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What Are SFX And How Can They Make Your Videos Better?

Mar 12, 2020

Let’s remove any confusion right away: “SFX” is one of those weird terms that originally had one accepted meaning and now has two. We used to think of it as a “special effects,” but it has also expanded to include “sound effects” as well.

And what is the SFX we’re talking about today? Sound effects, of course.

For starters, SFX are a key piece of successful sound design. And sound design plays a major role in how the best filmmakers draw audiences into a story.

In other words, if you aren’t already using SFX in your videos, you’re missing out!

But it’s not too late to catch that train before it leaves the station. Sound effects are a tool that you can — and should — add to your utility belt, and here are three reasons why: SFX provide a sense of realism, add emotion, and set a scene without dialogue/exposition.

SFX Add Realism To Any Video

The biggest challenge of creating art is convincing audiences to “buy in” to something that isn’t real. Storytelling is really just a (highly respectable) form of lying, and the best filmmakers are experts in this artform.

But how do you make viewers believe something that’s on screen if they haven’t experienced it themselves? How do viewers connect with things like Blade Runner or Master and Commander when they’ve never lived in a cyberpunk future or seen naval warfare?

We’ve all felt fully immersed in a movie or show before, whether it’s Game of Thrones, Zero Dark Thirty, or The Walking Dead. Those quiet moments when you scoot up in your seat and lean forward? That’s sound design (and good pacing) at work.

The small, subtle additions of certain effects paint a picture that our brain can make sense of. Our eyes see our favorite actors in costumes on a set, but SFX convince us that we’re seeing something real play out, captured or recreated for our enjoyment.

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One odd fact is that popular SFX can become so widely recognized that they change our perception of certain sounds. Swords don’t make a shing noise when they leave their scabbard, and most gunfire sounds more like a popping sound than an explosive bang.

But because movie and TV viewers came to recognize those sounds’ portrayal on screen, we feel like videos that don’t use those SFX are missing something. The dramatized version has become our reality, and now those sounds are staples in any creative work.

SFX Establish A Sense of Emotion

Okay, so now you know how SFX can help make your videos more believable. One part of creating a real connection for viewers is emotion. If you can make the audience feel something, you have their attention and their interest. It’s the ultimate victory for a filmmaker.

Sound effects play a role in that as well. A visceral scene can create an unforgettable moment for the audience. My bet is that there is some strong emotional reaction involved.

When you think of a great action scene — let’s go with a car chase — what stands out? No matter how loud or heavy the music is, you can almost feel the screeching tires, the crunching collisions, or the thundering engines.

At first viewing, the music kind of runs the show in this scene of Baby Driver. But if you listen closely, you’ll hear that it’s the SFX setting the tone.

The whoosh of objects passing into frame line up with the song’s beat. High pitch sounds — like screeching tires and police sirens — trigger our instinct for danger. And the engine roar kicks our adrenaline into gear, even if there’s no physical threat to us in the audience.

Sounds are an important sensory input, and they play a big role in the overall “magic” of film and visual storytelling as a whole. Because of that, SFX are the trick to helping viewers connect what their eyes see to what their brains expect to see.

In other words, it makes the “lie” even more believable because the audience is feeling what they would feel if the on-screen action was real.

SFX Set The Scene

A common mistake for novice filmmakers is to frontload a video with exposition. It doesn’t matter whether you’re making an indie film, a documentary, a marketing ad, or a travel vlog — if you start with an “info dump” to set the stage, you’re going to drive off viewers.

Sound effects, however, give you a shortcut. They’re a way to establish a setting or mood without using dialogue or even music. If you’re in a busy city, distant car horns or muffled voices from the upstairs apartment can tell the audience where they are.

Here's another example.

In the first 2 minutes of Joker, we're introduced to the world of Gotham City. The distinct sound quality of a radio broadcast, muffled voices, the distant bang of a slammed door — all of this gives us an understanding of where the character is, even if all we see is him in front of a mirror.

Creating art is all about detail. The little things are what separate great filmmakers from everyone else, and SFX play a role in that.

Thoughtful sound design ups your storytelling game in a big way. Suddenly the audio elements are establishing the setting, creating emotion, and adding realism…which means the visuals don’t have to. If each component has a job, they all become more effective.

“What Is SFX Going To Do For Me?”

You’ve probably seen a trend emerge by now. Each of my points builds on the previous one for a reason.

Creating a video is about layering pieces together, and once you understand what sound design does, you’ll also see just how big of an impact SFX can make on your filmmaking process.

Instead of asking “What is SFX” the better question is “How will SFX make my videos better?”

In Hollywood, good sound designers usually have long and celebrated careers. (Not unlike good editors, for what it’s worth.) By focusing on the small things in a scene, SFX help bring a director’s vision to life in ways other editing tricks can’t.

And you can start doing that right now. Go out and gather recordings. Set up a foley studio in your basement. Purchase a great sound effects library. Whatever you decide to do, it’s important to treat sound effects like any other component in your video creation process.

And if you do, you can just sit back and wait for people to start engaging with your videos at a newer, deeper level.

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