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I'm looking for ideas or existing examples of sound designing grace and elegance in motion. Exacting, fluid movements that can also be sharp and deadly. Without giving too much away (NDAs and all) the scene is of a lethal dance of sorts. One of the "dancers" is very dainty, graceful, and dressed in fine robes. She epitomizes poise in an almost magical way.

My first inclination was to foley a bolt of silk, flowing ripples, whooshes, flaps, impacts, etc. But the director implicitly said he wants to avoid precisely that. So I have a few other thoughts to try and differentiate between the "dancers"(contrasting frequency ranges, delayed vs verbed sounds and a couple other experiments I want to try out), but was hoping someone out here might have a clue as to what I'm trying to get at and maybe could nudge me in the right direction.

Much obliged.

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Sounds like a difficult task...and it's hard to advise on something as nebulous as this. One piece of advice I've received over the years is to cut "opposite" the picture, meaning if the picture is compsed of quick cuts, try designing your track with long, flowing sounds. And the inverse could work, too.

Another approach is to go with your gut instinct; even though your director has cautioned you against a realistic design, it may work well and make perfect sense in context with the overall scene structure and against score. If you think it's valid, I'd go for it and be prepared to defend your storytelling.

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  • Yeah, a big part of me says to go with my gut. If nothing else it'll add a good base layer, or provide for good recordings on another project. I like the notion of cutting "opposite" the picture too. Thanks @Jay! – Steve Urban Oct 28 '10 at 18:00
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The first thing that comes to my mind is ensuring that the sounds you choose have little in the way of transients, and maybe even might need some attack-portion-o'-the-envelope shaping. In terms of elegance in a martial arts or conflict scene, I'd think that really reducing the SFX when in close-up on the character in question would be nice. Maybe all we hear, for the most part, are the movements and the efforts of the antagonist(s), and not the protagonist, showing who is expending the effort.

What is elegance, after all, but the absence of harsh sound? Perhaps even the absence of nearly any sound? Maybe the simplicity of just one kind of sound? Perhaps you could try a few different passes of just one sound source of something soft, like sugar, fine sand, cotton, or similar. That kind of simplicity could underscore the theme of zen elegance and minimalism.

Only other thing that comes to mind is using subtle pitching to bring effects into a major chord, even subtly, which piggybacks on Shaun's idea of chromatic percussion or chimes. The ol' Jedi vs. Sith lightsaber trick...

All this, as per Jay's post, needs to fit with the picture (if the huge robes make no sound, that might be cognitively dissonant), but if you want to display preternatural (or even supernatural) grace, I'd think a minimalist approach would yield big benefits.

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  • Great thoughts @NoiseJockey! Is there any way/tool in particular you recommend for envelope shaping? I usually either edit/fade, or sample and futz with the ADSR controls. Couldn't agree with you more about the essence of elegance, I think it's why I'm having such a mindblock about this. But you're right, contrast against the antagonist's movement will be the best way to imply grace. – Steve Urban Oct 28 '10 at 18:14
  • Good question, @Steve...Y'know, for me, I'm old school: I'd probably set up a sampler patch and globally roll off the attack of each amplitude envelope, making subregions for more specific rolloffs only as needed. That way I'd be softening all the sounds rather than doing it individually. Depends on complexity, though: I might instead just draw automation per sound if the scene is short. – NoiseJockey Oct 28 '10 at 19:33
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I like Jay's suggestion of cutting against the picture. As far as specific ideas, I was starting to think of something light and maybe a little airy...maybe something like moving chimes, or something lightly metallic and tinkling...that's fairly clean and melodic/harmonic. You could then add in a little distortion at the points where you need to show the dangerous edge that's hidden underneath. It would probably be a bitch to cut, but that was the first thing that came to my head.

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    One of my experiment ideas was with tonality. Using Structure and elongating the attack/release of sine samples, then softening it further with verb, adding motion with delay. I really like the idea of adding distortion at the attack points, those were something that I was struggling with how to approach. Good ideas @Shaun. – Steve Urban Oct 28 '10 at 18:06
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For a good movie example of this sort of thing, check out the opening of "The Matrix" (the first one), where the Police and the Agent are chasing Trinity. Notice the difference in the motion sounds on the Agent and Trinity versus the Police - especially in the part where they all jump over the roof.

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  • Haven't watched "The Matrix" in so long, it's a viewing that's long past due. Thanks for the reminder @Sonsey! – Steve Urban Oct 28 '10 at 18:19
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Well almost anything can be considered graceful. When the lion pounces and we see it in slow motion, it is graceful yet deadly and precise. In regular speed, it may seem different. Even the locomotive is graceful in that it was a graceful invention for the time and allowed people to travel, sometimes in grace depending on their ticket class, but also in grace because of the chic'ness of the time and the speed it took to get from one place to another. Airplanes doing sky tricks can seem graceful. An explosion is also graceful given the correct context and perhaps accompanying music. In a C major chord, all the notes, grace eachother. On the other hand, grace can also mean something different to say an evil side. It means something different to the bad guys than the good guys.

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  • Hmmm... This actually helps, a lot. Makes me think of Hockey (the most gracefully violent sport), which makes me think of using ice skates as an element, which may very well be that edge of beauty and danger that I'm missing. I'll have to look into this further. Hmmm... very good @Chris, very good... – Steve Urban Oct 28 '10 at 18:27
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In addition to the already great suggestions, I really like the method that some asian martial arts flicks use - attributing animal or mechanical sounds to people. Lions suggest deadly grace, as do sharks. Maybe having paw pads and growls, or water turbulence. I'm not sure how abstract your director wants the sounds.

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  • Abstract will be right up the director's alley. Have no fear @VCProd, there will be animals. – Steve Urban Oct 28 '10 at 18:19
  • @Steve Excellent! Good luck - it sounds like a challenging project. Let us know when/where it is viewable.. I'd love to hear/see the outcome. – VCProd Oct 28 '10 at 20:07
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check out the drum scene http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UN5-k0Pvk6E early on in House of Flying Daggers. Actually, just watch that whole flick.

I agree with NoiseJockey that silence or otherwise non-transient sounds are good starting points. I think a combination of silk moves and clean metallic ringing could be a good place to start.

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  • Goooooood movie. I have to add that to the "why don't I own that" list. – Steve Urban Oct 28 '10 at 19:58

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