines dialogue (dialogue lines that the actor records under the directors guidance, often at the end of a production day, in the same atmosphere of the set, after shooting.


[1] Spivak used the sound of a lion's roar slowed down one octave mixed with the sound at unity pitch. It is the first use of design sound effect.

[2] The Fantasound system employed two projectors. The first one projected the picture and had a mono optical mix of the entire soundtrack. This mono mix was used as a backup system in case of failure of the main soundtrack. A technique that is used in all of today's successful digital sound systems. The second projector was played in synchronization to the projector with the picture information. This second projector employed four mono optical sound tracks as follows: 1. control track; 2. screen left; 3. screen right; and 4. screen center.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Sound Design for Film and Television
Technical University of Berlin
Audiovisuelle Wahrnehmung. Phänomene in der Medienrezeption
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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431 KB
Sound, Design, Film, Television
Quote paper
Magister Vesna Dakic (Author), 2007, Sound Design for Film and Television, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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