The Sound of Storytelling

One of the great things about working on sound for films is the experience I get in learning how to shape and craft a story by examining how film-makers do it. The editorial process for films is similar to editing a novel, in many ways. The first cut we sound editors receive from the picture department, is almost always too long and in need of a major tidy up. Trimming shots and scenes the way we do in writing to cut out unnecessary detail or to speed up the pacing is a big part of the process. Sometimes it is the reverse also true, and a key scene slowly becomes longer as shots are extended to give more time to let poignant moments linger on the screen. Sometimes, the director even has to go back and shoot more footage adding more detail in the cut to explain things that are confusing or just didn’t work the way they had first imagined they would.

This is true of the novel editing process, sometimes you have to cut huge chunks of writing out in order to keep the story centered on the protagonist and their goals. Sometimes, you need to add more detail to flesh out an idea that needs more development in order to sell a critical theme or concept.

The main difference between film editing and novel editing, (other than the fact that they are completely different mediums), is in my mind, is the fact that from the very beginning, it is a process that involves the thoughts and creative input of not just one person, but many. Dozens or even hundreds of people, depending on how big the project is, put their creative energy into creating a film. Those people might only each have a very small part to play, but they contribute to the overall shape and tone of the film and constantly influence/ inspire or affect the decisions that the director makes as the project evolves.

Working in sound, you really notice this, since sound is the last step in the film creation chain. We get to see the picture edit change over and over and over again, refining the story day by day. With each new version, we alter and enhance our sounds that accompany the pictures in a process that can last weeks or even months. Sometimes you have to work very fast to get all the sound blocked out for temp screenings while other times you might be working on one scene that only lasts a few minutes for weeks on end.

Although the film started in it’s original form as a script written by a single person or handful of people, once it leaves their hands and enters the machine of the film-making world, it becomes a strange new beast. A conglomerate of creative talents. Sometimes this can be a very fruitful, smooth and rewarding process, but sometimes it can go on and on and become sterile or a confused tangle of competing ideas. At the end of the day it comes down to communication and team work.

How this relates back to my understanding of shaping a story is that this endless exposure to other peoples ideas, to the way they see things, affects how I create my sound. The visual effects (VFX) become more sophisticated and detailed, allowing me to think more about the world I’m looking at on screen. I try to make sounds that will immerse the audience in that space. I think about how the sound can affect the viewers emotions. I think about how the sound works with the music to achieve a cohesion between what is really being heard by the characters and what they are feeling. All the while, thinking about the main goal of the film which is – to tell a story.

When I’m writing by myself, I still think through the same process. I’m still thinking about the scene as though I can see it. Drawing on all the senses, to describe what pictures I see in my mind. The hardest part is getting that visceral emotion out into words in a way that is as effective as sound. So in a direct way, I’m always thinking about how the words I write, will sound.

Devices like onomatopoeia, alliteration and assonance, are all subconscious contributors to affecting how a piece of writing flows and how it draws us in. When I’m cutting sound, no matter how big or small the action on screen is, it could be a car chase or an explosion or simply opening a door, I’m always listening to the shape of the sounds and making sure that there is a flow. Every sound has a beginning a middle and and end, just like every story, every sentence every word. When you break everything down, you see that the process of a story unraveling is just like everything in life, breathing sleeping birth and death, all art is a reflection of this process of beginning middle and end. A three act play.

Sound is perhaps the most powerful and primal of our senses. It develops in the womb and is one of our earliest methods through which we can communicate and interact with out world. As a species, sound played an important role in our evolution, helping us to become better survivors in a world full of dangers. Our language sets us apart from other animals. It is through language and written word that we have learned to share our experience and our consciousness with each other.

It was the sound and the shape of words and the emotions that they can evoke that I think first drew me to the act of storytelling. I’m fascinated by the nature of how humans tell our stories and how we have done so since the beginning of human history.  A love of reading is completely connected to our childhood and our past. The stories that were shared with us from older generations, the histories of our ancestors become part of us when they are told to us. There is such an alluring mystery to the process of hearing about something that happened outside of our own experience. And by hearing an account of someone else’s story we are transported into their minds. It enchants me. I am in love with how the sound of words can evoke a world within our minds, a world that no two people can see the same.

This is what I think film is all about. People coming together, to try and take all those individual visions of a story and put them together to form a collective. A meeting point between the vision and imagination of artists working in all different fields. It is as close as technology has so far brought us to sharing a dream amongst others. That is why film is such an amazing force in the world of storytelling, because it’s not about replacing books, its about our desire to share our thoughts and dreams. Outside of people who claim they have telepathy, this is as good as it gets.