Last night I saw ‘Sinister’, a horror movie directed by Scott Derrickson.
It freaked me out. Plain and simple. And it has stayed with me too. And believe me, I have seen my fair share of horror movies.
So what was so terrifying?
The soundtrack. The score by Christopher Young was heart bangingly original.
Add to that a selection of truly nightmarish songs from a collection of little known bands and you end up with a soundtrack that really sets the film apart. I have embedded one track (from YouTube) below on autoplay to spook you just a little bit ;0)
In the story there are several super 8mm film sequences, each depicting a horrific act. And each super 8mm film sequence had its own song which was haunting, contemporary, fractured, disturbing, organic, vocal… you get the picture. Granted I have a home cinema and surround sound which certainly helped.
Now here is the kicker. I don’t think ‘Sinister’ is a great horror movie. It does have its fair share of silly scenes, ridiculous character actions and dodgy special effects. It’s a long, long way from a masterpiece.
And yet the soundtrack, for me at least, elevated it way beyond the average horror flick that it deserved to be, into the realms of a kind of waking nightmare. ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is another movie that managed to deliver this waking nightmare experience too, but with far greater effect.
The soundtrack made the difference.
So here is the thing. If you spend enough time and invest enough energy into the soundtrack for YOUR film, you can also elevate it significantly too. I have always said that indie films often suffer from lazy soundtracks (and I mean atmospheres, foley, sound effects, music and the mix as well as the music score).
And ironically, it’s the one area of your film that costs just your time and imagination. In terms of bang for your buck in the filmmaking process (aside from script development), nothing delivers more value for less cash than a well executed soundtrack.
On ‘Urban Ghost Story’, we spent a great deal of time creating an acoustic world that was rich, textured and chilling. If you managed to see the film in surround sound and in a good theatre, I am sure you will know what I mean – and it elevated the film.
So how do you create a killer soundtrack? And again, by soundtrack I am not referring to just the music.
Listen to movie soundtracks
When was the last time you really studied a movie soundtrack? Actually switched the picture off and just listened to just the sound? It can be a revelatory experience. Try and disengage from the drama and listen to the way the atmospheres, sound effects, foley, dialogue and music work in concert, to create an authentic acoustic world for a story. At any given time, one element is usually dominant, with the others backing up, so as to support the action onscreen and avoid the soundtrack descending into a kind of noisy mush. Notice the dynamic range and the way sound is given distance and perspective to enhance the illusion of reality. You can of course do all of this with just a DVD player and a good pair of headphones. No bank being broken there.
Get the dialogue tracks clean
Audiences pick up on, and will complain about, badly recorded dialogue way before they mention dodgy camera work or bad editing. The dialogue is the first big giveaway of your budget and level of professionalism. So get the dialogue recorded properly on set by working with expert sound recordists. If you can’t make that happen you may need to revoice your actors (ADR) in the edit. This is never a good solution as you will need to do more work in post to make the ADR sound like it happened on your set, and the performances from your actors will often suffer too, lacking the authenticity of the real world set. The bottom line… take GREAT care will your dialogue tracks, onset, in the edit and in the final mix.
Get thick atmospheres
Atmospheres are the sound of the world without any sound effects. It could be rain, wind, office chatter, thunder… or more subtle atmospheres like a room tone. Generally these will come from a library of thousands of tracks that have been expertly recorded and will sound amazing. The thing about a good atmos is it kind of wraps the scene in an acoustic world, acting a little like sound-Polyfilla, covering all those cracks (bad cuts) in your edit. I always go for thicker atmospheres as I believe they are a creative choice and not just a sound in the background. Be original or your soundtrack will quickly become utilitarian. Listening to the ‘world’ of Blade Runner is a great place to start.
Add great Foley
A Foley artist adds all the human sounds for your film – most people know about footsteps and clothes rustling, but Foley can be so much more than that. A great Foley track, one that is fully populated, will help with ADR (as ADR does not contain the whole performance, just the words spoken by the actor). It adds a kind of crispness and sparkle to the soundtrack, again sealing the illusion that what we are experiencing is a kind of reality that all happened in real time. But beware of pushing Foley too high in the sound mix as it will start to sound fake. I wrote a detailed blog about how to record Foley yourself HERE.
Spot EVERYTHING with a sound effect
Annotate everything onscreen with a sound effect. Car doors, jangling keys, gunshots etc. are all obvious. Look for more, study the world of your story and fill it acoustically. Just one missing sound effect will bump an audience out of their shared state of suspended disbelief. Pay particular attention to hero props and accompanying sound effects which should sound authentic and original. Add sound effects that will help tell the story too, chiming clocks for a passage of time or a dog down the street barking to signal something is wrong are both tried and tested. Your story is unique, so what unique sounds can you bring to your narrative and universe? Get creative. And remember, you can do all of this in Avid too, you don’t need special sound track laying software, just something that can offer tons of tracks, timecode AND has a professional export setting.
When mixing, get the perspective right
Many of us are forced to mix soundtracks at home due to the budget. Getting levels and finding the right combination in any given moment is hard enough, but one core skill and toolset the professionals have is to give sound the right perspective. Home recorded ADR which is then home mixed is in my view the worst offender. When a character is ten feet away, then need to sound like they are ten feet away, not just twelve inches from a microphone but mixed lower down in soundtrack. The professionals may pull out frequencies, or add room reverb to place the sound the same distance away as the camera position. This is REALLY hard to do at home and one reason why mixing with a professional is a good idea.
Don’t use too much music
Most films contain too much music. I would recommend holding it back when you really want to add impact. If you don’t, your music score starts to feel like wallpaper and suddenly, your audience has tuned it out. Watch your favourite movies and note where music starts, where it ends, and where it is absent. You may surprised at how often there is little or no music too. And beware of mixing your music too loud. I would say over half the indie produced films I see have too much music and music that is WAY too loud. Have confidence in your filmmaking and don’t hide behind overbearing music.
Be creative with your elements
Sound is one area where you are not constrained by budget. Get innovative and go beyond just supporting what’s happening onscreen with sound effects. Plan you soundtrack like an opera – when is it slow and subdued, when is it loud and in your face? How much music will you use and where will you place it? Don’t be afraid of silence if it works – there is a great scene in the 70’s film ‘Little Big Man’ where a massacre takes place in total silence, and boy did that hit harder than any amount of gunshots, sabre slashes, screams and pumping music. At the very least, put as much thought into your sound as you do grading your picture.
Get a pro to mix your soundtrack
My final tip is work with a pro. Of course you can’t do this on many of your first films, but when the time comes to make your breakout film, find a way to mix in a professional facility. You can do all the donkey work by track laying for months beforehand, but let an expert sound mixer do the final sound mix. If you have spent that time working on the track laying, you will be able to talk the mixer through all your choices too. Personally, I find the final sound mix one of the most supremely enjoyable stages in the whole filmmaking process and I love working with the best people I can find. Give yourself a treat and make this final step happen.