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The Use Of Sound Design In Films

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1192 words Published: 24th Apr 2017

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Rationale/Research to Date: The origins of the term sound designer came from Walter Murchs work on the film Apocalypse Now, where he had the full responsibility of creating the films entire soundtrack. (Holman, 2002)

Traditionally “the term sound designer encompasses the traditional processes of both editing and mixing”. (Holman, 2002, p.192). Nowadays sound designers roles can range from creating individual sound effects to the responsibility of creating the overall soundtrack for a film. (Whittington, 2007)

Three of the key players who have all developed and created the job of a sound designer are: Walter Murch, (American Graffiti, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now) Gary Rydstrom, (The Terminator, Ghost Busters II, Jurassic Park) and Ben Burtt (Star Wars, E.T., Wall-E). They have created a standard for sound designers to follow and made iconic sounds recognised by many, for example: the classic light saber hum from Star Wars, Ben Burrt made by blending the sound of his TV set and an old 35mm projector. (filmsound.org, n.b.)

Paul Ottosson has been acknowledged for his sound design and supervising sound editing achievements with Oscar and BAFTA nominations. (Koppl, 2010) His oeuvre covers films such as: Spider-Man 2 and 3, S.W.A.T., 2012 and The Hurt Locker. Winning two Oscars in 2010 for ‘Best Achievement in Sound’ and ‘Best Achievement in Sound Editing’ (imbd.com, n.b.) for the latter.

His roles on the ‘The Hurt Locker’ were Sound Designer, Sound Re-recording Mixer and Supervising Sound Editor. Ottosson’s mission, set by director Kathryn Bigelow, was to “re-create the gritty acoustics of the Iraq war as authentically as possible”. (Caranicas, 2010) “From the first meeting the director talked about how important sound was going to be because her original intention was to have no music at all in the movie.” (Ottoson, 2010)

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Ottosson was given a massive challenge and full responsibilities, once the picture was cut it was his job to create an emotional arc and to build tension throughout the film using sound design where traditionally music would be used. As David Sonnenschein explains “The most common nonliteral sound to accentuate character personality or emotion is music, while more and more use is being made of sound effects and ambience to support this area.” (Sonnenschein, 2001, p.178)

His treatment of the overall soundtrack of the film blurs the boundaries between music and sound design (Koppl, 2010.) when created effectively it is difficult to judge whether it is music or sound design and Paul Ottosson uses some unusual techniques to achieve the desired effect.

This investigation will discuss and analyse the unusual and advanced sound design techniques that Paul Ottosson deploys. It will critically evaluate how these techniques; heighten emotion, tension and realism by transporting the audience into the centre of the chaos in the Iraq war. Through exploring Paul Ottosson’s sound design in ‘The Hurt Locker’ should affirm the importance of the role sound design can play. Knowledge gained by undertaking this study should benefit future sound design projects.


To analysis of the use of ‘point of audition’ sound; to immerse the audience into each of the main characters’ feelings.

To compare and contrast the individual sound design treatment for the three guys in the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal Team) unit, how it differs between them, enabling character identification and the effects they have on the audience.

To investigate the use of ‘Off-Screen’ sound to create a sonic-point-of-view to give the audience the perspective of being at war in Baghdad.

To explore how Paul Ottosson creates a sound arc using ‘foley’, sound effects, backgrounds and human breathing to build tension in scenes where traditionally music would be used.

To compare of the sound design from the first bomb-deactivation scene and the second bomb-deactivation scene where SS James has taken control of the EOD unit.

To provide a detailed comparison of the sound design used in the opening scenes of ‘The Hurt Locker and ‘Saving Private Ryan’.

Critical Writing Example:

It is interesting to note that two films, ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ are both films that strive for realism and use point-of-audition sound in a subjective sense to put the audience in the characters shoes.

During the first bomb de-activation scene in ‘The Hurt Locker’, Staff Sergeant Thompson puts on the anti-bomb suit and starts walking towards an IED. The audience can hear the sound of him breathing. This establishes a primary connection with the character as it is his breathing the audience can hear and it also creates a secondary emotional link with the audience. The audience are able to connect with this sound and empathise as heavy breathing is a feeling or situation most humans have felt at some point in their lives possibly after a tense or shocking experience. The emotion is heightened as the sound designer makes a conscious decision to alter the breathing pattern as the character gets closer to the danger. This effect could be compared to a rise in pitch and amplitude of a stringed instrument heightening tension in a scene musically.

In contrast, during the Omaha beach scene in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ Gary Rydstrom manipulated the sound of the ocean to try and simulate the traumatic shell-shocked state character Tom Hanks feels. Rydstrom explains how “taking the sound out of the battle became an interesting device to get inside someone’s head” (Rydstrom, 2007)

In both examples point-of-audition sounds are used to immerse the audience into the character’s inner feelings. The difference is the way sound in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ takes the audience into the character’s head; in order to share and experience his feeling and this effect momentarily removes the audience from the on-going situation around him. Whereas, in ‘The Hurt Locker’ whilst the audience are similarly immersed inside the character’s head, they are also fully aware of the environment and action going on around the character, due to the background sound continuing so that it can still be heard.

If the sound design techniques were swapped in the films, it is likely that neither of them would achieve the sound designer’s desired effect. For example, it is essential for the background sounds to remain in ‘The Hurt Locker’ as these are used to create the tension required for the scene.

Both of these examples illustrate the execution of point of audition sound tailored to both the individual film and for specific scenes within them. The study will further explore such techniques and will similarly illustrate the finds by use of specific examples.


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