Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Sound Design

Any narrative composition is an assemblage of elements from the relationships between characters and their interactions, to subtle details like lighting, depth of field and narrative angles that are all designed to control the audience's perceptions of the piece.

In cinematography, a primary element that is necessary to unify a composition is sound. Whether it's the audio levels for a given scene, the subtle use of background noise or even music, audio creates the gestalt composition.

Controlling the audio levels in cinematography, while challenging, also yields the most dynamic results and brings the composition to life for the audience.

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Audio levels typically consist of two subset levels and four operating levels. The two subsets consist of the dynamic range, the full range of sound in a given recording; and the operating range, the actual range of recording. Within these subset levels are the operating levels; the Noise floor, the Reference level, Headroom and Maximum output.

The Noise Floor, also known as the background noise, is most responsible for creating a unifying tie between scenes even when the scenes take place in dramatically different settings. Most often a cinematographer will create a steady white-noise that they can underly to subtly tie together all of the scenes in a piece.

The Reference Level quite frequently is the 'talking volume' in a piece. This is subject to the direction that the sound is coming from in regards to the input. Individuals talking in frame or background music that alter from scene to scene. This is the primary level for action and interaction with the main composition.

The Headroom and Maximum Output levels are typically only utilized for 'peaking,' that is, the times when the music will swell or a particular noise will be emphasized over the previous sounds. A number of compositions utilize this to great effect for startling the audience.

A narrative composition utilizes sound design just as well as any cinematography effort. While the cinematographer needs to rely on the actual sounds and levels of their work, the writer has infinitely more control over the sound but has a greater challenge. Every narrative setting has audio levels that can be subtly used to create the desired effect and control the audience's perceptions of the scene.

 Ex. She paced along the walkway under the warm glow of the park's lights. She needed answers and he was going to be the first step.


In the narrative, the sound design is not always overt and quite frequently the audio is dependent on the audience's preconceptions of the scene. While it is not overtly described in this scene the audio levels are inferred. The sound levels are very low with footsteps on the wooden walkway and a quiet undercurrent of nocturnal sounds from the park. While the implied sounds are adequate the audio does not utilize the full operating levels for the scene. The composition feels incomplete.

Ex. She paced along the ocean walkway under the warm glow of the park's lights. She needed answers and he was going to be the first step. The winds picked up, rustling the bushes and carrying small bits of litter across the grass.


The additional details not only add to the visual composition but also succeed in generating full operating levels for the composition. The Noise Floor is filled with subtle shifts between the ocean and winds. The Reference level is filled with footsteps on the walkway while the Headroom Level is filled with swelling winds and rustling bushes.

Just as in Cinematography compositions, a Narrative composition relies heavily on sound design to control the perceptions of a scene. Understanding and utilizing the audio levels to great effect can be the difference between an average scene and a dramatic scene that influences the audience. Sound is integral creating the optimal composition, world building that immerses the viewer.

2 comments:

Michele Shaw said...

Ah, so clever the way you bring all these things together. I knew nothing of a lot of the subjects you compare with writing. Fascinating and so true! There is always more to a scene than two people talking, and weaving that in gives it texture and definition. Thanks, PW!

PW.Creighton said...

Michele, thanks for dropping by as always. Yeah, I love looking at the concepts and techniques of all artistic mediums and applying them. As Kristen Lamb says, be unique. :-)

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