Sound designers make some noise

The concept of sound design, that is, using sound as characters in films has been around for years. However, with increasingly sophisticated theater sound delivery systems, and increasingly sophisticated audiences to demand and appreciate those sounds, it’s rare to hear the words “sound” and “design” used separately anymore.

With the success of films that have employed such sophisticated sound stylings, Hollywood is re-discovering sound design again in a big way.

According to Charlie Meister, president of Soundelux, “When we think of sound design, we think in terms of conveying and enhancing the concept for the film, for the story, by creating specific sound events.”

For example, box office commander-in-chief “Air Force One,” which Soundelux worked on, used a lot of silence to set up high-impact sound design moments. Meister likens sound design to visual techniques such as dissolves and other transitional elements.

According to Meister, the attention sound is now getting conforms to the traditional production hierarchy. He says, “(Sound design) is just a way that’s helping the market diversify the product. It’s saying, ‘Here is a film. How do I make it better? Well, visually, I can make it better with Silicon Graphics or special-effects shots.’ And then there’s this other component of the moviegoing experience, the audio side.”

In fact, he says, audio has become so mature that creating a truly sensory sound experience has become the norm. Studios are now looking for new ways to use sound.

Essential component

Consequently, he says, “Audio will be increasingly viewed as an essential value-added component to any form of entertainment.” Whatever it’s called, though, Meister points out, “sound design is still a craft. We’re taking sound and creating emotions.”

Supernatural thrills

Bruce Fortune, sound designer/sound supervisor on the upcoming Denzel Washington pic “Fallen” believes that he and his colleagues at SoundStorm have always been doing sound design, they just haven’t been taking “special credit” for it by adopting the title of sound designer.

Fortune has handled the sound design on “Tin Cup,” “Primal Fear,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and others. Before he became a sound designer, he remembers when he and his colleagues called themselves sound supervisors.

“It’s become sort of specialized. These days, you have an ADR supervisor, a Foley supervisor and that type of thing. But, we’re still ultimately responsible for the total sound package. Everything except music.”

In his latest project, “Fallen,” Denzel Washington battles a paranormal being that can inhabit any person it desires and is passed from person to person by touch. Fortune’s assignment was to develop signature sounds for the “passes,” environments for the being when it is active and a “voice” for the visuals that allow the audience to “see” whomever the being has inhabited.

The challenge, he says, was creating sounds that could affect the audience at the visceral level for a being that is never actually seen but inhabits many different host bodies over the course of the picture.

“We tried to stay away from horror-movie effects. We wanted to create chilling, unsettling, disturbing sounds that didn’t go to the comedic side, that didn’t take you back to the Bela Lugosi pictures.”

“We used a lot of organic sounds and treated them electronically, such as animal noises, and human and animal breathing. And then we combined them and treated them (electronically) in unexpected ways, such as slowing them way down or modifying them other ways.”

Scott Martin Gershin has been a sound designer for 10 years, working on an impressive list of projects, including “True Lies,” “Cliffhanger,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “The Doors,” “JFK,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Courage Under Fire.”

He believes that the term “sound design” has become “over-misused” these days. “It’s a phrase that the clientele and a lot of the audiences have made popular, as if it’s something new.” As a result, he says, “Everyone is a sound designer.”

And the term means different things to different people. “It’s really creating special effects with audio. The process is similar to giving humanistic appearances to computer graphics.”

Currently, he is the sound designer on John Hughes’ remake of “Flubber,” with Robin Williams reprising the Fred MacMurray role. Gershin’s mission is to give inanimate objects a character that audiences can care about.

“We tried to give character to everything, even the bounces. Because everything represented some state of Flubber, which has many different states of being.”

After experimenting with a multitude of substances, both gelatinous and rubbery, to get the right sound character, Gershin discovered that the human voice was the best tool for the job. He used his own voice and manipulated it to create the sounds of Flubber, Weebo — another invented substance — and even the flying car with Flubber tires.

“Using the voice gave the sound a huge, wide range of emotion, and then I combined it with other elements, so that it was based in reality, but then I stretched it further, like … Flubber!”

Gershin jokes that his next big challenge will be coming up with a new term for sound designer.

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