Tuesday, October 25, 2016
  • Friday, Aug. 19, 2016
"Why I Love Sound"
Ross Plummer

In this column sponsored by Beacon Street Studios, executive agency producer Ross Plummer sounds off on the value of sound as it relates to storytelling.

It is often the most overlooked part of production by many Creatives and agency personnel. The bolt-on at the end.  Sound is my favorite part of the process. Whatever has come before, it is a place of control and possibilities. Leading up to this we have cleared storyboards, art, props, wardrobe, a shot list that had more than the client wanted, less than the agency needed, a grueling shooting schedule with sleep left on flights, an edit that potentially had less shots than you needed or too many permutations to make a :90 and a :60 make sense. In the sound studio you have everything at your disposal. Enormous steerage over the film’s sentiment, and any condition you want to create at the fingertips of your Sound Designer. We are god. 

Without VR, film and TVCs are still giving you a very narrow view into what’s going on. And it’s the director’s/DP’s responsibility to navigate it for you. But it is still essentially watching the world from underwater. Turn the screen on, everyone faces one way, periscope up, what do you see through the lens?

Sound is far richer. Although sound can’t give you everything, it is much closer to the full spectrum of audio experience. Some of the directional exacting is often missing, but the auditory illusion is largely complete. It is much closer to the rich environment that your ears pick up in everyday life in the real world and can be recreated far more convincingly than our field of vision given the obvious restrictions of monitors that I’ve just painted. Sound gives you the real world. But only if that’s what you want from it. 

Of course sound as it exists in the real world doesn’t help build the story that is being told through the lens, and that is after all what we are here to do. Where there is dialogue, the interplay is naturally important. But it can’t sound like someone is dragging the fader in and out every time someone speaks. Iceman and Maverick spring to mind. “Bullshit, you can be mine.” They were on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean! One example where the lens was actually outstripping the audio in terms of reality. But I digress. Stacey Wall’s “Blake and Drain” is an excellent example of edit and sound working superbly together. The folies are the rhythm, the track allows the dialogue, and the whole flows with superb synergy. Each swish of the ball moving through the hoop, punctuating the visual rhythm of Daryl Drain imitating a butterfly singing. Yes, there’s subtler spots, and subtler sound design, but this is Stacy’s style and this is what the Sound Designers must help to project. 

I’ve shot some spots to music, but I’ve only ever shot one to the track that was approved for use right from the start, and the client couldn’t back out because the band were signed and the track approved going in because they were/are featured playing in it. Fredrik Bond’s "The Entrance" for Heineken (produced by Tony Stearns, I was producing the digital content on the same set) was shot to the Asteroid Galaxy Tour’s “Golden Age.” And it shows. Fredrik Bond had it playing throughout the three night shoot, playing at the place in the track the action was appearing, every time, without fail. And if you listen to the audio that was introduced after the event, Raj Sehgal, the Sound Designer, has worked hard to underplay most folies, and mix appropriately to allow for spectacle and the track to speak for itself. Apart from “ah, my eye!”, which was not recorded on set, there is no dialogue. The CDs, Fredrik and Raj choosing instead to let the piece play out. Again, the sound of the party is familiar and authentic, the feel real, and it’s construction all carefully considered. Without sound, without music telling us the emotion we are supposed to feel, it is just a periscope moving through a party. A beautifully directed one, but watch it with the sound turned off, and it almost looks like the hero is walking into certain death. 

Watch from a stationary position eight lanes of traffic cutting through the countryside. You might be startled by the pomposity of humanity, or the impressiveness of its progress. But drop the roar to the bottom and put Bowie’s Cygnet Committee in and suddenly there is romance to the monstrosity. Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War relies almost exclusively on this auditory salvation. Without it there is no humor. It’s just depressingly black. 

Music video directors of course always know the track for which the film they are directing is destined. Or usually. I produced this film with Kim Bradshaw for Nike with music video director Anthony Mandler. He’s used to shooting Jay Z’s music videos, and those tracks tend to be approved before hand. Yet Anthony shot this Nike opinion on Basketball with no knowledge of the track, only that we had all insisted on a seriously moody hip-hop track. It moves beautifully. Cut by Sam Gunn with minimal time with the Director in Dubrovnik, the sound takes you to where you are going in an audio field you understand. Without it, the film looks like a bunch of pretty vignettes that are largely lost at sea. 

A most recent production that impressed was Kobe Bryant’s retirement video for Nike. Mark Romanek’s "The Conductor" was masterly in its conception. A last chance for Kobe to address the viewer through high-end film and the sound studio was the primary medium, as he directed vocalists, instrumentation, and sound design himself. In doing so he managed at his curtain call to speak to us. Beacon Street Studios did a fantastic job with the musical edit, the mix was sublime, and provided a mouthpiece through the unrivaled ability of sound to interact with us, far beyond that which the screen can do.

I love sound. I’ve seen the most poorly, misconceived spots rescued in the sound studio, and others that were lost find their identity. It’s an element that, beyond music, gets largely overlooked by teams up and down the industry, particularly clients, yet it’s the most authentic and realistic element in the whole production compound we have control over. More control than an over-budget, behind-schedule film-set where no one is paying attention to the shot list on day 2 because we’re still trying to prep day 7. Sound, on the other hand, has no mistress, no Day 7. It only requires one to enter the room and listen.