Film & TV

Sound Design

Ron Howard

Lesson time 8:26 min

Sound design works on a subliminal level. Sometimes taking sound away can be as powerful as adding it.

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Sound design is another tool. It's another form of expression. And because we react to sounds on a kind of primal level, it works a little bit the way music works. A lot of composers would tell you that music works because it's actually emulating sounds of nature but in a harmonic way. And a way that might be more beautiful or more melodic. But the sounds-- whether it's percussion or wind instruments or synthesizers-- are creating sounds that we relate to on this kind of primal level. Of course we feel that way about all kinds of sounds, and whether it's a music cue or whether it's a moment of sound design, repeating sounds can tell you something. Tell you to anticipate something. Because that's what we do with sounds all the time. If you're in a house and you hear a strange sound, what was it? If you're out on a street and hear a sound that's unexpected, you wonder if there's a problem. If you walk into a nature reserve and suddenly the sound is open and the wind is moving, it's very soothing. So the great sound designers are always going back to those sort of primal reactions. Great sound design often begins in the editing room because the editors will start to put together a scene, and they'll recognize that what's missing here is an element of shock. And the edit is in the right place, but maybe the moment's not as effective as it should be. And they'll often put in a sound that will help prove that the edit point is correct. And the moment is startling if you have a sound. That sound is a temp, but then your sound designers will take those demands, those ideas, that sort of template and creatively work their magic. And great sound designers and sound editors are sort of like record producers. They know how to use technology. They know how to record sounds. I've done a number of boxing scenes, and they will record punching cantaloupes, sides of raw meat. Or strange things. Like a foam wall that kind of makes a sound. There are all kinds of subliminal ideas. That's what's so interesting about sound design is so much of it works on a subliminal level. And there are lots of times where there's a completely unnatural sound introduced into a scene, but it has a huge impact. The Silence of the Lambs is famous because it sort of invented this idea that every time that Jodie Foster would go down into Hannibal Lector's layer, into the cell, they would just start this kind of cranking, the low grade rumbling kind of sound. It was subliminal. You really could barely discern it. But it just made you uncomfortable, and it just created a sort of a background. Sometimes animal sounds can be used under what? A truck driving by. Or who knows what. It's wide open. And it's an area for real invention. And of course, you can always come back to the literal, because we live with literal sound all the time. We all have a ...


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Comments

A fellow student

While Ron talked first about the music, then sound effects then dialog, is that the way sound editors layer in the sound typically?

Ruben R.

Sounds design; another tool - another form of expression. Music to my ears.

RJane @.

Everyone can create sounds but only a few can be creative with it in a meaningful way. @RJanesRealm

Graeme R.

Excellent, though often ignored. This speaks to Ron Howard's thoroughness and his respect for all crafts.

EK T.

I can appreciate the work that goes into the process, but it is one of the important parts of film making that I know least about. I am looking forward to learning more. I remember the scenes in the film "Radio Days" which showed how duplicating sounds to make the radio programs entertaining, was 90% of the process.

Deborah S.

Sound has always been the guiding light that I have followed most of my life. When I lost the ability to speak at 5yrs old, my Father brought me one Elvis Presley 45-Dont't be Cruel-and You ain't nothing but a hound dog. From this one 45 I taught myself that breathing was the key to singing without stuttering. Well guess what? Pre-Pro and Post have their own rhythm, rhyme and reason for existing. I developed a great ear for everlasting vocal structure from speaking to singing and creating the essence of all the elements to make a story not only look good, but will keep your toe tapping for many a day to come. I understand why Mr. Howard envelops all of the right characteristics for each production phase-he began at about the same age (5) and still rocks out today with each and every film he has made-and that ain't no shade. : )

Mia S.

"Again, it's always about the choices. Here are the tools, the possibilities, what do they mean to - what? To the story. What do they mean to the reaction to that story? How do they influence it? And the answer to that question is always going to be the answer to, 'What do we do next, as filmmakers?' You want to make the choices that are most effective on behalf of your story - reach the audience in the ways that you want to reach them. We had a silent movie that won an Academy Award here a few years ago for Best Picture and deserved it. So, all of these choices, the wall of sound, a single sound; a full surround, a single speaker in front; they're all valid. Black and white, color, 3D, they're all valid. The question is: What works best for your story? That again always comes back to the director: What should it be? How shall we tell this story? And that's why I thrill at the collaboration - of being able to turn around to people who are specialists, love what they do, and say, 'What do you suggest?' Dialogue - you record it on the day with the actors, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's the end of the story of the dialogue, in terms of the process of making the movie or the TV show. You have a chance to go back and work on that - you can lower the pitch of the actor, you can heighten the pitch. You can slow it down a little bit, you can speed it up, you can rerecord it and therefore make it louder or softer or change the performance. You can go back to the actor and show them a scene and say, 'We need to soften this,' 'this needs to be stronger,' or 'I don't feel the intensity, let's try it again and see what we can do verbally.' And so all these things in post-production, the editing, the music certainly - the sound design, the mixing, the sound effects, the dialogue editing, the dialogue mixing - all of these things come together in ways that they put the finish on the movie; it's like a house that's well-built but it needs to be sanded, varnished and painted, and post-production is all about putting the finish on the project in the way that it's going to be presented at its absolute optimum."

Mia S.

"There are all kinds of subliminal ideas - that's what's so interesting about sound design, is so much of it works on a subliminal level and there are lots of times where there's a completely unnatural sound introduced into a scene, but it has a huge impact. 'The Silence of the Lambs' is famous because it sort of invented this idea that every time Jodie Foster would go down into Hannibal Lecter's lair, into the cell, they would just start this kind of cranking, low-grade rumbling kind of sound. It was subliminal, you really could barely discern it; but it just made you uncomfortable, and it just created sort of a background. Sometimes animal sounds can be used under - what? A truck driving by, or who knows what. It's wide open, and it's an area for real invention. And of course you can always come back to the literal, because we live with literal sound all the time - we all have a good solid sense of what's normal. The magic comes in what's not normal and yet does not distract us from immersing yourself in a scene. When I say 'us,' of course, I mean the audience. So much of what the editorial order of shots depend upon are the right music cue, the right sound effects, or the removal of those things at key moments to make the scenes really work. And of course, the director has to be aware of this, too, and ultimately have the final opinion. But it's not just where the sound is, but it's the level that the sound is played at - it's the way sound can travel in a theater, from speaker to speaker to speaker, and what that means to an audience. It can be thrilling if you feel like you're sort of seeing something fly past you and you can also hear it move around. It can be frightening if it's behind you."

Mia S.

"Sound design is another tool. It's another form of expression. And because we react to sounds on a kind of primal level, it works a little bit the way music works. A lot of composers would tell you that music works because it's actually emulating sounds of nature but in a harmonic way, and a way that might be more beautiful or melodic, but the sounds - whether it's percussion or wind instruments or synthesizers - are creating sounds that we relate to on this kind of primal level. Of course, we feel that way about all kinds of sounds, and whether it's a music cue or whether it's a moment of sound design, repeating sounds can tell you something - tell you to anticipate something, because that's what we do with sounds all the time. If you're in a house, and you hear a strange sound - what was it? If you're out on a street and hear a sound that's unexpected, you wonder if there's a problem. If you walk into a nature reserve and suddenly the sound is open and the wind is moving, it's very soothing. So the great sound designers are always going back to those sort of primal reactions. Great sound design often begins in the editing room, because the editors will start to put together a scene, and they'll recognize that what's missing here is an element of shock. And the edit's in the right place, but maybe the moment's not as effective as it should be. They'll often put in a sound that will help prove that the edit point is correct. And the moment is startling, if you have a sound. That sound is a temp, but then your sound designers will take those demands, ideas, that sort of template and creatively work their magic. Great sound designers and sound editors are sort of like record producers; they know how to use technology, how to record sounds. I've done a number of boxing scenes, and they will record punching cantaloupes, sides of raw meat, strange things, like a foam wall that kind of makes a sound."

A fellow student

I agree that sound design can really make a scene. As a music supervisor, I've been in many mix sessions with some of the best, and I'm always fascinated as to how much sound design and mix can affect a scene in terms of effective storytelling. Glad it got its own chapter, as its one of the most underrated crafts and aspects of making a film.