hey guys. i am a fresher to this field and have started doing my research and work in sound design around 6-7 months back. As a part of the learning process, i make sure that i watch loads and loads of films (almost all types i.e. mono, stereo and surround). But the question i always have is WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR!? Usually when i see a movie, i observe sounds that grab my attention, the use of silence, why is it used, why has the ambient sound reduced which was first prominent, why has the level of music increased, why a particular sound is panned, how was that effect created etc etc. I still feel that i should look out for more aspects. Are there any more suggestions or advice you fellow sound designers would like to give in regards to WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR!?, while studying a movie. Thank you.

8 Answers 8


It sounds like you're still working your way into this process, and I think you're going to have a hard time getting much that is substantive from such a broad approach. You'll probably find it much more beneficial to focus on smaller bytes of information first.

Select a scene only, and watch it over...and over...and over............and over. Get to the point where you have every little piece dialog/vocalization, lighting and character blocking memorized. Now, you've probably also got the sounds memorized by this point as well. Start thinking about how the sounds interact with all of those elements. Where do sounds occur? Where don't they? Do any of the sounds exhibit a particular meaning to the characters? Where do they come to the foreground and demand both your and the characters' attention? Where are they subservient to the dialog and visuals? What you're trying to understand with all of this is, "How does the sound support the scene?"

There's a lot going on in sound beyond the technical, and that's the more difficult information to process. Once you start to get the hang of this on the smaller scale, you'll naturally begin to apply it in a broader context. You'll start understanding how elements within that particular scene tie into the context of other scenes in the film, and how they affect your perception as a viewer.

Find places to talk with other people about your thoughts as well. It will help you process and cement opinions in a way that just watching the films won't. If you're interested, we're going to be talking about the story-telling functions of the sound for Cast Away in the next Film Sound Discussion Group. Randy Thom has said that he wants to pop in and participate as well...you might have a hard time finding a better perspective than that. ;)


I strongly recommend you to get a copy of Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema by David Sonnenschein. It will give you a good idea of all the elements to look out for in sound design for film.


+1 for Andrew's suggestion.

My suggestion for you would be to break down film sound into components and approach the film for each one. Please feel free to look at my old dissertation if it helps you in that regard.


  • +1 on starting small. focusing on a scene or a particular element of a film (dialog, creature sounds, ambiences) is a far more effective way to start. Nov 30, 2011 at 13:48

All the things you mention are usually there to try and give an emotive response for the audience when viewing. Try to think why the sounds are being used instead of just how they are used too. Think of what the characters might be thinking/feeling at any given point any how the sound is reflecting this. This might make it easier to piece together the details in the soundtrack. It's all about helping the narrative at the end of the day. Think of any films where you were really drawn in by the sound then think why. Did it help you connect with the character more? Did it make you scared etc?

Go and watch Apocalypse Now if you haven't already too ;)


I agree with Andy Lewis on this one and feel that all of the elements are in the soundtrack are there to serve the story. With the elements in the soundtrack being dialog, sound effects, ambiance and score, one has to look at all of these things and how they tell the story, as well as how they work together to make everything complete i.e. the mix.

Is the dialog clear enough and does it get information across? Are the sound effects believable and are they spaced appropriately in the mix? Is the ambiance smooth and do they sound believable in the appropriate space? Is the score help convey the emotions of the characters or themes of the film? Is the mix good? Does it have a wide range of dynamics? All of these things should be looked at to get a good feel of how the audio in the film is being used to tell the story.

Some great examples of sound in some films are The Conversation, Master and Commander: Far Side of the World, Wall-E, Alien, The Matrix, Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan.

Whether you've seen these films already or not, the next time you pop in a Blu-Ray or DVD of any of these or any film for that matter, just listen to them, preferably in an ideal surround sound setting and try to see how the story is conveyed.


Two things I regularly study nowadays are:

  • How are sounds choices playing contextually to the story/moment? (big, small, brash, subtle, etc)
  • How are "real" sounds cinematicaly cheated effectively? (Example: hot cars always sound like a slip-n-slide and it feels "right" on screen, but hardly ever do we hear a car in real life creating those kinds of skids for a simple peel-out or punch in/stop)

A thing I like to do is to watch a film (or a scene in a film), but disconnect/mute the centre channel.

I find it helps me focus on the sound design more and I get distracted by the story less. (I'm easily distracted :P)


  • "I get distracted by the story" huh? but the story is everything - it what motivates every sound in the soundtrack
    – user49
    Dec 1, 2011 at 8:00
  • Completely agree Tim, in regards to when you watch a film. However, when listening critically to the sound design, I sometimes find it easier to hear what the designer/mixer has done because nothing is being masked by dialogue. Also, if you're listening to a sound design and it can give you a sense or even tell you the story without the Dialogue present, then it's great to be able to analyse how and why that is. Dec 1, 2011 at 17:50

A must read for film sound appreciation and analysis: Michel Chion's "Audio-vision". Really, read this.

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