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It takes four people to create a soundtrack: a screenwriter, a director, a sound designer, and a composer

In 1934, Russian film director Vsevolod Pudovkin wrote this:

“There is a great difference between the technical development of sound and its development as a means of expression. The expressive achievements of sound still lie far behind its technical possibilities”.

Fast forward 85 years and the statement is as valid today as it was back then, probably even more so than in 1934, since despite having state-of-the-art technology, as far as expressiveness goes, sound has barely advanced.

Why this is is not very difficult to pinpoint. The general view in the industry is that sound is something you leave for the post-production people to deal with. No one involved in the earlier stages think it is their business. If you ask screenwriters, most will tell you that they avoid ‘meddling’ with sound because they feel that that amounts to trespassing into the director’s domain. If you ask directors, most will tell you that sound is the domain of the composer and the sound designer. Yes, as directors they need to decided what the music and the sound effects will do, but ultimately that’s something that belongs to the postproduction stage, and they have enough to take care of during production.

The problem with thinking about sound as a track where you throw the dialogue, sound effects, and music and then send to the post-production studio is that by the time attention turns to sound, the script has long been written, and the picture shot and edited. By now, there’s hardly any room left for creative manoeuvring. All that sound can do is the usual providing texture, enhancing the audience experience, adding realism, creating mood, and helping with evoking emotion.

Imagine for a moment that that was the attitude towards creating a symphony – that the composer said that the melody is the business of the conductor, and that the conductor said that it is the business of the performers. What would be the outcome? Of course, this is an exaggeration and the consequences in a filmmaking context are less severe, but it kind of captures the essence of were things are going wrong.

A more effective way of going about things would be to think of the soundtrack as having four different stages, each of which requires a different approach. Continuing with the analogy above, the roles of composer, conductor, and performers in classical music parallel in film with the role of the screenwriter as composer, the director as conductor, and the sound designer and the composer as performers. In this light, their approach to film sound would need to differ to a great extent. But how?

We all know what the sound designer and the composer do. Roughly, composers create music that guide the emotional responses of the audience and in some cases give a sense of time and place, and the sound designers bring sound from the field of potentiality (i.e. someone else’s mind) into physicality by selecting and manipulating sounds so that they align with the overall narrative and emotional purposes of the story, and with the stylistic and thematic ideas of the film.

What about the screenwriter and the director? In what terms should they think about sound?

I’ll start with the screenwriter. This is actually the stage that offers the most possibilities in terms of sound. The screenwriter has to create a credible world that provides an environment suitable to the action, the character, and the challenges he or she will need to confront to grow.

One of the first things the screenwriter needs to consider is the type of environment that will dominate. Is it predominantly natural, sociocultural, or both? Each has distinct sonic characteristics. Sound in a natural habitat will be subject to its geographical features, to its weather patterns, and to its flora and fauna. In a sociocultural environment, sound will reflect the economic, technological, cultural, and social conditions that characterise the community being portrayed. A town in a remote hill in Italy will have a very different sonic signature to a big city like London or New York.

The key thing to bear in mind is that the screenwriter has to create a soundscape – whether indoors or outdoors – that is rich in sounds that convey meaning, not that just sit there. Although things are different in our time, for the most part of our evolution, sound has played a very active role in shaping our communities. It has defined them culturally, it has contributed to their rhythms and unity, it has given them character, and it has given us character – think of how bells, one of the most archetypal of community sounds, has throughout time shaped people’s lives. These are all aspects that the screenwriter can use proactively to convey meaning, move the story forward, and in the process create a rich sonic experience for the audience.

Another area where the screenwriter can use sound purposefully is characterisation. Sound can communicate objectively many aspects of the character’s identity – his or her ethnicity, class, gender, and locality – or subjectively it can work as an extension of the character’s inner world, much like in Poe’s poem The Bells, about which you can read here.

The screenwriter can also use sound more at the story level, as a narrative device that helps move the story forward or that contributes to its structure, and also as a symbol or metaphor that points to the themes of the story.

What about the director?

The role of the director is to bring the story to life on the screen. That requires brain hacking skills. It’s what a film is, a brain hack, specifically of its perceptual and cognitive processes. What we perceive is not an objective world that exists out there independent of us. It is a construct that the brain has put together in order to guide our actions and keep us alive and well. The brain does so by selecting, manipulating, and combining sensory data, particularly images and sounds, in ways that draw attention to the right details and that serve the behavioural requirements of the emotions it has triggered in order to guide our responses. This is why our perceptions are different under different emotional states. If you were escaping a predator, you’d perceive a setting very differently than if you were having a picnic in that same setting.

The director hacks the brain by creating a percept, i.e. a movie, and then projecting it onto the minds of the audience, who in turn will react to it as if it was for real. Like the brain, he or she, by means of cinematic techniques, selects, manipulates, and combines images and sounds in ways that will draw attention to the right details and that will elicit the right emotions.

Key considerations the director has to make in regards to sound: how is sound going to work with the other elements – action, behaviours, character, movement, composition, editing, lighting, colour…? What unique contribution to the whole is it going to make? What will it do in terms of style? What strategy will bring image and sound together? Will sound set a contrast with the image? Parallels? Will it supplement the image? Anchor it? Contradict it?

The director needs to think of sound in perceptual, cognitive, psychological, narrative, and stylistic terms. The aim is to draw the audience both into the story’s outer world and into the character’s inner space, to direct their attention to the right places, and to subliminally manipulate their emotional responses, so that the audience can grasp the significance of the events unfolding on the screen.

When a screenwriter creates the right inner and outer soundscape and embeds it in the narrative, the director has a lot more to work with – more room for manoeuvre in terms of drawing attention, establishing identification with the character, creating a unique style, and providing a more satisfying audiovisual experience for the audience. In turn, this gives the sound designer a lot more material to work with and to create a richer sonic world. And the composer too has a lot more room for incorporating that rich sonic world into the music.

Related posts:

Sound in Lars von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark and Breaking the Waves

The Bells, Edgar Allan Poe’s Subtextual Acoustic Extrabaganza