Perfect Sound Forever


by John Montana
(April 2016)

Making a short film, or any film for that matter, can be a lot of amazing fun. I recently made my most recent short film called Hungry. It's a wicked, humorous, little piece on the greed that is rampant at Christmas. Here is how I came up with and developed the sound and music in the film.

The way I work is that in the very beginning of preparing to shoot the film, when I am still writing the script actually, I start to listen to music that I like. I listen with the sole purpose of getting a feel for how this particular song will go with the film. I use each song that I like or think might go well and imagine how it will tell my story. Here is an example- in HUNGRY, the story takes place at Christmas, so I was constantly listening to holiday songs, wild versions, old-fashioned ones, newer versions. The one I came up with was of a child choir singing "Carol Of The Bells." This song was important in setting up the beginning of the film in three ways:

  1. It is a beautiful innocent rendition of this song
  2. It lulls the audience into the sweetness of the Christmas season
  3. It also didn't telegraph what was coming to the audience
I cannot tell you how important music or sound is in setting up your story or film. If you can do it right, then the whole film just falls into place.

Another example of how much music played a part in my film is when the main character walks into the shop, the owner is listening to 1930's jazz. The story's background was that this woman has been alive for several hundreds of years, and this is her favorite music. Now you don't actually see a 500-year-old woman on screen as that was just the back-story. But this music really helped the actress get the feel for what I wanted. And her performance made the film.

Another instance of how important sound was for me was in editing. My film is a horror film, and so I had a small creature involved. But because I was on a small budget, I couldn't really afford to build a creature that could move in every way I wanted. So movement was limited. What I did though was to search a couple of free sound sites for sci-fi sounds, or dinosaur roars. It took me weeks to get it the way I wanted. In order for the creature to look realistic, I had to use different sounds for each 2-second piece of footage that had the little guy in it. Each different sound conveyed a different want and emotion in the creature. It was incredibly grueling and difficult work. But in the end, the sounds and music are what really helped this film. And when my main character was attacked, sounds were so vitally important in conveying the horror of what was happening to him. And at the end of the film, when it is clear that the owner is in cahoots with the creature, or the creature is almost her mate, then the music that I put in at the end conveyed the craziness of this situation. So I put in this wild and crazy piece that makes me giggle whenever I hear it.

It's also important to find inspiration for your work. Here are some examples of the films that I admire and how they use the music and sound effects to enhance their film.

Red The final film of the ‘Three Colors Trilogy' by Krzysztof Kielslowski
This is such a magical film and the music he used in it is beautiful and eerie. From sudden crashing cymbals to convey horror, to gentle intoxicating music for the "Fashion Show," to again crashing doors for when the storm blows in. It is such a subtle and at the same time in-your-face sound effects and music.

Bladerunner by Ridley Scott
For me, the music in this film is the most amazing sounds and music I have ever heard used in cinema. From the weird lively beat by some kind of reed instrument (I'm guessing) when Deckard is walking through the outdoor bazaar to the echoing music when he is in the great building of the Tyrell Corp. Even the weird futuristic music by Vangelis for the scene transitions are masterful. For me again, this movie is the perfect example of how important music and sound are to creating the world of the film you are making.

Lucy by Luc Besson
This is the most recent film by the French director who brought us the beautiful and haunting film La Femme Nikita. Here, the use of music has really been amped up to make the horror of what is happening to Scarlett Johansson's character. There is the slow low drumbeat of when she is waiting in the office lobby in the beginning that makes you squirm in anticipation of something really bad coming her way. Then there is her becoming super aware: She hears the minute sounds of creatures crawling and the sounds of radio waves as they go up out of people's cell phones. There are way too many examples of how he uses sound to enhance this film.

Irreversible by Gaspar Noe
In this film, there is an undercurrent of bass that was purposely put into the soundtrack. The reason for this is because this low bass sound creates a feeling of nausea and confusion and dizziness for the audience. I have no conclusive evidence of this, but if this was intentional, then it is a brilliant use of sound to affect the audience and bring them into the world of Monica Bellucci's character and of the world of rape.

Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-Ho
You know, I didn't really care for this film much. It made me very uncomfortable, which will most likely make Mr. Joon-Ho pleased. It was very claustrophobic and monotonous. The thing about his film that I remember vividly (and probably added to my discomfort) was the constant clacking of the train on the tracks. Normally I love hearing the sound of a train, but here it was used to create the insanity of the situation. The constant noise created a great discomfort on my part as an audience member. All of which is a great success for the director, because that is what you want- to have the audience feel something, ANYTHING! And not just sit there munching popcorn, waiting to be entertained. Not that that was what I was doing...

Witness by Peter Weir
I cannot tell you how much I loved this film, for its power and simplicity of the storytelling. The arc that Harrison Ford's character makes as a result of living with this Amish family for a while is why I love the acting business. When done correctly, it truly is wonderful to watch. There is a scene that beautifully shows the world of the Amish- it is the shot of the fields swaying in the breeze. The sound of the wind as it moves slowly thru the wheat or grass field is mesmerizing. In that one piece of film, you are instantly transported tot his place and the sound is so tranquil, that I could understand why some people choose to live this lifestyle. And that is ultimately what you strive for- for your audience to get immersed into your world, if only for an hour or two.

13 Hours by Michael Bay
I just went and saw this film and I really liked it, much to my surprise. His use of military sounds, of bombs exploding to helicopters and other heavy machinery really accentuate this film. There is a scene when all of the support staff are in the compound and there are many sounds of bombs and gunfire. This is done very well to show how terrifying and claustrophobic this situation was. And then during the night scene, when all you hear is the flapping of the plastic tarps in the wind, this is terrifying on how he makes you "feel" like there is something evil coming, and all these guys could do was sit and wait for it to arrive. I felt the terror of being in this situation, and it was great.

World War Z by Marc Forster
So this was just a very fun and horrific film and the one scene that I thought was brilliant in the use of sound was the scene when Brad Pitt is in Israel, seemingly safe behind the wall. But then, in a very cruel ironic and opposite effect, Mr. Forster has a young Jewish girl start to sing in joy, and she is joined by others singing. And through the look on Brad Pitt's face as he realizes that this "joyous singing" is actually waking up the zombies, you begin to feel this immense fear and dread that this innocent singing is actually NOT a good thing. And then of course, hell breaks loose...

The Revenant by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Early on in this film, there is an ambush by an Indian tribe. You don't see them at first- all you hear are arrows "screaming and whizzing" thru the air and then the sickening sound of these arrows hitting and slicing into flesh. These two sounds struck me as a little out of the ordinary, as they were enhanced, sound wise. I cannot describe it any clearer. However, these sounds enhanced the fear in the men that were being ambushed as well as my feelings of fear for them, as I imagined myself in the same predicament with nowhere to run.

300 by Zach Snyder
I recently watched this movie again and I was struck just how beautiful it was shot, how Snyder made the violence look like a ballet in slow motion. And there are noises in the battle scenes that I can only describe as such: "A saw blade being ripped apart in a long screeching sound" or "long drawn-out noises from hell." I really would love to know what the foley-artist used to capture these sounds, as they really accentuated the insanity of war in ancient Sparta.

So what can you learn from this? If you are in preparation for a film shoot, or if you are already in editing, then I cannot stress the importance of taking your time and getting the music and sound right. If you have the right style of music that brings your audience into your film, and the right sound effects if you are shooting a horror film, then this will improve your odds of this being a successful film. If nothing else, it helps your audience into your film, and it help in keeping them there. If you don't believe me, go and watch the movie Brooklyn. The music in this film will bring you instantly into this world, and it keeps you there... Whether you like the movie or not.

John Montana is an actor living with his wife in L.A. and has begun to make short films. His most recent film, Hungry has been accepted into 24 film festivals all over the world. Check out his short film - Hungry at No Title Production Films.

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