Sound Advice

Fernanda Rossi March 10, 2009

Dear Doc Doctor: Wouldn’t it be wrong to do sound design on a documentary, given that a documentary is supposedly about what’s already there?

Doc Doctor: The range of what’s acceptable in a documentary is as varied as the types of filmmakers that populate our planet. There is no absolute of what to do and what not to do—much as we’re told the contrary—but, rather, a long scale of possibilities that goes from purist verité to hard-core experimental or docudrama.

So rather than engaging in a dogmatic discussion, let’s talk about how the film is framed and what’s acceptable within those sets of rules. A purist verité filmmaker may decide not to use non-ambient music unless one of the subjects portrayed is playing it on camera. A docudramatist, however, might add sounds for many reasons: to underline an emotion, to create suspense, etc. Neither is wrong; each is coherent within its proposed frame.

Sound design, among those elements that are considered in a stylistic approach, is the most subtle to play with and the most flexible. First, we understand by sound design and editing to be "the manipulation of audio elements to achieve a desired effect," according to Wikipedia—which, not surprisingly, has tagged the entry as incomplete and unbalanced. I say "not surprisingly" because sound design is a neglected art. Few budget for it in spite of its importance.

That desired effect that a filmmaker should achieve and consequently budget for is the creation of a coherent and consistent sound world. It would be the equivalent of the director of photography or cameraperson creating a consistent color palette during color correction in post, so as to not let the film visuals jump all over the place. Audio should have the same smoothness, to let the audience sink in the story without being distracted by technical inconsistencies—unless that’s the desired effect, to be reminded that this is a mediatized experience.

These days, the eye is much more forgiving of such inconsistencies than the ear. Audiences don’t realize or aren’t bothered by a shaky camera or a burn-out shot—as long as the audio keeps them engaged. On the other hand, most people can’t tell that it was the permanent-audio jumps or background-noise discontinuity that got them out of the story. Instead they might attempt to explain it through other means, a scene or character that was not interesting. I have been lucky enough to see this experiment first-hand. When a crowd was shown a rough sound edit, their complaints addressed all types of faults with the image. Then when shown the sound-designed version without a single frame changed, people related how the "cut"—referring to images—was so much better. But they couldn’t point to what had changed, and/or pointed at things that had not been changed.

So what to do about sound design: Just do it. Nobody wants to sit through a film that’s hard to follow due to sound sloppiness. And not being sloppy starts with good recording on site.

The question is: To what degree can sound design be used in a documentary? On the purist verité side of the scale, sound design might be limited to making audio tracks even and audible, making atmosphere background continuous—hello room tone!—and filtering undesirable noise that interferes with the main track (such as the wind or an engine in the background). But even these steps might be frowned upon among some.

If you are a free interpreter of reality, you might use sound design for all of the above and might add sound effects—you might complete car-passing sounds later if the mic didn’t capture it, or you might emphasize something by a sound or tone, or you might even play with the predominance of certain soundtracks to create an aural point of view.

In short, sound design is a great ally in bringing real life to the screen. The dilemma is not whether to use this wonderful story device but rather how and in what context.

_Internationally known author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 200 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers around the world. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer. More info and book at