Sound Design for Film - with Nia Hansen Asbjoern Andersen


There are many benefits to getting started on sound design as a film develops as opposed to coming on at the end. It gives you more time to explore and develop creative ideas, influence the look of the visuals, and get the filmmakers involved in the creative sound process.

When starting early on a film, or for complex sound design projects that require (or allow time for) experimentation, it's essential to have a solid plan for how to proceed. Staying on track will help you successfully complete your sound design project.

Here, MPSE Award-winning sound designer and new A Sound Effect columnist Nia Hansen shares her approach to preparation, planning, designing, and finally supervising the final sound design to make sure its in line with the director's creative vision for the project.


Insights by Nia Hansen, photo courtesy of Nia Hansen
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Sound designer Nia Hansen (on the team at Skywalker Sound) has won two MPSE Awards for sound editing on Avengers: Endgame (2019) and Big Hero 6 (2014), and earned 13 more nominations. She’s designed sound for many Marvel films, like Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War, and many more. She’s designed and edited sound effects and foley for animated films like Encanto, Raya and the Last Dragon, Onward, Brave, The Good Dinosaur, the upcoming Disney animated feature Strange World, and others.

With so many huge films under Nia’s belt, you know she’s not flying blind when tackling sound design. Here, she shares her tips for preparing and planning for sound design work on fantasy and science fiction films. She discusses how she gets started on creating sonic palettes, her approach to pulling existing sounds and recording new ones, how she maps out what’s needed for each reel and allocates work to a sound crew, and how she switches from editing to supervising as a project nears completion.

 

The Early Work

For the fantasy and science fiction films I work on — with lots of R&D required — my sound design planning often begins much earlier than our main crew starts. A year in advance is not uncommon!

After a spotting session to understand the filmmakers’ ideas and aesthetics for the film, I’ll sketch some material to review. Once we’re all happy that I’m heading in the right direction, I design a toolkit of sounds to pass off to the picture department to start trying out as the film develops.

 

Making A Plan

When I first start, I might not have access to visual content to help me conceive ideas for the film. This is limiting in that I might create sounds that miss the mark once I see what they’ll be applied to, yet it’s freeing in that there are no constraints on how creatively I want to approach things.

…I might create sounds that miss the mark once I see what they’ll be applied to, yet it’s freeing…

At some point, I get to watch an early cut of the film. I capture my immediate thoughts, reactions, and ideas. I can only watch a film for the first time once, and this initial instinct is valuable. I take note of themes, character arcs, narrative shape, and setting even though these might change. Story needs to be my core focus. This informs the aesthetic direction and also where I spend my time and my team’s energy most efficiently.

I jot down names of characters, items, locations, and other basic info, then pivot to the practical planning:

• What will I need to design? What processes are obvious?

• What aspects do I have ideas for that are more sound editorial than designing new sounds?

• What library source comes to mind? (Both as design materials and for editorial.)

• What could I record or play with? (Again, both as raw source for design, and the practical sounds we need to cut into the film.)

I’ll note what sounds are single events that don’t need a whole sonic palette developed for them, and what sounds repeat often through the film or in different ways and require files that are easy to edit with.

If I can, I’ll also break down a sonic element into the parts I need to create.

If I can, I’ll also break down a sonic element into the parts I need to create. For example, I might divide a magic power into a start up, a steady sustain, impacts, and a shut off. These will be separate files.

From this starting point, I create a document with unique Show Categories for the film’s sound library. This metadata goes on new files and helps the team find what they need. At this early stage, it also helps me wrap my head around the core elements of the film’s soundtrack.

Using a fake sci-fi example here, I might divide categories and subcategories up like this:

GUNSHIP – ENGINE
GUNSHIP – INTERIOR
GUNSHIP – BLASTS
GUNSHIP – CLOAKING

PLASMA SWORD – ON OFF
PLASMA SWORD – STEADY
PLASMA SWORD – WHOOSHES
PLASMA SWORD – HITS

BOLTHOUND – VOCALS
BOLTHOUND – FOOTSTEPS

TELEPATHY STING

CHEMICAL POD – ACTIVE
CHEMICAL POD – EXPLODE
CHEMICAL POD – FOLEY

GILTHRA CITY – CROWDS
GILTHRA CITY – GLASS FOUNTAINS
GILTHRA CITY – RAILWAY

SLOW MOTION

…etc.

 

The Harvesting Phase

Once I have a hit list of things requiring specific sound design, I need the right raw materials.

I start by gathering library source first. I don’t want to sink a bunch of time into recording sounds I already have available, especially if they don’t end up working the way I imagined.

I don’t want to sink a bunch of time into recording sounds I already have available…

Also, cruising the library can generate more recording ideas. I might stumble upon a cool prop that I wouldn’t have thought of trying and can record more in new ways.

Or, I might be reminded of past material/processes that could be helpful. Maybe I’m searching for whizzes and come across a slingshot recording session I was part of long ago, and this gives me ideas of something similar to try again.

While I gather library sounds, I head down rabbit holes of search terms…

While I gather library sounds, I head down rabbit holes of search terms and start to arrange sounds in my design session. This process creates a sort of sonic mood board in my head, and I come out of it with a more tangible sense of how I want the film to sound and feel. I might be designing something familiar to me, like magic, but does it need to sound gritty and real? Cool but not dangerous? Soft and fun? Mysterious and otherworldly?

This process creates a sort of sonic mood board in my head…

This harvesting phase is both frustrating and fun, seeming to be about 70% trying to find sounds that match an idea in my head and 30% grabbing cool stuff I’ve stumbled on that has the right flavor but I don’t know for what yet.

 

Preliminary Design and Recording List

Before I commit to recording new stuff in the studio or out in the field, I do some work layering and processing what I’ve gathered from library. I’m finding my way toward the right aesthetic while weeding out ideas that aren’t going anywhere from those that are working.

At the end of this process, I’ll have a sense of the gaps I need to fill with new recorded material…

At the end of this process, I’ll have a sense of the gaps I need to fill with new recorded material, and I adjust my recording list. You’d be surprised how many vacant niches there are even in a massive library!

A lot of the ambience, effects, or foley that we want new material recorded for isn’t critical to the early design work and can wait until later. If I’m lucky, I’ll have an assistant to help out at that stage.

My immediate sound recording list will involve a combination of buying or scavenging materials, scouting locations, and researching.

My immediate sound recording list will involve a combination of buying or scavenging materials, scouting locations, and researching. I might need to locate a specific machine, vehicle, environment, or prop. Maybe I want to find an expert or hobbyist who will have exactly what I need. Sometimes I look up videos online before I commit to pursuing a sound. Does this animal make the sort of vocals I imagine? Is this chemical reaction as cool sonically as I’ve seen it visually?

After I’ve recorded and worktaped everything on my recording list, I switch back into design mode to play with this new source and finish creating everything on my design list.
 


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Preparing for the Crew

I want to set my sound crew up to succeed. The bulk of this happens before they start on the film, so they can hit the ground running as much as possible.

The Show Categories I already developed help the editors navigate our film’s sound library. For the sound effects sessions themselves, we have a template, but what goes where is still somewhat unique to each film. I make a predub layout with what category of sounds go on what predub so there is consistency across reels.

Here’s another fake example:

AFX – Fight 1, Hits, Doors
BFX – Fight 2, Body falls, Beeps
CFX – Whooshes, Stings
DFX – Foley FX
EFX – Gunship engine, Special powers 1
FFX – Gunship weapons, Special powers 2
GFX – Creature vocals, Chem pods
HFX – Creature footsteps
IFX – Weapons 1, Spaceship traffic
JFX – Weapons 2, Tech
etc.

BG 1 – Air
BG 2 – Wind, Water
BG 3 – Birds
BG 4 – Insects, Traffic
BG 5 – Crowds
BG 6 – Specifics

 

[tweet_box]Tips on Preparing for Early Sound Design for Film – Insight from Award-Winning Sound Designer Nia Hansen[/tweet_box]

Mapping Out Each Reel

Once we receive the film in reels, I make another document that maps out the beats of what happens in each reel. This lets me keep track of sound continuity, so that key locations, items, and events are consistent across reels. As a team, it helps us all quickly reference what reel something is in.

I make another document that maps out the beats of what happens in each reel.

This map of the film also helps me to figure out what reels to assign to which sound effects editor. Each editor gets one or two reels that are “theirs” to edit, including all ambiences and sound effects.

I’ll make sure one editor isn’t getting overloaded with all the hard reels. An editor with less experience may be assigned easier reels, while the difficult ones go to the veterans or get extra help. If there is a recurring element in the film, I’ll try to give those reels to the same editor so one person is cutting them all, for consistency.

If there is a recurring element in the film, I’ll try to give those reels to the same editor so one person is cutting them all, for consistency.

My master document is called “Who What Where” as these are the important things for the team to keep track of. Who is doing what? What needs to get done? Where do all the things go? What are they called? Getting this information listed in the beginning helps me when I switch gears from creation mode to supervising mode.

 

Switching Gears from Creating to Supervising

Once the crew starts, I get pulled in many directions: designing and editing, spotting reels, reviewing work, answering questions and emails, and attending meetings and playbacks.

I like to complete the bulk of the creative work before this stage so I can just focus on design and get into a flow. Hopefully, by the time the crew starts, we have a solid library of new sounds and a map of the film.

Not all film sound designers play a supervising role or do this much organization. I enjoy it and feel like my job is to make the whole track as cohesive and high-quality as I can, so I try to set us all up for success.

 

A big thanks to Nia Hansen for sharing her insights on Preparing for Early Sound Design for Film!

 

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  • RPG INTERFACE ESSENTIALS – CHARACTER & HUB
    RPG INTERFACE ESSENTIALS – INVENTORY & DIALOG
    RPG INTERFACE ESSENTIALS – MAP & PRINCIPAL MENU

    This is the fourth and final installment in our sound library series, “RPG Interface Essentials – Pop-Ups“, an essential collection of interface libraries designed especially for RPG or MMORPG games. With a total of 135 sounds carefully distributed in various categories, this installment will immerse you in a unique sound experience.

    You will find these nine types of Pop-ups:
    – Enter Or Discover New Territory Pop-Up
    – Experience Popup
    – Insufficient Resources Popup
    – Neutral Pop Up
    – Item Received Popup
    – Journal Updated Pop Up
    – Mission Or Quest Complete Pop Up
    – Overwrite Saved And Save Game Pop Up
    – Special Event Complete Pop Up

    Exceptional Audio Quality:
    With 135 sounds presented in 192 kHz and 24-bit, enjoy exceptional quality and clarity in every detail, immersing players in a captivating audio experience.

    Designed for versatility:
    This versatile sound set is ready to enhance any gaming project, whether it’s a classic RPG or a unique adventure.

    More about the package
    – Intuitive file naming.
    – Use sound effects over and over again, in any of your projects or productions, forever with no additional fees or royalties. Use these SFX in your game, in your trailer, in a Kickstarter campaign, wherever you need it, as much as you want.
    – Full mono compatibility.
    – All sounds have several variations.
    – Use your imagination and feel free to use any sound in an action other than the one described, remember that the world of sound is totally subjective.

    Technical details:
    – 135 RPG interface sounds
    – Number of audio waves: 135
    – Format: 192kHz/24bit
    – Sound Effects Loop: No
    – Total duration: 6 minutes and 38 seconds

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    Ends 1722290399
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    The FX Bundle contains:
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    • FabFilter Pro-L2
    • FabFilter Pro-Q3
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    • FabFilter Pro-Q 2
    • FabFilter Pro-DS
    • FabFilter Pro-G
    • FabFilter Saturn
    • FabFilter Timeless 2
    • FabFilter Volcano 3
    • FabFilter Pro-R2

  • Prepare for combat!

    With our fighting sound library, you’ll have 192 high-quality sound effects at your disposal so you can create the ultimate fighting experience in your video games, movies, or audio projects. Each of our sound effects has been carefully designed and categorized to cover all possible situations of a fight scene.

    Sound categories include: Punch, Bone Break, Blood, Punch Whoosh, Hit Protection, Break Bone, Sword, Knife…

    Furthermore, all of our sound effects have been recorded at a 96KHz & 24-bit, which means that each one of them has exceptionally high sound quality and stunning clarity. These sound effects are also highly customizable, which means you can adjust them to perfectly suit your creative needs.
    If you’re looking for a fight sound library that will really make an impact on your project, look no further! Our fighting sounds library will provide you with all the sound effects you need to create the most exciting and realistic fight you’ve ever imagined.
    Download now and start creating!

    Preview
    Youtube
    Soundcloud

    Movements include:
    – Blood
    – Body Falls
    – Break Bone
    – Cloth Whoosh
    – Grab Body Cloth
    – Knife
    – Metal tube
    – Punch Breaking Bones
    – Punch Protection
    – Punch Whoosh
    – Strong Generic Punch
    – Sword

    More about the pack
    – Intuitive file naming
    – All you’ll ever need regarding magical elemental sounds [Use them again & again
    – Use the sound effects over and over, in any of your projects or productions, forever without any additional fees or royalties.
    – Use the SFX in your game, in your trailer, in a Kickstarter campaign, wherever you need to, as much as you want to.
    – Totally mono compatibility
    – All sounds have several variations.
    – Use your imagination and feel free to use any sound for a creature other than the one described, remember that the world of sound is totally subjective.
    – For any questions or problems: khronstudio@gmail.com

    Features
    – 192 unique fight sounds
    – Number of Audio Waves: 192
    – Format: 96 Hz / 24 bits
    – Do Sound FX loop: Some
    – Minutes of audio provided: 3 minutes and 13 second

    Documentation
    License Agreement

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Latest sound effects libraries:
 
  • All files are recorded 32bit, 192 kHz, with Shure KSM 137, Line Audio Omni1 and FEL Clippy XLR EM272 microphones, Sound Devices MixPre-6 II recorder. Library contains wav files of driving, foley, mechanical and electrical sounds. It is also available in UCS.
  • Car Sound Effects Audi A4 2012 large family car Play Track 260 sounds included, 57 mins total $60
    All files are recorded 32bit, 192 kHz, with Shure KSM 137, Line Audio Omni1, FEL Clippy XLR EM272, Sonorous Objects SO.3 and JrF C-Series Pro+ microphones, Sound Devices MixPre-6 II & Zoom F3 recorders. Library contains wav files of driving, interior and exterior foley, mechanical and electrical sounds. It is also available in UCS.
  • All files are recorded 32bit, 192 kHz, with Shure KSM 137, Line Audio Omni1, FEL Clippy XLR EM272 and Sonorous Objects SO.3 microphones, Sound Devices MixPre-6 II & Zoom F3 recorders. Library contains wav files of driving, foley, mechanical and electrical sounds. It is also available in UCS.
  • Sci-Fi Sound Effects Energy Swords Play Track 2331 sounds included $99

    Energy Swords is a scintillating selection of Sci-Fi Energy Swords sounds. Bring energy weapons to life with 9 different sword types.The library provides the perfect arsenal of pulsating drones, doppler slashes, energy clashes, ignites and retracts. Includes 2300+ files.

    17 %
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  • Mechanical Sound Effects RC Toys Play Track 550 sounds included $9.99

    This is a sound library containing a wide variety of remote controlled and mechanical toy sounds.

     

    Includes:

    • Car
    • Tank
    • Train
    • Drone
    • Quadroped
    • and more!

     

    Features: 

    • 500+ audio files in 24 bit 96kHz quality WAV format
    • “Multi”, “One Shot” and “Loop” files provided
    • All files have UCS compliant metadata and naming, allowing for easy searching in sound library management tools
    • Available for commercial or personal use without attribution

     

    View a summary of included sounds here​

    View a full list of included files here

    33 %
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One thought on “Tips on Preparing for Early Sound Design for Film – Insight from Award-Winning Sound Designer Nia Hansen

  1. BG 1 – Air
    BG 2 – Wind, Water
    BG 3 – Birds
    BG 4 – Insects, Traffic
    BG 5 – Crowds
    BG 6 – Specifics

    do you checkerboard them A/B (scene change) as well?

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