As sound designers we bring life to worlds that would otherwise be without an audible character, stuck in the silent void of space.
We add information such as location, time of day, mood, and most importantly the emotional state of a moment. The slightest change in sound can vastly alter how a moment is perceived emotionally by an audience, so to me, it is one of the most important things to remember when designing sound.
Sound tells a story, and the emotion you set with sound supports that story.
The feet of a drunk man don’t sound the same as one who is sober. The raw high tech power of a race car has to be felt, sometimes with more than just a car recording. A dark tense moment in a horror film needs to build stress, anticipation, and fear. The choices made during these moments define the emotion and character of a moment, and draw an audience into that world.
I recently had to create around 40 gun sounds for a game I was working on, and at first I was quite overwhelmed with how I was going to not only a create unique sound and character for each weapon, but also how I was going to create an emotion for the player every time they fired a different weapon. I started by asking myself a set of questions.
What type of Gun is it? Is it a realistic gun or a surreal gun? Is it old and clunky, or is it modern and tight? Does it have loose parts or is it a high tech tight firing weapon? Does it have more low end or does it have a crisp tight shot?
Most importantly, every time I fire it, does it make me feel empowered and happy? Answering these questions throughout the process really helped me finalize each gun sound.
A few quotes from masters of sound design have stuck with me in my career as a sound designer, and this one resonates well:
“…The most important thing you can do as a sound designer is to make the right choice for the right sound at the right moment…” – Ben Burtt
Sounds simple enough?
Well, yes, sometimes.
But if it were really that simple, then Joe Blow or Sally Simple off the street could easily do sound design. It’s supposed to be a challenge!
Choosing the right sound at the right moment is what defines the character and emotion of that moment. It’s also what separates a professional from an amateur. It takes time and it takes patience. The reward is creating something that one can truly take pride in. If you don’t love the feeling your sound creates, chances are, others won’t either. Which incidentally leads me to a quote from another master of sound design:
“The most important skill for any sound designer to have is will-power. Never give up.” –Charles Deenen
Even the most seasoned masters of sound design don’t always know how they are going to achieve the sound that they want for a moment.
They experiment, they re-work it, they don’t stop until they have accomplished what they feel is the perfect emotional state of that moment. They have passion!
Ben Burtt took a year to develop the iconic sound for the voice of Wall-e, and struggled with creating the iconic voice of R2D2 from Star Wars. He never gave up, and to this day they are some of the characters that he says he is still the most proud of.
It isn’t easy, it takes practice, discipline, and reflection. I find that instilling these values into my own work stops me from becoming too frustrated when something isn’t working, and in the end leads to a true enjoyment of shaping emotional states through my sound work.
I hope that this quick write up on thinking about the emotion you are creating with your sound design will help you reflect when you craft your sounds, and will help your own emotional state while working.
Have fun creating and experimenting – it’s what life as a sound designer is all about!
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About Jason Cushing:
After graduating from the Art Institute of Vancouver in 2001, Jason went on to work at animation studios in New York City as a sound effects and dialog editor, later working exclusively in sound design for film and television. Jason then established himself in the video games industry, beginning as a lead dialog editor on Skate 2 for Electronic Arts, and later as a sound designer with EA’s BioWare for the award-winning Mass Effect 2. He currently resides in Montreal, Canada and continues to work as a senior sound designer for games, films and SoundMorph.
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