Film Sound Roles and the Importance of Audio
“Films are 50 percent visual and 50 percent sound”
~David Lynch (Eraserhead, Twin Peaks)
Films provide us with dramatic stories, impactful soundscapes, and beautiful visuals—but without sound, the audience wouldn’t be fully immersed in the experience. Sound breathes life into the passionate characters, sprawling environments, terrifying creatures, and futuristic weaponry featured in so many of our favourite films. It is the audio that transports us into the world of the movie, and a lot of work goes into crafting a film’s soundscape.
Some film composers like Wendy Carlos (A Clockwork Orange), Hans Zimmer (Inception), and Pinar Toprak (Captain Marvel) have been honoured for their work, so people generally know what a film composer does. However, many people are unaware of the other roles within the sound department. Lots of folks work together to create sound for picture, and it’s important to recognise the work they do. So, here is a very brief overview of the roles in the film sound department.
While on set, the most important audio to capture is the dialogue. In the film industry, it is said that ‘dialogue is king.’ This applies to good writing being important to any story, as well as reflect that capturing the actors’ voice performances is crucial to any film. The boom operator is the one depicted in the classic image of a person with headphones carrying a long pole with a fuzzy microphone at the end of it over the actors’ heads. (The fuzzy fabric is a windshield that is placed over the microphone. This protects it from recording annoying wind noise by accident.) It is the boom op’s job to keep the microphone close to the actors to record their lines while also changing positions and manipulating the boom pole to avoid being caught on camera. This is called ‘booming.’ It is tiring work that requires good upper body strength and a solid understanding of the action in each scene.
Production Sound Mixer
The production sound mixer oversees the sound team on set. She determines what sound equipment is needed and which techniques will be used to capture audio. Often there are multiple microphones being used simultaneously. There could be multiple boom mics, additional microphones planted around the set, and the actors could also be wearing microphones called ‘lavalier mics’ hidden in their clothes. All the audio from these mics gets sent to the production sound mixer’s recording device. She ensures that everything is working properly and that the sound is at a good volume level.
If time allows, she will also record other sounds on location that may be useful later such as the janky sound of a particularly rusty tractor used in the film. If an actor mispronounces a word and the production doesn’t have time to do another take, (a take is one continuous filmed version of a scene. Most scenes will be run multiple times to get a good take) the production sound mixer can pull them aside to do a ‘wild take’ where they will record the actor saying the line so that recording with the correct pronunciation can be added later. It’s also her job to take notes and keep track of what audio files go with which take. It is common for the sound mixer to also be the boom operator, in which case she will put the recorder in a bag that she wears with her while booming.
The sound utility runs around helping the sound department in whatever way they can. They do things like move equipment, run cables, and put lavalier microphones on actors.
In addition to recording sound, some productions also need to play audio on set. This could be to play an audio cue that tells an actor when to do something, or in the case of musical films, to play music so they can all sing along to it in sync. The playback operator oversees the setup and operation of these systems.
Supervising Sound Editor
The supervising sound editor oversees the whole audio post-production crew. It’s her job to work with the director to define the overarching sound of the film. She manages budgets, keeps the sound team on track, and reports their progress to the director and producers. The supervising sound editor will often fulfill one or more other roles in the sound department.
We all know the power of music, and the composer works with the director to create the musical score for the film. More than just creating a great piece of music, composers for visual mediums must write flexible music that ebbs and flows with the emotion and energy of a film.
Not all music in a film is made by the composer on the project. Movies will often feature previously recorded songs like rock classics and current pop hits. The music supervisor has a great understanding of music from all genres and can work with the director and producers to choose music that would be appropriate for the film. She also must have good business sense, since there is a lot of negotiating to be done to gain the legal rights (called a ‘license’) to put these songs in the film.
The music editor makes sure the flow of music aligns with the film. She will start on a project early in post-production and works with the director to create a temp(orary) track. A temp track is a soundtrack that might use music from several other similar films to give the composer a sense of the kind of music the director is looking for and works as a guide for what moments are important to hit. The music editor ensures that when all the music is combined, including both music composed for the film and licensed music sourced by the music supervisor, that they work together to create a smooth musical experience that drives the narrative.
Most of the sounds you hear in films aren’t actually recorded on set. Imagine the effort and number of microphones it would take to make sure every door creak, chair screech, clothing rustle, water splash, and footstep was captured on set. It would require a lot of time, and the sound team would have to ensure that the camera never saw any of the many microphones they would have to plant on set. During production, the most important audio to capture is the actor’s dialogue, so many of the sounds you hear will have been created after the actors have shot their scenes. This is done through a process called Foley. Foley Artists will assemble a large variety of props, and the Foley Engineer will record them recreating what they see happening in the movie. For example, if an actor bangs their head on a pipe in the film, the Foley artist might hit a piece of metal to recreate that sound. If the actor is walking down the street in combat boots, the Foley artist will slip on some boots and walk on a concrete slab in time with the picture. A lot of the sound that makes it into the film is the mass of sound effects the Foley team creates.
On set, the camera operator will record lots of takes, and the picture editor will put them all together later. However, when this is done, the dialogue often has lots of ‘glitchy’ cuts in it as well as fluctuating levels of background noise. It’s not smooth, and if the audience heard the dialogue like that, they would be taken out of the experience. The dialogue editor’s job is to take that jumble of dialogue and smooth it into a seamless experience. This means working to remove annoying background noise while possibly adding noise to takes that were relatively clean, all so the experience is a consistent one. It’s intricate work that’s crucial for the dialogue to shine in a film.
ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement)
Sometimes, despite the best efforts of the production sound crew, dialogue recorded on set can be unintelligible or too noisy to be used. For example, this could easily happen in a scene that takes place on a boat, where the sound of the rolling waves and the rough wind makes some of the lines inaudible. In this case, the actor will come to a studio later and say their lines while watching their original performance. This ensures that the new lines will ‘sync up’ with their lip movements and actions from that scene. The ADR recordist will try to use the same microphone and placement that was used on set, so that the new lines will ‘match’ or sound like the other lines in the scene that were clear. Another challenge with ADR is getting the actor’s new performance to match the energy of the original performance, since the situation is quite different in the studio than when the scene was originally shot—when they were in costume, on a boat, in the middle of an ocean, being buffeted by gusting winds.
The sound designer creates the many sound effects not covered by Foley. She might create the ambience of a beach scene, for example, by recording wind sounds, seagull squawks and waves crashing. She can pull from her large library of pre-recorded sounds like explosions and gunshots, and insert those sounds into the film where needed. Some elements, like monsters, laser guns, and other fictional creations, don’t exist in real life, so it is up to the sound designer to craft these using all the resources at her disposal. This often means heavily manipulating recordings and creating unique synthesiser configurations to give life to these fantastical film elements. Iconic sounds like the Star Wars lightsaber buzz and Godzilla roars are the works of talented sound designers.
The re-recording mixer works on the very last phase of a film. They take all the sound elements, the music, the dialogue, the sound effects, and adjust the volume and position (such as making the sound of a barking dog come from the left speaker because the dog is on the left side of the screen) of each element until all sounds flow smoothly throughout the entire film. Once the mix is done, it’s ready for audiences around the world to hear!
An enormous of amount of work and care goes into creating the sound for films. It takes a team of talented people, each with their own specialty, to bring the world of the film to life. The next time you watch a movie, consider all these sound elements, and I’m sure it will increase your appreciation for the craft just as it did for me.
Carson Alexander Lewis
Carson Alexander Lewis
Carson Alexander Lewis is a sound designer based in Los Angeles. While he’s a lover of all things sound, he has a specific passion for video game audio. Carson holds a Master of Fine Arts in Sound Design from Savannah College of Arts and Design and a Bachelor of Science in Music Composition & Technology with a Minor in Music Recording from Northeastern University.
When not crafting weird sounds, you can find him playing games with friends, and catching up on the latest anime episodes and Kpop comebacks.