The Journal of Sonic Studies
Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 6, nr. 1 (January 2014)Isabelle Delmotte: TUNED IN AND HANDS ON: SOUND DESIGNERS BEYOND TECHNICAL EXPERTISE

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol06/nr01/a06

Sound designers: many hats, one body

There is unease around the term "sound designer" and the specificity of the task at hand. This unease can be traced historically and has repercussions on the current phenomenological practice of cinema sound making. In the early 70s, most large Hollywood studios were dismantled partly because of trade union disputes (Whittington 2007: 113). These changes pushed people like directors Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and sound professionals like Walter Murch, Randy Thom, Alan Splet and others to move to San Francisco. They formed independent companies, such as American Zoetrope led by Coppola. Without large studio constraints, these creative individuals had the opportunity to freelance, experiment, and become film collaborators in their own right (Whittington 2007: 32). In the 1970s Coppola and Murch cemented their creative collaboration with The Conversation (Coppola 1974) and Apocalypse Now (Coppola 1979). The subtleties of sounds, other than vocal or musical, had already been established as powerful narrative and stylistic elements by Alfred Hitchcock in The Birds (Hitchcock 1963) or by Jules Dassin in Du Rififi chez les Hommes (Dassin 1955), for example. Nevertheless, the collaborations of Coppola and Murch gave impetus to incorporating atmospheric sound as an intrinsic narrative element seamlessly and effectively integrated into the film soundtrack. This inevitably gave creative status to the sound personnel.

However, the term sound designer is not always a fixture of a movie’s credit list, and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences does not acknowledge this professional capacity. When Murch tried to describe his role(s) in the making of Apocalypse Now (Coppola 1979), his first stereo film, he coined the term "sound designer". In an interview, Michael Jarrett asked him the origin and meaning of the term:

It is a nebulous area. The origin of the term 'sound designer' goes back to Apocalypse Now when I was trying to come up with what I had actually done on the film. ... I thought, 'Well, if an interior designer can go into an architectural space and decorate it interestingly, that’s sort of what I am doing in the theater. I’m taking the three-dimensional space of the theater and decorating it with sound. I had to come up with an approach, specifically for Apocalypse Now that would make that work coherently. In my case, that was where ‘sound designer’, the word, came from. (Jarrett)

All along Murch also has been a talented visual film editor, and this point seems pivotal to him expanding the sensorial integration of creative components. Murch's view of his role and status brings a phenomenological reality to quasi-regulatory approaches of the creative industries' workplace. Psychologist Dean Simonton proposed four different clusters of creativity in cinema production: dramatic, visual, technical and musical (Simonton 2004: 1494). Simonton defines the musical cluster as independent from all creative clusters, and he associates sound designers with the technical cluster. He also notes that during the 1960s the sound technicians’ work was split into two different categories: special effects and sonic features (Simonton 2004: 1507). In 2007, parts of a report on the state of the creative industries in Britain pointed out that a ranking of creative contribution based on two distinct categories, "pure creativity" and "applied creative skills", did not reflect "the tensions between creative labour and the conditions in which it is put to work" (O’Connor 2007: 47-48). Current definitions or opinions on the label and the role of sound designers seem to oscillate between these divisions of labour and creativity without being able to define them clearly. Defining the function of a sound designer based on the chronology of tasks at hand is left to individual sound mediator’s experiences.

Study participant Michael Worthington prefers to use the term "Surround Design" to define the aim of his practice (Worthington 2013). He also describes his professional activity as being at once an audio engineer, a mixer, a sound designer and a digital audio sculptor. For Worthington everything is sound design: voice, music, sound effects and sound design elements can be employed musically. Worthington argued that mixing is part of sound design and a sound design is something that is ‘"thought through" (personal communication, December 21, 2010). Sound designer and participant to the study Tom Heuzenroeder explained that he considers the activity of a sound designer as someone "coming in with a plan" to direct the soundscape in ways that enhance the overall mood of the movie (personal communication, May 1, 2011). For sound designer Emma Bortignon, the role of a sound designer is to communicate with the director and then articulate her or his ideas to the sound team in order to find technical and creative solutions that will help to tell a story (Siemienowicz 2010). Australian sound editor Livia Ruzic does not call herself a sound designer unless she is the only person working in post-production on a non-feature film (Capp 2002).

To further blur the situation, “sound designer” and “sound supervisor” can equally have an administrative connotation, as both capacities relay the creative brief to an assemblage of people producing the audio-visual narrative. Cinema sound designer Mark Ward objects to the idea that the label “sound designer” suggests an administrative role rather than that of "a major aesthetic force in the film" (Hancock 2007: 162). A quarter of the twenty-four Australian respondents to the recruitment online questionnaire for the study did not provide any answer on the subject of the predominance of a sound designer's role in a film production. The other three-quarters of the cinema professionals contacted for this study were ambivalent: half suggested that sound design is a fully creative position, whereas the other half thought that the role encompasses both capacities. Every production being different, the question of a sound designer having a creative role rather an administrative one, or having an administrative role rather than focusing on a production's creative aspects, might be redundant.

Study participant sound designer Damian Candusso commented that a supervising sound editor is the person who has the overall view but who also concentrates on music and dialogue, and a sound designer "goes away, and creates new sound from scratch and specifically for the film." Candusso added that a sound designer is often considered as a designer of sound effects, "a creator of new and unknown sounds for specific use in the visual narrative" (personal communication, May 3, 2011). Randy Thom positions the sound designer as a person guiding the overall treatment of sound in movies while noting that this structure was still unusual in Hollywood, where a sound designer was often regarded as a "hired gun" effect maker (Thom 2003: 122). In his Churchill Fellow Report, study participant John Kassab wrote that supervising sound editors should co-ordinate the film soundtrack from inception to final mix. For him, these professionals can be more hands on or administrative according to their personal preferences but are often "the most accountable sound person to producers and directors" (Kassab 2010: 8).

There does not seem to be consensus as to an exact definition of what a sound designer does in a movie production. Although "sound design" is taught, some might find a certain resonance in Worthington's words: "Sound designer is not a job. It’s something that becomes what people think is a job. Nobody is employed as a sound designer. They’re employed to do a specific thing and from that they decide this is sound design" (personal communication, December 21, 2010). Sometimes, the often-nebulous tasks of sound designers calls for miracles. Writers and producers, for example, usually interact with the sound team, including sound designers, in post-production. At that stage, if pictures do not tell the story adequately or problems appear in a narrative, sound can help "fix" the story (R. Monk, personal communication, October 17, 2012).

Despite the vagueness of their role, it is quite clear that cinema sound designers closely communicate with colleagues and directors: their aim is to give a sonic texture, a sense of gravity, a mood and a feel to the story, its spaces and its characters. The multi-dimensional narrative that they create will consequently inhabit a place of projection, shared with directors and producers.  Sound mixers are more focused on the experience of audiences in the designed space of a cinema. With the expression “cinema sound design”, I refer to the modelling and spatial carving of the story itself by sound designers.