A while back I had the opportunity to work directly with Sound Editor Richard Hymns - we flew him in an he and I spent about 3 days in my studio working with me to tweak some sound editing + design for the short film "Ana's Playground".

At the point at which he came in, the entire soundtrack for the film was mostly complete. We were chatting over lunch one day and he asked how I usually work when sound editing - if I worked in an "element-by-element" or a "scene-by-scene" protocol. I realized at that point that I had gone scene-by-scene, creating the soundtrack for the entire scene before moving into the next scene - amb/bkgrds/fx/foley all being cut into the film at the same time to create a more "finished version" of what the scene should feel like before moving onto the next shots. Richard confirmed that he can't work any other way but to build the scene top to bottom before moving on.

Last year I sound edited the feature "Stuck Between Stations" - a drama with very little action, much different than "Ana's Playground". This time, I found myself working in the opposite fashion - cutting in amb/bkgrds beginning to end before moving onto foley, then fx, etc.

I'm working on another short film right now and I'm finding I'm having much better luck building scene-by-scene than I would have going element-by-element.

Do you find that the way you build the soundtrack to a film depends on the type of story? The genre? The length of the film? The director? Does it change for you every project? Game time decision?

8 Answers 8


For me it varies with every project. Instinctively I'd say I like to start with an ambience pass through the whole film and while I'm doing that I notice & drop markers/make lists of all kinds of stuff.... But some projects start by being given a scene or a short sequence to do temp FX for picture editorial... Some start by getting the entire rough cut, scene by scene & temping all FX/ambience... Ideally; watching the cut without having to do anything is best, so as to have an honest reaction and provide feedback/input to the cut... But once the schedule starts my goal is always to attempt the most difficult/subjective elements within the first week, because those elements benefit the most from iterative evolution....


You know what... I've never actually thought about it before.

Now that I am thinking about it, I suppose that I mostly go scene by scene, unless it's something super short that only has one or two scenes in it, then I go element by element.

I'm going to make a point of trying it the longform way in the future. I like to try as many different ways of doing things as possible, and this is a totally new idea to me.

It'll be interesting to see what kind of responses you get. It could be really indicative of people's psychologies, that being their innate natural approaches to work. Almost like a left-brain, right-brain kind of thing...


Hmm...that's a good question. Typically, I find I do a scene from top to bottom. It's pretty rare for me to cut one type of element across a picture before moving on to the next. I'm usually a one man team as far as edit and mix goes, so I almost always go through and handle any dialogue work/needs across the entire picture first.

If I am ever inclined to handle one element first, it's usually because of ridiculous deadlines where I have concerns about meeting final delivery. In that situation, I prefer to build up the detail of each scene concurrently. At least, that way, I can ensure consistency across the picture.

That's a pretty rare situation for me lately (thankfully). Regardless of whether I'm working scene by scene or across picture, I tend to start with ambiences/backgrounds immediately after the dialogue. It helps me figure out the remaining needs of the scene a bit more clearly.


One technique i tried successfully was to get some really talented musicians and let them improvise watching the film themselves without sound ( i told them some info about the "feeling" and emotions i wanted them to acchieve beforehand though ).

I found after that in the mix of the whole sound of the movie was really successful, I had some "different points of view" with each musician and instrument they played, and i that resulted in having many choices of tracks when i mixed with sound effects and dialog also!

You should try this but it really helps to have some good musicians (or yourself!) to play, each one has something "different" to tell with his music!


when handling a project alone I personally work in layers, probably as you'd call element to element.

This allows me to get into that headspace fully, as well as to re-use certain elements when I need consistency (eg a BGFX environment or a specific weapon/door/vehicle sound). I tend to go BGFX, SFX, sound design, foley. (project dependent). Also, the one element that needs no other sonic context is BGFX. That layer is the sonic context, so IMO its important to spend time on that first all the way through and get it just right before diving in to other things. If I run across something specific WRT sfx or sound design when I'm cutting BGFX, I'll note it in the session and move on.

When working in a team environment working in layers allows more efficient distribution of work. IOW, the foley team can be working at the same time as the bgfx cutter and the sound designer.


I work mostly on animation projects and I find it nearly impossible to work scene by scene. When I get the pictures there is no sound at all other then the dialog. Hard SFX never seem to sit right with out a solid amb edit already completed, so I find it an absolute necessity to do a full pass of the AMB/BGs before I start cutting anything else. This is helpful for a few reasons in addition to grounding the scenes. It also lets me go through the entirety of the project and see everything again in full editing mode in my brain, I tend to catch lots of things that I missed in the screening with the director. This gives me time to contact the director with any follow up questions while there is time to hash it out still. It also lets me dig in and plan how long different sections of the project will take to complete. I also find that AMB/BGs are a easy thing to neglect and we often forget just how important they are to making a scene feel "real", I would worry if I was doing everything in one sweeping pass that I would short change the ambiences in order to have fun cutting the spot effects which are generally much more interesting to work on.

Next I tend to do a pass on the hard effects, with a foley pass last as the icing on the cake. Also this way you can use the foley pass as a backup to help out any SFX that need a some more attention.


I usually work scene-by-scene. Like some others who've posted already, I tend to be the one man sound editorial team. If, while editing dialogue, I get an idea of a needed sfx or background, I take a note and mull it over as I finish cutting the dialogue. This keeps me in the soup of the scene and the notes can simmer with the scene in my head while I work. I then go back and tackle the notes I've taken in addition to any director notes. I can't seem to move on until I've fleshed out those ideas. Working this way also helps keep the mountain of work manageable.


Coming from super short Flash games into bigger projects, I still do element-by-element, though I'd absolutely love to get into a scene-by-scene mindset.

  • @Dave, See, I feel the opposite. Don't you think starting with individual elements, or classes of elements offers you the ability to retain a more cohesive sound across the entire project? Or am I thinking about this the wrong way?
    – g.a.harry
    Apr 5, 2011 at 0:22
  • Not really... I mean, when you're designing even scene-by-scene, I assume you strip it down to individual effects. I've been lucky, so far, that my sounds have been cohesive anyway, but the last project I worked on was awful -- I didn't get to hear any of my effects in the game until we sent off the final product to the client -- and, to make matters worse, the coder used Flash's built-in compression so the whole game sounded awful. Apr 5, 2011 at 13:14

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