Sound Design: Step One – Theme

The first step to sound designing a film is defining the theme of the project.  The theme is the overall mood of the piece; is it an up-beat romance comedy or a dark murder mystery.

A thematically powerful soundtrack embraces the audience and invites them into the story.  Though sound is important, understanding the theme allows the sound designer to become transparent.  An audience doesn’t hear a good sound performance, they feel it.  Listen to Chris Henighan break down the thematic elements of Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller, Black Swan.

Here is a list of three objectives that will help you uncover the theme of your project:

Spotting Session–  A spotting session is a meeting between you and the director.  The director will provide valuable insight over the thematic direction of the film.  Pay special attention to things concerning mood, character mentality and motivation.

If you are the director, it still helps to have your thematic objective written out so you can reference it as you edit.

During the spotting session, make sure you have the “locked edit.”  This means that no more edits will be made to the picture.  There is nothing more painful than laying down sound to a scene that gets cut or changed.

Sound Effects– The next objective is to review each scene and compile a sound effects list determining which elements are concrete and which elements are atmospheric.

  • Concrete Sounds are elements that a member of the audience can easily associate with, a car turning on, a phone ringing or a door opening.  They are directly influenced by the main action on screen.
  • Atmospheric sounds serve as the backdrop to your scene and help the audience acclimate to the environment.  Things to consider are where is the scene taking place?  In a quiet park or under a freeway bypass? What time of day is it?  Is it in the future or is it contemporary?

Sound Design- The final objective to consider is the thematic impact of each sound effect, or the overall “sound design.”  Review your sound effects list and decide which sounds you want to pull from a “sound effects library” and which ones you want to “foley.”  

  • Sound Effects Libraries are collections of generic sound effects based on several themes.  These are best used on concrete elements.  Sound effect libraries are also a useful tool in compiling atmospheric elements.
  • Foley is the process of recreating and capturing sound effects in sync with the picture.  This is reserved for the sounds that carry a thematic significance or are unique to the scene.  If I’m designing a scene where the main actor sets a glass on a table, I will set up a small table in my my walk-in closet sound booth and recreate that action.

Now that you have the mental weaponry to analyze the theme of your project, go out an make some noise!  Check back for “Sound Design: Step Two – Recording Sound Effects.”

-Sound UnderGround


One thought on “Sound Design: Step One – Theme

  1. Pingback: Sound Design: Step 3- The Edit | Sound Underground

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