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  • Hayden Purcell

Sound Design - Basics

Updated: Apr 8

The best thing I have worked on in my brief career as a sound designer was probably, Matt Holness' debut feature film Possum. A dark horror/mystery following a children's puppeteer returning home to confront his sordid past.


I had been under the mentorship of Alex Joseph for about a year by this point, someone truly remarkable at their craft, who really opened my eyes to how sound design is not only a necessity for creative media, but an art form, bolstered by his knowledge of psychology; which really came to the fore when working with horror films. Everything you hear when watching your favourite TV show or film is essentially fakery, sometimes even the dialogue. When I first started experimenting with sound effects, I had a very literal way of thinking; Alex had an extensive library of sound effects he had recorded and found over his career, which enabled me to think about what I wanted, find it, and use it. But when I was studying the scenes, I'd see a swinging wooden sign, so I'd search "Wood"..."Sign"...."Swing". I was taught that sound in this capacity is a texture; a different layer to the film where you can combine reality with fiction, just as much as the authors of the screenplays. What else does a wooden sign sound like? What elements do you think would help embellish that wooden sign? These are the same thought processes that would lead foley artists to discover the use of hitting a cabbage as a sound effect for fight scenes. Building upon a scene started with studying it; watch it, then slow it down, maybe even go through some of it frame by frame and look at what's visually there, to then combine with the intentions of the scene, and accentuate the moods and feelings that is being portrayed. Let's have a look at a scene...

A lot of what was designed throughout the film is based off Alex's discussions with Matt in terms of their vision for the film; credited as a sound effects editor, I had to take this vision, and build upon it to that criteria. This house for Philip holds a lot of trauma, so we really wanted to bring that out and make anything within the house, and particularly involving Maurice, feel as disgusting, dirty, creepy, and uncomfortable as possible. To allude to the past, make the present feel unpleasant, and also foreshadow later events - All through the use of sound. With the house itself, I threw in as many rickety and creaky sounds as I could find - Floorboards, breaking wood, squeaks, rusty metal hinges, the stretching of leather. For the kitchen, it was thinking about the sounds of run down 70s appliances...Whirring machinery, faulty electrical buzzes, a bit of low level irritating white noise. For a lot of this stuff, I used some basic frequency oscillations at a low level behind all of the more dominant effects. I had previously researched infrasound and the impacts of different frequencies vs. emotions; the feelings that they can induce. So I experimented with some of these in conjunction with the room tone to try and incur a consistent feeling of unease during scenes either in the house, or in particular interactions with Maurice. I had a lot of fun working with Maurice's scenes...I spent a lot of time hiding sound elements that occur later in the film, distorting them and using them as more thematic aspects of the scenes, my own way of foreshadowing later scenes.

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Hayden Purcell

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