ASK A PRO: SOUND ADVICE FROM SKYWALKER’S PETER HORNER
Pete Horner is a sound designer and re-recording mixer at Skywalker Sound. His recent credits include The Queen of Versailles for Lauren Greenfield and Safety Not Guaranteed for Colin Trevorrow. Pete also worked on Tetro for Francis Ford Coppola. Today, he shares his wealth of experience with Film Independent.
What are some of the most common mistakes that first-time directors make when making “sound” decisions?
1. The biggest mistake is to not think about sound until after the picture edit is completed. Yes, it is more cost-effective to wait until after picture lock to start a crew, but ideally a sound designer (or sound-savvy picture editor) is beginning to explore the sonic language of the film much sooner. Sound has a tremendous effect on how picture cuts are perceived, how the rhythm of the scene feels, and of course the emotion of a scene. If sound is not considered prior to picture lock, a great opportunity may be lost.
2. The relationship between the music and sound effects is often not carefully considered. As a result, it is common for a director to ask both the composer and sound designer to provide emotional support for a scene, and the result is often a mess. Both departments are fighting for sonic space. It takes time in the mix to sort it out and a lot of hard work is thrown out.
It’s very helpful to decide in advance if a scene is going to be primarily sound design or music. It’s quite possible (even ideal) for music and sound design to work together in the same scene, but this should be planned for prior to the mix and there should be a dialogue between the composer and sound designer.
3. It is very common for directors to become overly accustomed to the temp sound they hear in the editing system, so that by the time they get to the mix, it is difficult for them make good decisions about the sound. A filmmaker’s goal is to direct the attention and emotions of the audience. But because we see and hear the film over and over, we become accustomed to it and when a new element is presented, our attention is drawn to it.
The thing to remember is that the audience won’t perceive it this way because they have no knowledge of how it was before, only how it is now. The mental gymnastics that are required of us are to recognize the new element but to experience it as a whole. This is a difficult task, even for experienced filmmakers. As a starting point, I’d suggest making sound decisions based on two questions: Where does the sound direct my attention and with how much insistence? What is the emotional character of the sound?
Two examples: A character has just realized something horrific. They drop the glass they are holding. The sound of the glass breaking is a very insistent sound, directing the attention to the action of dropping the glass. It may work emotionally by underscoring the shock of the moment. However, it may cause you to miss the expression on the character’s face. Even though it is clearly happening onscreen, you might consider removing it in order to allow the audience to focus on the emotion expressed on the actor’s face.
Another example might be the sound of a lawn mower heard through the wall. On one level, you might say it draws the attention away from the characters and therefore doesn’t belong. However, played at the right level, it may do so without much insistence. If you consider its emotional character, you may find that the subtly oscillating drone of the motor has a mesmerizing effect. Additionally, there may be a point where the motor shuts off; leaving a feeling of emptiness that underscores the emotion that a character is feeling. The sound should always bring you closer to the characters, story, and emotions.
Can you provide three tips or pieces of advice for getting the best sound when working on an independent film?
1) Hire a skilled location recordist. This will pay big dividends in post. ADR is often a lifesaver and can be excellent, but it also takes a good deal of work to match with production and, depending on the actor, it can sometimes weaken the performance. Ideally, we want to be able to use as much of the production sound as possible, but poorly recorded production sound will be very time consuming to clean up.
2) Sound has an incredible ability to direct the eye, and thereby shape what the audience is thinking and feeling. Often a sound team will prepare a full track, covering all possibilities, which are then sorted in the mix. This is a great luxury, and discoveries can be made in that process. But it is time consuming. By planning in advance what you want the audience to experience, you may find that a few carefully chosen sounds are more powerful than filling the track with many sounds. Just because something is on the screen, that doesn’t mean it needs to make a sound. In life our minds are constantly filtering sound based on where we put our attention. In film, we do the same in reverse. Through the choices we make in the sound design we direct the attention of the audience. It is the sonic equivalent of shallow focus.
3) It is common to lean on music to guide the emotions of the audience. But it is often more effective to let the sound design and the performances drive the emotion. Then, only after the emotion has been built up do you bring in the music, releasing the tension.
A classic example is the scene in The Godfather where Michael shoots Sollozzo. This is a great example of building tension without music. You could easily imagine this scene filled with ominous music, and no one in the audience would have second-guessed this choice. But I’d argue that using music in this scene would actually decrease the tension. Even when the music is ominous, on some level our emotions are protected because the music will tell us when to feel scared and when to feel happy. Without music, we are more vulnerable.
The scene has already been set up to hold an incredible charge. We know what Michael is planning and the quiet of the scene is terrifying. The lack of music is terrifying. Even the foley, often the most utilitarian category of sounds, is terrifying. We hear each articulated movement of the wine bottle being opened, the footsteps, and the chair creak, and it just makes us more tense. The only thing we can attach to emotionally is the sound of the elevated train outside, which rises and falls and finally builds to a screaming clatter as Michael pulls the trigger. Only after the sound of the shots, the gasp for air, the crash of the table, the silent shock of the onlookers, the footsteps as he flees, and the sound of the gun hitting the floor, does the music finally enter, providing an emotional channel for the tension we’ve been feeling.
The Godfather: Michael shoots Sollozzo (this includes the scene before – notice how it also has no music until after they reverse direction on the bridge):
Peter Horner’s Required viewing list for filmmakers
Apocalypse Now – The original 1979 track still stands as one of the best examples of film sound. I had the great pleasure of working on the Redux version of this film and in doing so became intimate with the track. There is so much to admire, but I’ll mention one example in particular. People usually think of sound as being supportive of what is going on visually. But it can be very powerful to put in a sound that is incongruous with the image. For example, in the opening, Willard is in his hotel room. But what we hear is the sound of the jungle. With this simple device we jump into the mind of the character. We know something about him that the image alone does not reveal. It is the dissonance between the image and sound that engages our imagination.
The Godfather – See above example.
Peter Horner’s Required reading list:
Where can you contact professionals like you? Where can a filmmaker contact you
Skywalker Sound is a community of people who love sound. We love film. We love independent film. You can reach me through Skywalker or through my website: petehorner.com when needed.
April 18th, 2012 • No Comments