Hi guys

(my English is failing me big time today for some reason! so please forgive me and bear with me if possible)

I just started working on a short (30 min) settled in a (present) post apocalyptic, abandoned city.

It is not clear why the city is deserted, but you can tell it was a recent event. The characters are army girls scouting the city, no dialogue at all. Music is sparse and when present can't let it ride the story.

All the shots are either still shots or very steady travelings (seems to be inspired by Andrey Tarkovsky's Stalker, unfortunately i don't have the DVD on me) The picture very often cuts between very wide shots and close up shots, of wither the characters or the houses.

My question is about keeping ambiances/bgs interesting, while not being able to use (due to director's request) nothing that is alive (no birds etc), since you guys always come up with really cool stuff.

Any insight? Thanks everybody

  • I love the question, I have the same issue on a one minute video game trailer I'm redoing the sound design for! Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 21:41

10 Answers 10


What state are the buildings in? If they're supposed to be damaged or falling apart, then that would provide you some great opportunities to bring in random debris/rubble/glass/etc. If you need some inspiration, walk around a similar area and listen to it. Ignore the sounds people make, and just listen to the structures. For example, what sounds do the door's make when they're used?

Also, if you can identify any reverb or echo characteristics of that area, then maybe you can use that as a means to bring in sounds from a distance.

I also read a great article by Randy Thom talking about how he built the sound for Castaway. The director wanted something similar, no sounds from living creatures to heighten the isolation. He built every single one of the plant, wind and ocean sounds as environmental ambiences. Maybe watching that movie will give you some other ideas to work from.

  • Thanks @Shaun and @Dave. The buildings are in great shape... Even fresh painted.... What i'm using right now is a palette of wind, some foliage in some shots and like @Ryan suggested little hints of sand, gravel debris according to the shot. Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 21:12

I recommend you watch The Book of Eli. Excellent background design and many areas where there is no dialog or music.

  • @Marco, Legend was a great track but very different from the OP's project. See my comment on Eli above. Commented Feb 8, 2011 at 8:46
  • @ Jay, You're tottaly right. Saw IAL when it came out and for some reason I kept on my mind that the first couple of minutes there was total lonelyness approach. My bad. Great movie, great sound design. I remember a lecture of Mark Berger about sound design, he gave as an example for a desolate approach a scene from a western film that I dont recall its name now. The sound design team based its creativity on the japanese minimalistic music trend during that era. Wind and the rythmic metal creak of a windmill. Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 8:09

Wind is always good... use it as a character, having it change according to the needs of the story/shot.

Another interesting trick is to hi-pass your ambiences above 60hz or even 100hz fairly sharply. All cities have a very distinct power hum, that you really don't notice until it's gone - when the east coast had the massive outage a few years ago, that was definitely something I really noticed. Making sure that frequency range is "gone" will help sell the feeling of desolation.


I have dealt with a similar situation. If you have Native Instruments' Absynth, Check out presets tagged with "Sound Scapes" There are perfect sounds for creating an empty, abandoned, spaceish atmospheres.

I also was very carefull about the geography of the scenes. When there is no one in a city, each natural element is very exaggrated sound-wise. Open areas: a lot of wind, Seaside: wind+waves, inner city: effects of wind and sun on different materials(metal, glass) etc.

Good luck!

  • Thanks @Selcuk! That's a cool idea, i don't have access to absynth though. And yeah turns out wind is all we're using, the director wants to go really conservative. Commented Sep 4, 2010 at 14:09
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    You're welcome @Filipe, there is really nothing much to do when you are limited by the director but in such situations, I always prepare a 2nd version of a specific scene, in an experimental way I like, then give it to the director as an option. Sometimes it even works! :) Commented Sep 4, 2010 at 17:49

Great desolate ambiences in Terminator Salvation.

There is a Soundworks Collection on it and you can see how they created the ambiences:


What I like about it is they used gritty dust and small rocks for the details. I think that would fit right in to your film - a good desolate wind with gritty rocks and debris.

I love a squeeky metal hinge as from an old bar sign or gas station signage - that always speaks desolate/alone to me.

I would study up on the opening scenes of I Am Legend - I am sure they had some great ambiences for that one.

Jay Jennings would be the person to tell you - he's the pro at this sort of stuff (based off of his IMDB page. He has credited to him some awesome apocalyptic-type movies).

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    @Ryan, happy to impart any experiences or knowledge that I can share, but to set the record straight, I share those credits with many other sound designers whose work is 100% top notch. For example, I believe Craig Berkey and Jeremy Peirson are largely responsible for the beautifully crafted backgrounds in IAL. And Ai-Ling Lee and Lee Gilmore had a huge influence in the soundscapes of Terminator Salvation. I'm happy to be listed alongside those folks any day of the week. Commented Feb 8, 2011 at 8:52
  • @Jay Well, bah. You're one of the most helpful people on this site and have a wealth of knowledge I could only hope to have someday!
    – Utopia
    Commented Feb 8, 2011 at 20:19

Pull a No Country for Old Men and add a subtle melody to your wind. And maybe some wood creeks and metal stresses to signify the reduced structural integrity of buildings.

  • Thanks @Dave, can't believe i didn't remember No country! Commented Aug 31, 2010 at 22:13
  • Slow creepy metal movement sounds (like metal signs swinging in the wind)
  • Water Drips
  • Wind chimes
  • Alarms / telephones going off, depending on how long it has been abandonded for...

Atmospheres aside, also remeber tat without much background noise all the footsteps, cloth, object handling - any noise created by any people will be very noticble. Have you ever ben in a house when everyone is asleep and you are trying not to make any noise? Suddenly you are aware of every noise you make and things like creaking doors and shuffling through boxes are seem unnaturally loud and detailed.

Another example is being in a shopping centre extra hours and hearing all the detals like light hums and escalators are rich with machine whirs and metal squeaks.So close mic things and pay attention to details would be my approach.

For reference Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas might be good. One of my favourite tricks in that is the sounds of metal buckling and straining when you pass something like a water tower; as if the nearly destroyed structure can barely hold its own weight.


This is an interesting question plus the answer are as equal. I did an experimental flick in my 3rd year of varsity and i wish i had come across ya'll a bit sooner after catching up with some of the answers and questions posted up, i think i can take a shot a it again. Much appreciated


Check out "I am legend". Great abandoned ambience track.

  • I actually wouldn't include I Am Legend in this list since the ambiences in that film had a lot of life in them...nature had overtaken the city and wildlife was everywhere. Tons of birdsong, insect life, etc. A grat track, no question, but very different from the desolate approach of Terminator Salvation, which is more in line with the OP. Commented Feb 8, 2011 at 8:44

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