What is Sound Design in Film, and How Do You Use It?
Jul 1, 2022
When it comes to film and video production, there are four main core elements which can define whether or not a project is “good” or not. And you can probably guess at least three of these components. However, there is one which is routinely missed — if not completely ignored.
The four core elements of film and video are story (or writing), cinematography, performance (which could also be considered “directing”), and audio/sound. Now, story, cinematography, and performance might be considered obvious. But I’d actually argue that sound — and specifically sound design — is perhaps the most important element of them all.
This is because sound design, when done poorly by sound designers, can absolutely ruin any project big or small. And when sound designers do their job well, sound design can turn even a poor project into a great one.
But what is sound design and what does this term actually mean?
Let’s explore sound design in film. From its early history in “talkies” cinema to how sound design can be used for your short films, commercial projects, or YouTube videos, here’s everything you need to know about sound design.
Let’s start with a basic sound design definition to get us started. While there is some nuance in the phrase, this is a basic breakdown of what a sound designer in film means to most video professionals.
Sound design is a term which describes everything that has to do with how film and video professionals create and use sound in a film or video project. Sound design includes everything that a professional sound designer might do from Foley work and sound effects to dialogue and music for film.
However, sound design does not usually have to do with the recording of audio on set during production. Instead, sound design is done more often in post-production as a part of the sound editing or sound mixing process. (Sometimes extra sound effects and audio needs to be created or recorded, in which case the job gets handled by a professional sound designer.)
To better illustrate what sound design is and how most sound designers work on film and video projects, let’s take a look at some examples from throughout cinema history.
As an interesting note, we can actually trace sound design back to the earliest days of film. You could argue that sound design was very much a part of the cinematic process even in the silent film era.
As you can see in this cool video essay from Full Fat Videos, even in the early days of silent cinema sound designers found clever ways to design sound and audio effects, cues, and musical backdrops. In many instances silent films were accompanied by a full orchestral ensemble.
Or for other leaner films, a single piano (or player piano) or phonograph record would be played simultaneously to provide both musical backing as well as musical sound effects. (Here’s a look at some really cool musical instrumentsearly sound performers would use to recreate many effects. They actually sound surprisingly accurate.)
For many people, the high water mark for film sound design came from the Hollywood films of the 1970s and ‘80s. Dubbed the new “Hollywood Golden Age,” filmmakers like Steven Speilberg, Mike Nichols, and of course George Lucas had a major impact on focusing on the importance of sound design in their films.
The original Star Wars is considered one of the most important films of all time for its sound design, and so many of the film’s classic sounds went on to become icons for the franchise and cinema as a whole. From the hum and bashes of the lightsabers to the funny growls from loveable characters like Chewbacca, the creative sound design work of sound designer Ben Burtt pushed the music and sound effects industry light years forward.
This brings us to the current state of sound design in film and video. Taking musical cues from the earliest days of silent cinema, and drawing inspiration from the analog hand-crafted sounds of Hollywood films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, modern sound design has become the digital melding of both worlds for many sound designers.
Filmmakers like David Fincher, for example, treat sound design as a huge part of the directorial and artistic process. Filmmakers are well versed in the power of sound in their films, and — with the numerous advancements in how a sound designer can create sound effects digitally — they’re able to push sound design to bold new places never before seen (or, more accurately, heard).
So, now that we’ve gone over some examples as well as the history of sound design, let’s really break down the role of a sound designer as part of the modern filmmaking and sound editing process.
As a way to keep things simple, we can look at the sound designer’s job beginning once the crew wraps up production on a project.
However, in many instances a good, creative sound designer might begin their work well before production even begins. That usually includes crafting soundscapes, searching for sound effects, and making cinematic music selections to help guide production.
Once a project moves into the post-production process, a sound designer (or sound design team) will work closely with the editor to provide the following sound elements for a film or video project:
As mentioned above, a sound designer is responsible for creating all of these music and sound effects from scratch, or at the very least for using resources like Soundstripe to find these audio elements from a high-quality library.
From that point, a sound designer will either implement these audio elements directly or pass them off to a sound mixer to add them into the final edit of a project.
Hopefully these basic definitions, examples, and breakdowns have given you a solid understanding of what sound design in film is and what you need to know if you want to become a sound designer.
If you’d like to read more on using creative sound design in your video projects, check out these additional articles from the Soundstripe blog: