Seafarer Sound Design

Zach Herchen‘s come back with a first crack at the sound design for the film version of The Seafarer. The director, Mike Feldman, and I are very, very pleased. Listening to the cut a couple times, I’m faced with the reality that I have very little background in how to judge and how to improve sound design.

The film’s audio has two components right now, the solo cello part and the spoken poem. Zach’s added ambient noise to create the world of the film, including rivers, a construction site and a pile of rubble. He’s also added individual sound effects, like footfalls and jangling chains, to match the visuals of the film.

A big part of what we have to do is just refine the mixing of each sound so that it smoothly fits into the film. Sometimes a chain jangling is too loud, or resonates as if it were in a room instead of outside. Fixing those things is technically very difficult, and I’m glad to have someone as talented Zach working on this for that reason, but aesthetically it’s the easy part.

The hard part is figuring out when we need more or less sound in particular cases. For example, there’s a shot in the film with a bird on a branch.  We could have a sound of a bird chirping or not. If we do, it fleshes out the visuals into a more complete world. If we don’t, we leave the image of the bird to stand (or perch) on its own. There are a host of questions associated with just this chirping noise:

  • Given the emotion of the scene and the film overall, do we want this to be a happy chirping bird, or a solitary silent bird?
  • Do we want to put the bird into the foreground of the viewers’ mind by including the sound of the chirp, or do we want to make the shot seem more like a commentary on the shots that came before by excluding it?
  • Does the chirp blend well with the rhythm and meaning of the poem as it’s recited?
  • Does the chirp blend well with the cello part, or does it distract or interrupt a larger musical idea central to the film?
  • What chirps do we have to choose from? Which are correct for the kind of bird it actually is and what it looks like it’s doing in the shot in our film?
  • Which chirp is most appropriate to the emotional side of what we’re trying to convey with the shot?
  • After all this talk of chirping, would it be better to have the sound of a twig creaking underneath the bird, or leaves rustling instead?

My biggest challenge right now is to figure out an overall goal of what I’m trying to accomplish, something I can use to guide my thinking as I come up against the hundreds of sound effects we have,  and the thousands more we have to choose from.

Mike and Zach and I are meeting on Saturday night to go over the cut and discuss our next step, and then of course hang out a little. It’ll be great to collaborate again with these two on these tricky creative questions, and of course nothing gives me more pleasure than combining work and pleasure like this. It’s one of my favorite feelings.

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