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What is the Purpose of Sound in Film?

movie goers watching a film at a theater

Can you remember the last time you had a true cinematic experience at the movie theater? Going out to the cinema is a classic pastime and even something some hold so dear that they consider it a passion. Unless you have the resources to put together your own private screening room, the cinema is indisputably where you get the optimal presentation of a film, and not just visually either. If you’ve ever noticed the way dramatic music swells or rumbling explosions cause you to literally vibrate in your seat, you’ve experienced a very intentional application of sound to provide a moviegoing experience that transcends the senses.

Immersive Experience

Many moviegoers love the immersive experience of film for the very reason that it fully fools their brains into believing the audiovisual facade in front of them. Some people say they like to turn off their brains when they watch movies, allowing the critical part of the mind to rest, accepting the events and circumstances in the plot without question. But even if you enjoy films in this way, the numerous layers of sound are still working their magic on your brain chemistry via the auditory system.

In fact, those who don’t spend the whole movie analyzing its sound design and deconstructing the artistic elements are even more likely to be wrapped up in the story. It’s largely thanks to the score, Foley, effects, and a myriad of other sounds that make this immersive illusion possible, and a sound designer is actually doing their best work when the audience doesn’t notice it at all.

Everything from the tone of a character’s voice to the soothing sound of flowing water can be loaded with significance. There might be a subtle emotional signal that clues the audience in on the current inner state of the characters, or the sound can be leveraged to foreshadow the events to come.

Visuals vs Sounds

Even if the sounds of a movie are quite prevalent, it’s fairly easy for the average human ear to tune them out and not actively notice them. The first elements that people usually think of, consciously, at least, are the equally multilayered visuals they see on the screen. This falls right in line when you consider that vision is the primary human sense. As long as a person has their vision, that’s the way they’re going to take in the majority of the information they perceive from the world around them. This habit of visual perception naturally falls right into our movie viewing habits, and while the sounds are certainly something we’re aware of, it’s not what our brains are conditioned to pay attention to first.

All Sounds Is Important

Some sound designers might come to believe the work that they specialize in is the most important working piece in the overall soundscape, mostly because they’ve trained their ears over the course of their career to recognize the specific types of sound they work with. The truth is, every one of the cogs that go into the overall machine of sound engineering in film holds an equal amount of importance: Without the expert application and mix of Foley, music, sound effects, dialogue, and yes, even silence, a movie simply won’t have the emotional sway that it otherwise could.

Sound Delivers Information

Sound engages moviegoing audiences in a number of ways. One of its primary functions is to deliver information, making it clear what’s happening in the plot of the film. It also adds another level to the production value, heightening the immersive nature of the production. It can tell us what’s going on both on and off the screen, and it can tell us of the intended mood of an entire scene. Without these sounds, movies could not be what they are today.

Different Types of Sound in Film

Understanding the various categories of sounds when enjoying a movie makes it much easier to break each part down and understand what it’s for. These are the main categories that you can expect to catch your ear when you’re sitting in the movie theater.

Dialogue

Dialogue is one of the most noticeable pieces of audio in a film and is almost always the most prevalent. The dialogue includes anything spoken by any of the characters in the story, so these sounds are directly and specifically tied into the overall plot of the movie. Dialogue can happen between multiple characters onscreen, or it can occur with those who are offscreen somewhere nearby.

In many films, characters are communicating while miles apart. When two characters are texting or messaging each other back and forth, particularly when there are several long messages in a row, it’s common for one or both of the actors to read the messages out loud even if it’s not intended to indicate that the character is actually doing so. This is a movie-making trick that makes a story easier to engage with and follow more casually, and most audience members won’t call out how odd it would be if real people were to do the same thing and start reading every message they send and receive regardless of their surroundings.

Narration

A concisely written and well-performed narration can turn an incohesive mess of a story into one that viewers latch onto and fall in love with. Although not every movie calls for a narration, there are multiple genres in which a narrator feels perfectly fitting. Sometimes this narrator will be completely removed from the story as a distinct voice watching everything from up above. In those cases, the narrator gives the audience a sense of omnipotence, the idea that this voice actually knows the whole story from the very beginning but is only letting us in on little pieces at a time.

In other movies, the narrator will actually be one of the characters in the film. This usually comes in the form of the person reflecting on the past, meaning the events in the movie have already happened. In some other cases, the narrator seems to be telling the story in real-time, only aware of the events in the storyline as they happen. This type of narrator can take on a more reactive role, almost becoming a distinct character in their own right.

It’s important to cast the right voice for a narrator. If the voice isn’t meant to match with any character in the story, the casting director should take care that they don’t have too similar a timbre to any of the actors seen and heard in the film. The specific tone and inflection that a narrator uses can vary from genre to genre, including anything from warm and comforting to ominous and dramatic.

Sound Effects

Action movies would be nothing without their sound effects. If you’ve ever seen the raw cut of a scene before the sound effects are added in, you know just how much of the intensity comes from these sounds. Sound effects in many cases are the bigger, more dramatic sounds, explosions, turbo lasers, jet engines, but it also includes the little things too.

In movies that take ambitious worldbuilding leaps, particularly in the realm of science fiction such as Star Wars, every piece of technology or every alien creature encountered needs to have a sound that’s unique and memorable. If these sounds are unique enough and the movie franchise a big enough success, these effects might even be trademarked to make sure they remain an exclusive part of this movie universe.

Foley

Just about every action in a movie requires its own accompanying sound to make it feel as if it actually happened. When filming anything outdoors or in crowded settings, capturing clean audio is all but impossible. In these cases, actors usually have to dub in their lines in postproduction, meaning they’ll be watching themselves in the scene and match the timing of every word while recording in a controlled sound studio. The same applies to every footstep, movement, and any other minor thing you can imagine. These postproduction sounds are called Foley.

It’s often extremely entertaining to watch a Foley artist at work. If you had no concept of what a film was, you might think that a Foley artist had completely lost their mind as they clink, rustle and bang on a wide variety of objects. Imagine a chainmail-clad knight walking through the woods. Now think about every sound associated with that knight’s movements, not just with the knight’s body and armor, but also the twigs snapping, any branches and leaves that might be rustled. Foley artists might use anything that gets a particular sound; it’s a highly fun and creative job that takes a lot of out-of-the-box thinking.

Music

One of the most well-recognized parts of a sound mix in a movie is the music. Most movies have at least some parts that are scored, meaning a composer specifically wrote music that times up with the action and emotion onscreen. An original score is by far the most impactful use of music in movies because it’s tailored to emphasize exactly what’s going on in the story.

When there isn’t a score, there’s usually some other type of music playing. It’s hard to not have music in your movie; it starts to make the soundscape feel a little dead and empty and can sometimes make your audience feel uneasy. This is definitely the goal in some cases, and overburdening a sound mix with music can then have the opposite effect: In things like thrillers and horror films, silence is the perfect way to build up tension. This silence is all the more prevalent when it’s contrasted with music and other sounds before and after the fact.

Final Thoughts

If you have a passion for sound and film, then it may be time to learn more about the film and sound design program at IPR. You will learn how to bring a film to life with sound and create an immersive experience for the audience. Sound is a perfect complement to the visuals on the movie screen and as a sound designer you have a big part to play in the making of a film. Enjoy the process and the journey of producing sound in film once you graduate from the film and sound design program at IPR.

Film and Sound Design Program

Ready to work as a sound designer? The Film and Sound Design program offers an occupational degree that immerses college students in the world and industry of film and sound design. IPR’s condensed program allows students to earn a multi-skill, multi-functional Occupational Associate of Applied Science Degree in as little as two years.  Students learn hands-on, entry-level skills in every aspect of the film business: story, preproduction, production, and post-production for video and audio. Work as a part of a team to produce your own film- from concept and storyboard, to production and editing – you’ll graduate with a portfolio of work to showcase your creativity and launch your career in the exciting Film Industry.

If you are interested in a career in film and sound design you should tour our Minneapolis creative arts college, see the labs and meet our staff. Call 1-612-351-0631 or contact admissions to make arrangements.