Film & TV

The Importance of Sound Design

Martin Scorsese

Lesson time 12:51 min

Martin teaches you his approach to sound design: enter the editing room with the intention of cutting away sound instead of adding it. Learn how to create atmosphere with sound design, as well as how to use sound to solve editing problems.

Martin Scorsese
Teaches Filmmaking
In 30 lessons, learn the art of film from the director of Goodfellas, The Departed, and Taxi Driver.
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When films were first created, two things, actually three things were expected and looked forward to and experimented with. That was sound, color, and 3-D. And you can go back to the very beginnings of film and you'll see examples of that, people trying constantly. So sound is something that's very natural, of course. And that compliments the medium, right? Compliments it. Sound, or lack thereof, you know? And so the sound design could be anything. And again, has to come from I think, one vision or-- and best as possible. Combined with those around that vision who adhere to it, who feel similarly about it, and are all on the right track to expressing it. [MUSIC PLAYING] The sound of design has developed into a situation where because the technology is there, because there are so many choices, because there's so many things you could do in the mixing room, people use it. And I think they are using it because they could use it, rather than it should be used. And so you know, I'm always told that a 5.1 then there's a 7.1. I said, how many-- how much more sound could you have in a film in a theater? But there are certain films, I would think, or the majority of the films that are being made in the big budget pictures have a sound design that an audience, kind of now, in a theater, I would think, expects in a way. I find that when I go into the mixing room with Tom Fleischman and our crew, I find that I start stripping away the sounds for many films that we worked on. And I find that group I worked with, Tom Fleischman and everybody, do an incredible job. But technically, at times, I know that I'm told, yes, that dialogue is clear. It may be clear, but it's not registering. And it's being covered or being kind of immersed in a sense of sound. And so I try to clear away as much as possible. But again, films that are spectacles, so to speak, or the fantasy films or the films that are in 3-D, and IMAX-- and yeah, the sound is a-- sound has always been a very special part of a presentation of a film or a play or anything in history to an audience, you know? But we're in danger, here, of expecting a certain kind of treatment of sound that isn't necessary. Let's just go with what's necessary. [MUSIC PLAYING] Everything is set up to go against you, so to speak, because there are ways that people do things. And there are ways that the system works or there are ways that the technology works. And you know, if you are new and you come into a situation and say, I want this or I want that, they kind of know more than you do in terms of the technology. So there is a fine line where, even if they want to help, you may find that you have to be very firm about standing by what you want because sometimes people say, it just isn't done. Well, that's a good reason to do it. I think in Orson Welles and Greg Tolan, in Citizen Kane, I think he told-- I may be par...

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Martin Scorsese drew his first storyboard when he was eight. Today he’s a legendary director whose films from Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street have shaped movie history. In his first-ever online film class, the Oscar winner teaches his approach, from storytelling to editing to working with actors. He deconstructs films and breaks down his craft, changing how you make and watch movies.


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I love it I cherish it...I only have 7 sessions left. These are the greatest days of my life... today I did the walking on water with Jesus mental exercise. Meditation across a big gushing river. last 20 minutes of a whole 50 min zazen session full lotus, I saw Jesus across the river asking me to keep my eyes on His eyes, and I walked across the river to Him. I kept doing it and doing it and it was working...I was really walking on water, freely and running to him on the water, then I kept running and running all over the water, I was getting really good at it. Healing meditations, building faith for the cure. got to feel how it feels like to not be mentally ill anymore. Completely cured and better than ever. Until the timer goes off. Got up thinking to myself, "He really is God." To cure a MENTAL illness...through Jet-I Jesus today. The mental exercises are going well, I think we're really getting somewhere... <3 to cure mental illness and illnesses that have no cure. To the greatest benefit of humankind. 1-LUV <3 peaceprize... :)


The first time I really appreciated the sound in a film was at a viewing of "Saving Private Ryan". There was a sequel where a sharp-shooter was firing from a tower. It sounded as though the shell casings were falling directly behind you.

Jim C.

“Sometimes people say, ‘It just isn’t done’. Well, that’s a good reason to do it.” Love it.

Jo E.

Loved this lesson on sound...! I always pay close attention to sound in films and the music in the background as well...! Thank you again Martin...another great lesson.

John Connell

I wish only that sound designers would learn when to stay out of the scene. I can't count how many times they've spoiled the moment or covered important dialogue with meaningless or illogical music and/or background noise. Picture a couple walking through the woods. All I need is the CHIRPING of birds and the RUSTLE of leaves. UNLESS she's about to kill him! Then, okay, lay in the insistent, PULSATING double bass and the psycho-signaling discord. :)

Henry Irwin P.

Great example with the sound of trumpets and elephants in Raging Bull. It makes you feel like they are caged animals fighting in a zoo.

Mia S.

"It's this kind of thing that broke through the form for me - it relates back to the things about the value of a shot, of a sound: Take it and use it for purposes that you never intended. Yet, you hope, and you should be able to test it to see - it projects forward the narrative of the picture. I always find that the use of sound in some of the films that had a very low budget was interesting, because they had no choice but to use certain sounds - or use it imaginatively, more imaginative to suggest things. 'Cat People,' Val Lewton, a particular scene with a young woman walking at night in the street - basically only had the sidewalk and the wall behind her, and she feels she's being followed. If you study that scene, how it builds in sound - between the footsteps and what she thinks are the sounds of the panther - the camera angles. If you study up to that point, in which the bus arrives and the driver open the door (it's kind of like a hydraulic sound, the doors opening - almost like a piercing scream). You've reached a climactic point in the scene with very little in terms of production elements. Granted, the lighting is very dark, it's a nighttime scene. But this is something I found inspiring, to say the least. You find it in Sam Fuller's pictures, too - 'Shock Corridor,' any of the sound cuts. I think he had no choice, because it was so low-budget, and there's a rawness - it's a different effect - and a power to the use of sound. It has an authority to that use of sound, which was based on a very limited budget."

Mia S.

"'Raging Bull,' Frank Warner, with the sound effects, he was so protective that he didn't want anybody else to use them so he would burn them afterwards. For the most part (don't forget, this was a time before video, digital, so he had the power to throw them away) he came up with sounds that were elephant trumpets, wild animal sounds mixed in with the sounds of punches that were being thrown. All these kinds of philosophical approaches to each fight scene - yes, cinematically, I had worked it out and we shot it and edited it, but the sound was layered in later in the mix. Ultimately, at that point - the real fight, that punch was so decisive to say the least, that 'How do we make it important in terms of sound?' We tried it, the problem taking out the sound there is when does the sound come back in? How strong does it come back in? Softer, does it fade in? We were feeling this out - it was a very long mix, because of that. 'Mean Streets,' there was a scene in a bar that OI simply did not get the right angle to be able to make the transition between a wide-shot and a tighter of the characters and men walking to a table, and then suddenly they're sitting down. I remember just breaking through the form - I had no choice but to cut to them sitting, and the jump cut didn't work, so what I did was, in the wide-shot, the first part, first shot, they pull a chair out, there's a dragging sound of the chair, and I use that sound over the cut. Next thing you know, they're sitting. I think, in the mind's eye, you'd think you've seen them sit down... but it's the sound of a chair dragging."

Mia S.

"We were very proud when 'Taxi Driver'was being mixed - I think it was mixed in five days in LA, where they complained, they said, 'These dialogue tracks are the worst we've ever heard.' I said, 'That's right.' It wasn't being feisty in any way, they were the worst tracks, no doubt about it - we were shooting in the city, there are sirens, horns everywhere, people screaming in the streets - this is what it is, this is the city. The city and those sounds under the dialogue, around the dialogue, that's part of the character of the film. I find that these days very often people want to weed that out to a certain extent - in the famous scene De Niro improvised, 'You talking to me?' - if you listen to it, there are bongo drums outside, sirens, planes going over. These days people would say, 'You want that plane out?' I said, 'Maybe in some cases, but the object you find as they're saying, it'll sound better - it'll be clearer, in the dialogue. Sometimes the dialogue doesn't have to be that clear. Again, it depends on where you are in the movie at that point as the filmmaker and what you think is important, the most important element. It is a good example of sound design today, taking control ultimately in the wrong way. I always thought sound design was a concept, interpretive concept. Skip Lievsay, the sound of the fan in 'Blood Simple,' and liking the way that sounded - it implied something else, and I thought that was interesting."