Saturday, October 13, 2012

Randy Thom @ VIEW Conference 2011

On Friday, Oct. 28, 2011 VIEW Conference hosted a Master Class with Randy Thom, Director of Sound Design at Skywalker Sound. He is a firm believer that the sooner the sound designer is involved in the pre-production, the better the story can be told. Randy illustrated how sound can shape a film, talking about how doors can be opened to sound. He also shared clips from movies where this kind of early collaboration has happened. Here's an excerpt of his talk during the workshop.

Sound as a full collaborator to make better films 

Alan Splet, Walter Murch and Ben Burtt where the three people who lived within about 20 miles each other near San Francisco who really brought a new revolution into American film sound during 70s. I was lucky enough to work with all three of them and “steal” some of their best ideas. One of the first things that you learn as a sound designer is not think to literally about sound, so one aspect of training your ear is to interpret sound in emotional terms. Subjectivity in filmmaking is a playground for sound: when the audience understand that they don’t figure out consciously, but what they seeing and hearing is being filtered through a character’s or filmmaker’s point of view in a subjective way. Very often working on a sequence for a film what you want to do is think of how you want the sound to make people feel and you analyze what it is about that sound makes you feel certain way and you go looking for sounds or raw material that have those qualities. 

Apocalypse Now

If there was ever a film where sound and image were treated more or less equally and allow to affect each other certainly is Apocalypse now. The first sound that you hear in the film - before any music or any dialogue - is a very odd, electronically synthesized helicopter sound - the Ghost Helicopter. Captain Willard is hearing the memory of the helicopter that he has. What you’re listening to is this guy’s brain. He’s remembering things, he’s hallucinating, he’s dreaming, he’s drunk and under the influence of drugs, he’s listening to his brain operate. The opening sequence is the launching point for all story, immediately the audience is put in a frame of mind that anything can happen, this is going to be a very strange ride. As he stands at the window looking outside he might heard a little fly buzzing: it took me a week to record that fly (laugh). At first he hears - and we hear - the sound of Saigon outside (car horns, Vespas, police whistles). Those sounds morph into the sound of the jungle: each one of those individual city sounds turns into specific jungle sound. Physically for the all sequence he’s still in his hotel room, but in his mind he moves back into the jungle.

Once upon a time in the West 

Sergio Leone decided early on that they will record all the music for this movie before they started shooting the film and they used the music during the shooting to help the actors and essentially to inform how the film is going to be shot. They were struggling how to make music and sound working together before shooting the sequence. Ennio Morricone, the composer, happened to go to a musique concrete concert - a genre involved using real world sounds, rather than traditional musical instruments - by a guy who played a latter, banging and scraping on it. Then he called Leone and said: “There’s should be no conventional music at all in the beginning of the film: instead you perhaps should shoot around the sound effects.” Leone went shooting the sequence thinking about how the sound of this little train station were going to work in the storytelling.

I think that’s a tragedy that very few studios these days will have the guts to allow a filmmaker to do a sequence like that. They say: “People are going to be bored, we have to fill up with uptempo music through the all thing”. Some budget filmmaking these days is “fear based”, it’s not an attempt to do something new, interesting and unusual, to open people imagination. It’s an attempt to avoid boring people, which is never a good motivation in art.

One of the things that these two scenes have in common is a very strong sense of point of view. Camera angle are very important to sound, believe it or not. The kind of shot, where an actor looking at nothing in particular, is another open door for creative, subjective sound, because the audience knows intuitively that they’re going inside the character’s head. It’s an open door for sound designers to put almost any kind of sound that we want. Having some ambiguity or mystery about the visual image makes it easier for me to do something useful with the sound. Extreme close-ups get across the idea of subjectivity. Long duration shot opens the door for sound, too. The character’s closing eyes is also an opportunity for sound to do something interesting (imaging, remembering...). The most difficult kind of shot is a brightly-lit medium shot, because you’re not focusing on anything in particular and there’s no mystery there, there’s nothing that invites the ear to help figure out what’s going on.

Another element they’ve in common is sparse dialogue. I’m certainly not against dialogue in film - dialogue will always has a role. Dialogue and sound design generally don’t go well together, because there’s something about the human voice that the human ear want to attempt to.
If someone is talking - no matter how hard a director ask me to try to push sound effects during that sequence - it will distract you from the dialogue, which the audience is trying to hear. The way to solve that problem is to design the sequence in a way that there are moments for the dialogue and moments for sound effects. A compromised has to be made, you can’t as a filmmaker try to fire all your bullets at the same time, it’s not going to work. One category of sound tends to dominate at a time - it’s dialogue, it’s music or it’s sound effects. Another bad tendency in contemporary filmmaking is to try to set it up so that all three dominates simultaneously, it will never works. Lazy filmmakers will just call the composer: “make some very strange music telling the audience that this is a very strange place”. As a sound designer you try to do things and variations in the same way a music composer, to use sound in pure musical way: tempo, harmony and rhythm to evoke emotion. Think about what elements in a set could generate the sound useful for the storytelling: this will be more powerful at the end, it’s not a decoration, that’s a very organic way of telling the audience “this is a very strange place”.

Sound-friendly scripts

Most writers are obsessed with words, and they tend to think words should dominate every sequence, with wall-to-wall dialogue.
Filmmakers simply don’t think about how to use sound in that way before start shooting the sequence. Think about what the characters hear. Think about how the things they hear affects them and how character changes over time. I often found people who come from visual/light background - which David Lynch did - have very interesting sound ideas. He demands you to be creative all the time.

Another thing I told to directors is: during rehearsal in a live action scene, play with your actors in terms to find things in the space that can make sound that will be useful to the story.
As a sound designer, try to imagine ways that sound could playing in an interesting but organic, truthful way to help the storytelling in the sequence. Try to think to other powerful sounds that the audience doesn’t expect. Part of your job as a sound person - I think - is to help the director make the best film possible. If you have interesting ideas - and you should have them - about the way of film shooting that allow you to do something you couldn’t do otherwise, of course you should talk about it.

Sound for Animation 

Thanks to big aesthetic jumps in animation, more contemporary animation directors want movies should sound like a live-action movie. For “How to Train Your Dragon” I come up very early on with some speculative vocalizations for the dragons that will help the animators to animate to those elements. I tried to use real-world animal sounds - tiger growls, elephant, whales, goats, camel, dogs - to cover a wide range of emotions, allowing sound to influence the animation. The challenge is how to make the transition from one to another, which needs a lot of work and experimentation with pitch-changing techniques.

Sound Mixing 

Mix is about to choose right or most powerful sound in any given moment. In a moment when you need to hear the dialogue you try to artfully lower or eliminate sets of other sounds that are competing with the dialogue at that moment. Space can make sounds useful to the story: there are a lot of others tricks like moving the sound effects and the music into the side loudspeakers and have the voices mostly come out from the center speaker, which make a little bit easier to understand the lines of dialogue. Sound is more powerful if comes from a place we doesn't expect. You need to think of sound in terms of spectrum and frequencies and tailor those for a given moment.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Augmented Listening

By Tue Haste Andersen - October 9, 2012

reBlogged from: design mind

Stop for a second and listen. Close your eyes, use your ears, and just listen.

Whether you are in a quiet office environment or out on a busy street, you'll be amazed by how many sounds there are around you. Most of us do not pay attention to the ambient sounds that surround us. Our brains filter them out and we don't listen. Yet the sounds we miss can be very enjoyable.

Designed Sounds

Today, what we hear in our daily lives is often designed sound- music and sound effects carefully crafted for games, devices, and products. For example, mission-critical products, such as heart rate monitors used during medical surgery or a plane’s flight deck controls, use distinctive alarming sounds that are designed to be easy to perceive and raise a sense of urgency or danger.
In interfaces for everyday tasks, sound is used to create engaging and beautiful experiences. Sounds can generate a special feeling or underline brand identity while simultaneously providing cues that a command has been received by the system. Most smart phones today come with subtle sounds that indicate the pressing of a touch screen’s virtual buttons. Since there is no way to feel if a virtual button has been pressed, the sounds reinforce the action for the user. Another example can be found in industrial design, where the latest electric cars are being designed with artificial motor sounds. The sounds alert pedestrians to the car as well as reinforce the sense of driving a powerful vehicle. These examples underline the overall trend of sound being used to create an aesthetic experience rather than serving as purely a functional aid to improve interaction.

Blurring the Border Between Listening and Composition

While systems and products are becoming more enjoyable and pleasant to listen to, they are usually not intentionally designed for sound interaction. The emergence of accessible music software on computers and mobile devices is changing this. These programs allow for easy modification of sound by the average user and blur the border between listening and sound creation. The small form and limited complexity of mobile interfaces has forced music software designers to reduce the complexity of their products, resulting in music software that is widely used by average mobile phone users.
Music apps are often top sellers. Popular applications allow people to become mobile DJs, to transform sounds, and to design ringtones.
I was interested in exploring the blur between sound creation and listening when my friend and colleague Matteo Penzo put me in contact with Matteo Milani from the U.S.O. Project sound art group. The ideas and compositions of the U.S.O. Project revolve around the use of noise and ambient sound as a foundation for sound installations and music composition. Together we wanted to create a mobile experience that would support active listening to the everyday sounds that surround us, making the listener a part of a personal sound installation. Instead of creating a tool for recording and transforming sound, we wanted to start from the sounds themselves. Our goal was to reinforce the sounds of the listener’s environment while blending them with more musical sounds. Together the sounds would form a unique experience that could be enjoyed by anybody that has an interest in sound and art.  

Early Experiments

We started with a small prototype app for iOS using simple sound algorithms to blend U.S.O. music with live recording from the iPhone microphone. The prototype was tested with real use cases that included listening to the app while taking a long walk as well as while sitting at the computer in the office. We added many parameters for the user to be able to tweak and play with the sound transformation.The parameters were mapped to on-screen sliders and buttons and to sensors like the accelerometer.
While doing the informal tests we found that the users were struggling to understand the relationship between the parameters and the sound output. Also, in most cases they would end up spending time experimenting with the parameters to discover how they work. The visual interface and controls were clearly distracting, taking attention away from the app’s original goal of reinforcing ambient sounds for the listener.  
Following these early experiments, we decided to take a drastically different approach. We limited the visual interface as much as possible and provided a set of sound themes in the app for the listener to select. This worked much better. All of a sudden the users would pick up the app and, once started, would tuck it away in a pocket while listening to the sounds. Each theme takes sounds from the microphone and blends them with sounds composed by U.S.O. Project. The sounds are blended using sound algorithms, unique to each theme. Each algorithm is carefully calibrated to replicate the work and skill that goes into producing a great listening experience.


The result is Lis10er (pronounced Listener), an augmented sound installation app. Sounds are blended from the listener’s surroundings, creating dynamic music that changes while maintaining its identity. Lis10er provides users with a creative way of listening to their environment and a unique experience with every listen. 

Tue Haste Andersen is Senior Software Architect based in frog’s Milan studio. Tue is a Human Computer Interaction and Computer Music expert, with research ranging from DJ work practices to the use of sound and music in common interaction tasks. He is also the founder and original author of the popular open source DJ software, Mixxx.