As I will be learning mixing every day from here on out, and quite possibly won't ever stop learning, I have a question regarding Sound Design and Mixing:

Time and again, in most of the interviews and articles I have read, I have come across a constant - Storytelling. It's mentioned quite a bit that a mixer has to be able to tell a good story.

Where does one learn this? What do you suggest is a good reference, practice, drilling, etc. to cultivate this skill? Or is one just born with it or does it only come after hours on the job? Is it able to be taught? Is it something that is mentored? Is there a Storytelling 101 class?

I'm curious to find out from you what professionals like yourselves did to acquire this important skill to this line of work.

7 Answers 7


For me:

  • Reading, primarily, but across different media: Graphic novels, actual novels, and nonfiction.
  • Film studies and semantics.
  • Storyboarding. I happen to also have done a lot of storyboarding, which is one of the most direct storytelling forms I've come across: Images and words, boiled down to their essence without the need for polish for a wider audience.
  • Specific Books:
    • There's a wonderful book that I just got for the holidays called Directing the Story, which is all about this topic and written by a classic Disney storyboard artist. One needn't be an artist in order to get a lot of value out of this book.
    • Another classic for those involved in interactive media is Brenda Laurel's seminal book, Computers as Theater.
    • A forgotten classic that's out of print, also about interactive media (games, etc.), is Meadows' Pause and Effect.
    • Specifically for film, Cinematic Storytelling is pretty wonderful...punchy, to the point, and a great book to go through and think, "How would sound underscore the base meaning of this storytelling technique?" Not exhaustive but pretty thought provoking and easy to read small bits of at a time.
  • @NoiseJockey, awesome response (as usual!) Dec 22, 2010 at 21:09
  • Thanks, NoiseJockey! I'm checking out those books as we type.
    – Utopia
    Dec 22, 2010 at 21:22
  • 2
    This is a great answer. Storytelling as a craft spans so many different mediums, that it's foolish to restrict yourself to any one when studying it. If anything, I'd say stay away from your medium so that you can concentrate on the story. Personally, I always get distracted by interesting audio elements if I don't. ;) Dec 22, 2010 at 22:15

I'll second what NoiseJockey has said and add two things...

First, Walter Murch's excellent book, "In the Blink of an Eye". Helped me a lot with this very issue.

Second, and somewhat related, learn to edit picture. You don't have to do it as a living, but learning the art is useful. Picture editing is also all about story, and will definitely change the way you think about the sound. Plus it makes it sooo much easier to talk to picture editors when the time comes!

  • Great idea. Learning to edit picture I could see as being invaluable. Thanks for the book and great advice!
    – Utopia
    Dec 22, 2010 at 21:28
  • Wonderful advice and agreed on the Murch tome. Good call, @Sonsey! Dec 22, 2010 at 21:58

A wise way to approach these things is to spend some more time working on what the specific problem is before heading into solutions. Mixers that tell stories are less focused on how to make things sound good than they are focused on what to make sound good.

I tend to relate mixers telling a story to the ability of a voice actor to interpret a script - you have a set of elements with which to work, but you have to use your mind and be empathetic to what the meaning of the words is in order to do your job well.

To develop empathy I'd suggest going through the process of creating and delivering narrative emotional content in other mediums as was also suggested above.

Storyboarding, picture editing, script writing, acting, even things like photography can give insight into the critical skill you're looking to develop - learning which notes to play and which ones to leave silent.


Great question and great answers! Here's some small things I like to do on the job.

Screen the material first as a dramatist. By this I mean before before you think about sound at all, think about story. What is the central conflict, where are there moments of resolution, does the pacing feel flat anywhere, what connects with you personally, what works what doesn't?

Think emotionally. Its very easy to get lost in making the soundtrack come alive technically - balancing your reverb between whats already in the dialogue and the space that viewer is seeing, making sure every syllable of principle dialogue is audible, etc. It's important to try and make time for things that seem superfluous - will taking out some high end in this room reverb and making the space bigger than it looks heighten the sense of isolation the characters are feeling? Is it more powerful if the audience finds this line of dialogue more difficult to understand, instead of crystal clear? This means that you end up doing things twice, as until you get seasoned (and I'm not there yet) you always want to have the technically correct treatment in your back pocket (via presets, muted tracks or an alternate session).

When in doubt about something, ask "Does it serve the story?" And when you figure out how balance the answers to that question with the answers to "Does it fit in the budget?" please let me know.

  • 1
    @Adam, funny budget line! Dec 23, 2010 at 20:26

Go and watch one of your favorite movies. As you watch it, be aware of the sequences or scenes that really speak to you. Watch the movie in its entirety. When you're done, go back to those sequences or scenes and watch them again, this time in "analyst" mode; deconstruct them and figure out what it is about those scenes that involve you emotionally. Is it the score (or lack of)? Is it the dialog? Is it the sound design (or lack of)? Do this several times until you understand what the filmmaker has done to evoke your emotions.

You've just completed Storytelling 101.

  • Thanks, Jay. Your answer has prompted another question from me: Is it one of the mixer's first steps to watch and listen to the pre-dubs that have been done and decide what adds and what detracts from the story? Is it better for the mixer to be the supervising sound editor as well? And if he's not, does it behoove the mixer to listen to rough cuts and monitor the progress of the sound team as the film continues in the editorial stage up until the final mix? How involved is the mixer from the beginning and does he have authority to say "I don't want a music cue here, I want it to be bare-bones
    – Utopia
    Dec 22, 2010 at 21:21
  • Absolutely true! Storytelling is definitely an art, and takes practice, but it's not rocket science. Deconstructing existing narratives is possibly the most critical part of the learning process. Dec 22, 2010 at 21:22
  • FX and dialogue for a more dramatic effect on the audience" and does he talk to the supervising editor or the director about that at that point? Or does the supervisor have it all worked out already and then hands over a cue sheet which just makes a marionette out of the mixer? How much artistic create is the mixer entitled to? Does it depend on the reputation and production record of the mixer and the director's regard of him?
    – Utopia
    Dec 22, 2010 at 21:25

Where I grew up in Alaska there was a very rich tradition of Native American storytelling. It helped me to appreciate early on what it's like to capture an audience through a rich story. Also (and probably a byproduct of living in Alaska), we spent many rainy Saturdays at the public library listening to authors read children's books or watching a shadow puppet theatre. I've found that moving your storytelling education away from cinema for a while can make your filmmaking much better. It's my opinion that there are many universal elements to telling a good story that are grounded in our DNA from centuries of sitting around the campfire and getting lost in stories. Good luck.

  • Well stated, @Matt! Dec 23, 2010 at 5:29

Some (very few) video game companies do a form of focus testing called 'Tissue Testing'. They wire up players for their heart rate and have them play thru the game. THey create an 'emotional map' and use the map to tweak the missions in the game (try not to have too many long lulls, build the peaks up thru a given mission, etc). I learned of this process from CHarles Deenan - a great sound designer up at EA Canada (last i heard).

I think watching a show before you start thinking about the actual sound fx with an 'eye' on the emotional map is a great first step in helping to tell the story that is supposed to already be in the show by the time the sound folks get the show.

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