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You've probably all heard at some point in your career/education that the golden rule of sound design is not to be noticed, or that you know you've done a good job when no one notices your work. In the current climate of films like Transformers and Skyline, what do you think?

I can see the logic behind this kind of statement, but is it now outdated or has Hollywood style sound design overstepped the mark?

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I think the key to this is what's meant by "noticing sound design".

If sound has been successfully crafted with the visual, physics, story and emotion in mind, i believe that it isn't noticed. The fantastical nature of films like Skyline and Transformers allows (and even requires) sound to go further without taking the audience out of the film. The sounds may be big and attention grabbing, but that's what all the elements are working towards.

So, in this context, i've always thought that "notice" is meant in a negative sense, meaning to make the viewer pay attention to the fact that they're watching a film.

  • Cool thanks Roger! I guess the reason I ask is because it never really sat right with me. Maybe I am getting hung up on the wording too much but I see what you're saying in that all elements are working together towards a common goal. My thoughts were more along the lines of can you create noticeable sound design that still remains within the context of the film? I guess it's all in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, but is it possible to supercede the visuals at times or would that be detrimental to the experience? Not in a competitive destructive way of course. Can anyone think of examples? – Squidlick Nov 29 '10 at 9:16
  • @squidlick It's an area that's very hard to quantise, isn't it! My head turns inside out a little bit when i think of it. I think slapstick comedy is one area that can use the obvious, blatant use of sound for comedic effect (here's a thread from a while ago socialsounddesign.com/questions/3918/…). Also, the extent of noticing varies so much from person to person, it's hard to get too specific. You might watch a scene and think "ahh, Sound Ideas underground wind", while another person would still be totally wrapped up in the scene. – Roger Middenway Nov 30 '10 at 6:04
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Simple answer:

Our job is to tell stories. Our goal is to find/cut/create the right sounds to tell the story as clearly and effectively as possible.

If the story calls for "check me out-flashy-wizz-bang sound design" then bring it. But we often have to check our egos at the door and realize that the mute button is one of the most effective tools in sound design.

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Great, thanks for the response guys! I totally agree that the sound design should be appropriate to the events on screen, and assist in the story telling. I should clarify that I am not suggesting that sound design should try to outdo the other elements of a production, I am just throwing some thoughts out there for discussion.

For example, I consider the sound design for the original Predator vision to stand head and shoulders above the visuals, yet it stays within context and assists the story. Granted visual FX weren't what they are now but nor were SFX. On the other hand I thought the recent-ish film Ninja Assassin was over-kill in terms of sound design, despite the amount of action and not because of shoddy workmanship. Then there are films like Kill Bill or Eraserhead which use eccentric sound design in a different way.

Again this is all down to personal preference. I guess what I'm saying is, is the 'golden rule' a good or bad thing to preach? Does it limit creativity or provide an appreciation of other production elements. I get that it's not written in stone and stuff but I just wondered what everyone else thought :)

  • I like the point you made about the eccentric sound design. I think that is one area where a sound designer can experiment to create a space for sound to be in context within the scene as well as create an impact outside of it (i.e. making the audience realize this sound stands out). – Rishi Dani Apr 8 '11 at 20:53
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I love Justin Pearson's answer, as it is, indeed, all about context. I would summarize my own opinion as the following:

The extent of sound design stylization that suspends audience disbelief is directly proportional to the level of realism [see footnote] of the narrative, and the emotional content of the moment being underscored.

[Footnote: Realism is in the eye of the beholder, based on familiarity with the subject matter. If we all hung out with ninjas and serial killers every day, would swords and gore effects sound as stylized and still suspend disbelief?]

This generalization applies to entire films that aren't objectively realistic (such as sci-fi films) to more expressionistic or impressionistic (as opposed to representational) moments in films that lend themselves to moments of visual and sonic poetry, as opposed to more realistic or verite approaches to sound and picture. This isn't to say that this is a rule that can't be broken: It's broken all the time, often for comedic purposes, or to get all "meta" on it and remind the viewer that this is an illusion/film.

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I also think that it means you shouldn't be able to easily pick apart a sound, like the chickens-as-falling-boards thing in Saving Private Ryan, or be able to say "Yeah, this has obviously been effected" like the typical dual-tone demon voice.

A shoddy home builder will leave things like wires and framework visible (Okay, that's probably something other than "shoddy"), and I think a shoddy sound designer does the exact same thing.

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