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Subtle Sounds: The Diary of a Sound Designer

By Cory Choy

I often find people asking: “So what does sound design and mix actually DO for a movie? You know, other than adding cool explosions and alien noises…”

It’s true that we sound folks really get a chance to shine during ninja fights and robot wars, but it’s also true that sound can be used for more subtle things — to draw attention to the emotional state of characters, emphasize and intensify specific actions, and give environments dimension.

A scene from B-rated horror movie maven Lloyd Kaufman and Troma Team’s latest flick, Return To Nuke ‘Em High, is a good example of how sound can bring a scene — even one without explosions, mutants, or monsters — to life.

Take a listen to dialogue to hear what the scene sounded like after our dialogue edit, effects, backgrounds, music and mix: view below or visit http://uploads.ungrounded.net//633000//633467_TromaDoohickey.swf


Two high school students, Chrissy (in red) and Lauren, (in blue) accidentally bump into one another. Chrissy is knocked to the floor. After standing up, Chrissy threatens Lauren — only to be foiled and embarrassed by a well-placed stomp of the foot.

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If you take a look and listen to what the scene was like before any post sound work (raw), other than the obvious unwanted clicks, gaps in tone, and uneven levels, you’ll notice that Lauren suddenly becomes very echo-y around 27 seconds into the scene during the line, “You know what? Some of us actually have plans for our future…”

In addition to that, she gets very quiet on the words “food stamps,” and director Lloyd Kaufman wanted a more forceful delivery. When faced with a problem like this, there are two different routes that can be taken to remedy the situation: 1) Look for alternate takes, and match them up so that the voices are still in sync. Or… 2) ADR the character.

In this particular situation, the performance of the ADR didn’t feel as “in the scene” as the alternate takes, and we were lucky enough to be able to combine two cleaner and more forceful takes to replace the line seamlessly.

Take a listen to DIA to hear what the scene sounded like after our dialogue edit.

In addition to Lauren’s lines feeling more present and less reverb-y with a forceful delivery, you’ll also notice some of the following changes:

At the beginning of the scene, we hear a boy off-screen taunting the Mohawk girl, who then throws a spitball at him, and he yelps when hit — this helps remind us that we’re in a rowdy high school hallway.

The itchy boy in the black shirt is making weird groaning noises as he scratches himself — adding to sub-plot of the mystery of strange things happening to the students.
 Chrissy grunts as if the air is knocked out of her when she bumps into Lauren and before she falls.

A group of boys exclaim “ooooh” and chuckle when Lauren is shoved into the locker — we’re in a place where actions are public, and the surrounding crowd is not only paying attention to what is going on, they also have the capability of being antagonistic.


Director Lloyd Kaufman and the Silver Sound crew.

The boy with the black hat, white t-shirt and backpack on laughs goofily and mercilessly at Chrissy after she gets foot stomped.

Chrissy, after smacking the locker, exclaims “Ow!” after hitting the locker with her fist — adding injury to insult to the previous injury.

Listen to effects to hear the effects and Foley’s isolated for your listening pleasure:
While there are a lot of things going on visually in this scene — many of the extras in the hallway are walking and shuffling around — we always try to make sure that the sounds that we are adding help underscore the important actions and have a specific narrative purpose as well:
 The spitball thwacks somebody — eww!

A single set of footsteps coming from off-screen alert us to Chrissy’s presence before she appears — they are steady and quick, suggesting that she is walking straight and fast, and is not expecting to have to alter her course — this is a confident girl. Lauren, on the other hand, is dodging her way around other students.

There is a sharp thud when the two girls knock shoulders.

Chrissy’s backpack rustles and bumps, her stumbling footsteps are loud, and her hand slaps roughly against the hard tile floor as she tries to steady herself — ow!

Chrissy’s hand slaps Lauren’s shoulder before she shoves her roughly into the locker with a bang.

There is a sickening bone-crunch when Lauren stomps down on Chrissy’s foot.

Lauren pitter-patters away to avoid retribution. Her footsteps are quick and light — she’s not a bruiser.
 Chrissy slams her hand into the locker — she is impetuous and aggressive, and it doesn’t always work out for her.

Click on BGs to hear the backgrounds we added.

Now it feels like a bustling high school. We hear papers, shuffling, etc., but notice: At first there is more stereo information, more voices, and they are all echo-y — this is a crowded place.

After we zero in on Lauren and Chrissy, the echo-y voices fall away, and sparser, more specific sounding BGs take their place.

At the end things thin out even more– allowing the audience to focus on Chrissy’s plight and Lauren’s flight.

Finally, take a listen to the whole thing put together with music (MIX)

I feel that the difference speaks for itself. However, if you want to see how the different layers interact with each other and add to the scene, just mess around a little with the doohickey I made!

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Cory Choy is a founding member of New York City’s Silver Sound (www.silversound.us) , a post and production sound house, He has been pushing the audio limits since 2003, and has extensive experience both in the field as a location sound recorder and as supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer back in the studio. Check out Silver Sound on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SilverSoundStudios.



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