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The Importance of Hearing

Sound design. Until recently, when I thought about sound design, I basically just thought of feature films and foley work. It was something that professional filmmakers did to enhance the drama in a scene. You know, adding the sound of boots clunking down a dark hallway, or a deep whooshing sound to emphasize the main sail on a ship being unrolled at the start of an adventure. These sounds can go largely unnoticed, but they do exactly what they’re supposed to do; they focus you emotionally. With the last few weddings I’ve done, especially, I have realized how important a role sound design plays in editing a film. Or any event or dramatic production. The audio portion dictates how you feel. Period.

To illustrate this point, try watching any of my wedding videos with the sound muted, but with this song playing in the background.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=ihF_aXi-Huk#t=135s

It’s terrifying, sad, and creepy all at the same time! That song is beautiful, and it would work great in the right context (such as the movie for which it was created), but here it does not work. Now, try watching the same wedding video with this song playing.

http://www.themusicbed.com/#!/get-music-detail.php?music_id=686

Even if the edits don’t line up, it’s already infinitely happier and fun than the previous song (which makes sense, given the songs’ names). The same test could be done with sound effects. Certain sounds, at certain volumes, in certain places, evoke certain emotions. This is very important.

I may film a wedding where I have two audio clips I can use: One is the sound of people laughing and joking around, and the other is of a baby crying as its diaper is getting changed in the other room. Both sounds were recorded on the same day, and they are both technically true to the events of the day. However, when I sit down to edit the film, I have to decide what the story really is, and what elements best support it. Unless that baby was an important part of the day, or was actually Benjamin Button as a groomsman, I will probably not include it. This, of course, is not a hard and fast rule, but an example of using the correct sounds to enhance the feelings and emotions that need to come across. For many people, the sound of a baby crying is more stressful than soothing.

In my opinion, 90% of the emotion in a film of any kind comes from the sound. This includes music, sound effects, and ambient sound. I separate sound effects and ambient sound because there’s a difference between a basketball bouncing and a breeze blowing through trees. I think of sound effects as more punctuating an action, whereas ambient sounds mostly live in the background. Until this last year, I hadn’t paid much attention to the sound effects and ambiance in my soundtracks. I love editing to music, though, because it is able to carry my visuals so well. One of my favorite parts of editing is picking out the music! And I feel that I’ve gotten pretty good at finding music that fits the couples with whom I’ve worked. However, until recently, my focus has been much more on the visual part of their story.

I love shooting details. There are so many more options for shots when you move in close and separate objects and people from each other. They also feel more intimate and help you feel like you’re in there with the people. And although wide shots are necessary, I feel that they can get boring because they are “safe”. You’ve got the whole scene in frame, and everything is equally represented. But because of this, wide shots can be anything but “safe”. Nothing gets special treatment; no focus. And this brings me back to the audio. In the past I have been content just letting the music carry my edit. Although this has provided a good feeling throughout the video, it lacked focus.

Music has been my auditory “wide shot”.

It sets the tone for the film. It gives you an emotional overview of the world you’re entering, and that’s important. Just as a wide shot gives context to a scene, music gives context to the emotion in a scene. But you need those tight shots to help people focus on what matters! Bringing to the forefront the laughter, the clothes rustling, the doors opening and closing, the sniffles, the cheers, and the whispered vows leads the viewer to a place where they can feel the joy and anticipation, too.

Video is informational, but the audio drives it home.

I get disappointed when I see some wedding videos that start off with a great sound bite, but then the rest of the video is just a montage of pretty shots set to music. I feel like there had to be more to their day than just smiling for the camera, so why wasn’t it used? Well, I know the answer to that question, from my own experience. Either the videographer didn’t have the necessary equipment to get good-quality audio, or they were lazy in the editing. Both of these have, at times, been the case for me in the past, but since I’ve realized how crucial my audio is, I’ve been much more aware of it. And I’ve planned for it, and I’ve consciously chosen music that doesn’t get in the way of my sound bites and other audio “close-ups”.

So basically, here’s my point:

Skimping out on sound design is like getting a White Castle slider instead of grilling up some homemade burgers with friends. Yes, they are both technically burgers (I guess), but one will leave you much more satisfied. And probably with fewer trips to the bathroom.