3.5a Sound


If you’re going to make short films, understanding how sound works is crucial. There are a number of ways that you can use sound and music in your narrative films.


Actual sounds are all the sounds that occur within the world of the film and can be heard by characters.
Onscreen sounds are any sound that has a source within the frame.
Offscreen sound is where the source of the sound isn’t visible on screen but the audience understands that it’s part of the scene. Ambient sound is a good example of this. If a scene takes place inside an apartment, the audience understands that the off-screen sound of traffic is part of the scene. 
Transitional sounds are a sound bridge when the sound between two scenes overlaps. Dialogue from the one scene, for example, might be heard before the characters appear on screen. This helps to create a smooth transition between two scenes.
Audio match cut is when two similar sounds fade into each other. Director Alfred Hitchcock famously used an audio match cut in 39 Steps, cutting from a shot of a woman screaming to the shot of a train sounding its whistle.
Subjective sound is any sound occurs in the mind of a character. As David Sonnenschein notes in Sound Design – The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema: “By getting inside a character’s head, hearing what he or she is hearing, the audience can have a strong bond with that experience.”
Inner voice. A character’s inner voice is when you hear what they’re thinking word for word.

Remembered sound – Although visual flashbacks are often used in films, a sonic flashback is when a character hears something – usually a line of dialogue from a previous scene – that reminds them of something.

Imagined sound – There are some films that allow the audience to hear characters’ thoughts. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a good example.

Distorted sound – Sometimes, when the audience hears sound subjectively from the perspective of a character, it can be distorted.

Spoken writing – When a character is reading something – often a letter or note – the audience can hear the voice of the character who wrote it. The sound of military personnel reading the letters are layered on top of each other in the sound mix.  

Personal narration is when a character, from some point in the future, narrates the story.

Impersonal narration – While personal narration is relatively common, filmmakers seem to use impersonal narrators less frequently. An impersonal narrator is not a character in the film.

Non-diegetic sound effects are any sound that doesn’t occur in the created world of a film. These sounds cannot be heard by the characters.

Score –  In narratives, orchestral music performs a number of functions. It can establish setting. In the opening shot of Braveheart, the camera soars over the Scottish highlands and James Horner’s score, which makes extensive use of bagpipes commences. In conjunction with the visuals, the music helps to establish the setting of the film within seconds.

Songs – Popular music can also make a significant contribution to narratives.

Contrapuntal sound. Contrapuntal sound is when sound or music is used in an ironic or unexpected way. In John Woo’s Face/Off, a child caught in a massive gun battle between criminals and police listens to the song ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ through a pair of headphones. Windows explode, machine guns flash and spark as the room is showered with bullets. The scene plays out in slow motion to this unexpected music.


A good soundtrack will add considerable production value to your film. Most first time filmmakers simply use the audio recorded by their camera’s microphone, resulting in a soundtrack that is flat and lacks polish. To create a decent soundtrack, you will need to assemble a patchwork of purposefully recorded audio, including dialogue, sound effects, music and atmosphere.


Recording dialogue on location is one of the most important parts of principal photography. If you don’t capture audio properly, you will be forced to rerecord performances in post production using a process called automated dialogue replacement. Dialogue is often rerecorded days or weeks after the initial performance. It can be quite difficult to match the performance and then make the rerecorded dialogue sound like it belongs in that space.

As a low budget filmmaker, correctly capturing dialogue on location is essential.

• Eliminate background noise. When you arrive on location do everything possible to remove background noise. Listening to the location through your headphones will often draw your attention to sounds that you might otherwise not notice. Close windows and doors. Turn off air conditioners and refrigerators. Do everything possible to ensure that the recording environment is pristine.

• Get close. Whether you’re using a shotgun microphone or a portable audio recorder like the Zoom, it’s important to get the microphone close to your actors.

• Capture an atmosphere track. Before you start shooting, capture a five minute atmosphere track. Even quiet rooms have sound. When you’re editing your film, an ambient background track is the foundation of your sound mix. Not including ambience will result in periods of silence that will remove your audience from the reality of the film.

• Record location sounds. When the set is quiet, rerecord important foley sounds such as footsteps, doors opening and closing and the sound of important props using a dedicated microphone. It’s important that you slate your takes by saying something like, “Location: Kitchen. Sound: Door opening. Take one.” This will help you to identify the sounds later on.


Click here to watch this video about foley artist Gary Hecker.

Foley is the art of recording sound effects to match the performance of actors onscreen. A foley artist typically performs these sounds on a soundproof soundstage while watching clips from the film. These sound effects are then mixed into the final film.

In the case of The Hunger Games, the sound designers decided to record many of the sound effects at outdoors locations, the foley artists using an iPad to play back segments of the film.

Recording your own foley sounds can contribute significantly to the effectiveness of your own films.

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