Storytelling and Sound in Film

Intro

Storytelling and sound development are key elements in film or video games. Without a good story you can't have characters express emotions properly, set scenes accordingly, or create a valid message for your art. The same goes with sound. If a sound effect kicks in at the wrong time, or there is a lack of sound, it can create inconsistent realism. Both of these factors are important for visual effects as well. For example, if you create an explosion, you'd probably want to hear the result of that explosion. As well as communicate why that explosion went off.

When we create abstract effects in film, television or games, it is even hard to communicate what the story behind the effect is. So here is a quick breakdown on storytelling and sound. As well as a continuation on how we can incorporate them in visual effects.

Storytelling 101

Let's go back to the basics. There are six elements to a story.

Setting:

- The setting is the time and location in which your story takes place. Settings can be very specific, but can also be more broad and descriptive. Setting sets the mood of your story. For example, an open background of a field while it downpours in the middle of the night might convey a different visual than a pan through New York City.

Characters:

- There is always a protagonist and antagonist. if you are working from a VFX perspective, this might mean a good effect or a bad effect colliding with each other. The protagonist is the main character of a story. While antagonists oppose protagonists, standing between them and their ultimate goals. The antagonist can be presented in the form of any person, place, thing, or situation. There is no limit on how many characters can be in a story.

Plot:

- The plot is the sequence of events that connect the audience to the protagonist and their ultimate goal. There is always a clear goal in every good story.

Conflict:

- The conflict is what drives the story. If there’s no conflict, the audience will not care, but there will be no compelling story to tell. Conflict is what engages an audience.

Theme:

- The theme is what the story is really about. It’s the main idea or underlying meaning. There can be a few different major themes and minor themes throughout a story.

Narrative Arc:

- A strong story plot has a narrative arc that has four important parts.

Setup. This is the world in which the protagonist exists prior to the journey.

Rising Tension. The series of obstacles the protagonist must overcome.

Climax. The point of highest tension in the story.

- And Resolution. The conflict’s conclusion. 

Plot Points of a Story

There a seven main plot points to a good story. Without these, the the story fails.

The Back Story:

 

- Main characters, background characters, and all remaining characters or situations in your story have these. This plot point helps setup further actions by your characters.

The Catalyst:

- This helps get the setup of your story moving. It motivates the characters to do something.

The Big Event:

- This is a big event that changes the main character's life.

The Midpoint:

- The Midpoint is the point of no return, and becomes the a point of deep motivation to keep going for the characters. 

The Crisis:

-  This is the lowest point for your characters and the point of no return.

The Climax:

- This is the showdown and final face-off between your characters and their situation.

The Realization:

- This is the conclusion to your character's story. This is also the point where your lead character has changed or has realized something.

Direction and Characterization in Film

There are a lot of topics we could cover under this umbrella topic. There is a huge section I will briefly mention on how actors characterize their performance in film. But I'll be honest, I'm more interested in how we convey characters at a production level.

Let's start with our actors. Each actor in a film for a main role research's topics that is linked to their character in their film. They create a method of how to best approach that character's movements and persona. If a character walks with a limp, it's the actors job to make that limp believable. An actor should care about their character. Otherwise, the story of that character's actions won't be believed.

However, in order to match our scenes with the tone of our character's dialogue and actions we need to create the correct atmosphere. There are several elements to do this. 

The Soundtrack

- This element includes both dialogue and music, as well as all the other sounds in a film. This enhances the atmosphere of the film based on the theme of the music. Usually, any background music will help accentuate interesting moments in the film.

 Camera Usage

- A camera shot is based on the camera’s distance from the object. There are four main shots that are used in films. These are: The close up, A medium shot, full shot, and a long shot. All of these  shots help tell the story based on how the audience is viewing the character, or how the character is viewing the events around them. Shots also contain angles that help create a better perspective on the story. Some of these are: straight-on angle, high angle, low angle, and oblique angle.

 

A good question to ask while creating or moving your camera is: Does the camera say anything about the character? 

 

Lighting

- Lighting focuses the audience’s attention on the main character or object in a film. It also sets the mood or atmosphere. Special lighting is used during important scenes. High-key lighting is bright and illuminating, low-key lighting is darker with a lot of shadows. Filters are often used to soften and reduce harsh contrasts. They can also be used to eliminate haze, ultraviolet light or glare from water when shooting outside.

Editing

- Editing is the way in which a film editor together with the director cuts and assembles the scenes. The way the scenes are joined together creates the rhythm of the motion picture. Scenes can be long and drawn out or short and choppy.

How Sound Effects Get Made?

Sound effects are also used in movies and television shows. They help mimic effects we hear in the real world. For example, smashing a wine glass on the ground. These effects can be hard to record and produce as they require a closed set to record them in, and may have to be exaggerated.

Sound effects have been around for a long time. They've been around since the earliest days of radio. Early radio programs often featured dramatic live productions. People relied on their ears receive the story from the radio. Good sound effects were necessary to tell a story in an engaging way.

Foley is the reproduction of everyday sound effects that are added to films, videos, and other media in post-production to enhance audio quality. These reproduced sounds are named after sound-effects artist Jack Foley. Foley sounds are used to enhance the auditory experience of the movie. Foley can also be used to cover up unwanted sounds captured on the set of a movie during filming, such as overflying airplanes or passing traffic.

The term "Foley" is also used to describe a Foley-stage or Foley-studio, where the Foley process takes place. Foley artists recreate the sounds that the film portrays. However, a lot of sound props do not react the same way as they should sound in a movie. Therefore, sound artists have to come up with a better solution to making a film sound right.

Modern Sound Design

Modern Foley art has progressed as recording technology has progressed. Today, sounds do not have to be recorded live on a single track of audio. They can be captured separately on individual tracks. Foley studios use  hundreds of props and digital effects to recreate the ambient sounds of their films.

Foley is created by the sound artist mimicking the actual sound source in a recording studio.Often there are many little sound effects that happen within any given scene of a movie. The process of recording them is very time-consuming.

Foley art can be broken down into three main categories:

Feet


- The category is about footsteps. Foley Artists are often referred to as "Foley Walkers" or "Steppers" when working in this category. All types of footstep sounds are produced in this section.

Moves:


- This category creates and covers subtle sounds heard in films. For example, the swishing of clothing when two actors walk past each other.

Specifics:


- Foley can also include other sounds. This category can include stock sound effects, loud object noises, and digital effects. These tend to be done more by using stock sound effects.

There are a few factors that editors need to keep in mind while working with digital sound. Electronic sound can often be over exaggerated, and too loud. So sound editors need to be aware of how to adjust them. Some factors they focus on are:

Appropriate EQ:

 

- It's easy to boost everything to sound louder. However, this will generally give a track a muddy or unclear sound. This makes certain aspects of your track ring through and deafen other sounds which fill the same area in the EQ spectrum.

Compression and Limiting:

 

- Compression and Limiting focus on adjusting volume levels and avoiding clipping. This also means adjusting things to hit harder or softer through the attack/release times on my compressor or limiter. If you stack the shapes the right way, you can stack them higher, and have them fit around each other to make a louder, compressed, and fuller sound.

Panning:

 

- This is a general filling of the stereo field. This will add reverb, or change the mono/stereo motion of a sound.

Gain Leveling:

 

- This finds out how different elements of your track fit in relation to each other.

Storytelling in Visual Effects

Now before we go into how visual effects can help improve a story, I need to give a few examples of how it can backfire. So let's talk about Star Wars. Or at least, the prequels and all the 90s edits.

 

When Star Wars Episode 1 The Phantom Menace was released, it was a huge success for Lucas Film. It had a huge opening weekend, and the effects were fairly good for it's time. It had state of the art CGI, incredible music, mind melting sound design, and a light-saber battles galore. But story wise it sucked. 

In fact, one could argue all of the prequels lacked a huge storytelling element, and are recognized as some of the worst Star Wars movies. So why is this?

The prequels are not based around the character's story, but they hinge around VFX to be the story. This is not a good idea for any film.

But, is it possible to do both? Can you use visual effects, 3D animation,regular storytelling, and still create a great film?  Yes.

Now let's talk about the film Gravity.

If you've never seen Gravity. Quick summary. It's about two astronauts trapped in space, and things go terribly wrong. So the whole set is in an environment that is CG. Visual effects are used as a function of the story, while the characters use the visually affected environment to develop the story. In that context, visual effects work.

A powerful story can be supported, and enhanced, by powerful visuals. Even when films are seen as blockbusters, digital effects can add visual identity to the story to make it unique. 

References 

Sound design: how sound helps tell your visual stories: https://www.videomaker.com/article/f04/19052-sound-design-how-sound-helps-tell-your-visual-stories

Constructing Narrative through Sound Design: https://www.videomaker.com/article/c04/18237-constructing-narrative-through-sound-design

Storytelling and Film Fairy Tales, Myth and Happy Endings: https://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_18/section_1/artc1A.html

Technology and The Evolution of Storytelling: https://medium.com/art-science/technology-and-the-evolution-of-storytelling-d641d4a27116

FILM SOUND AND MUSIC: https://collegefilmandmediastudies.com/film-sound-and-music/

Reconstructing atmospheres: Ambient sound in film and media production: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2057047317742171

The art of storytelling: https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/pixar/storytelling

Narrative theory and the dynamics of popular movies: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5133278/

THE EVOLUTION OF STORYTELLING: FROM PREHISTORIC CAVEMAN DRAWINGS TO AUDIO AUGMENTED REALITY: https://theawe.dk/evolution-storytelling-prehistoric-caveman-drawings-audio-augmented-reality/

Why filmmakers should focus more on storytelling, not special effects: https://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2017/01/17/why-filmmakers-should-focus-more-on-storytelling-not-special-effects.html

The Art of Cinematic Storytelling: https://medium.com/@heartist/the-art-of-cinematic-storytelling-e6261ec1cb7d

STORYTELLING ON FILM: http://www.filmeducation.org/pdf/resources/primary/Storytelling_Resource_FilmEducation.pdf

Storytelling 101: The 6 Elements of Every Complete Narrative: https://blog.pond5.com/6477-storytelling-101-the-6-elements-of-every-complete-narrative/

The Magnificent 7 Plot Points: https://www.keepwriting.com/tsc/magnificent7plotpoints.htm#:~:text=They%20are%3A%20the%20Back%20Story,place%20before%20the%20movie%20begins.

How to Analyze a Film: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/introliterature/chapter/how-to-analyze-a-film/

VISUAL EFFECTS VS. STORYTELLING: http://sicafilms.ca/visual-effects-vs-storytelling/

 

DIGITAL STORYTELLING: THE
NARRATIVE POWER OF VISUAL
EFFECTS IN FILM: https://www.depietro.com/publications/digitalstorytelling.pdf