The Importance of Sound Design

Here’s a quick demonstration of the huge difference that sound design can make. This video contains a scene from the final cut of Soul Searcher, but still with the original production sound, followed by the same scene after the processes of sound editing, design and mixing were completed.

The music makes a big difference, of course, but putting that to one side, the sound effects have really brought the scene to life. And bear in mind that I did the sound design on this film. If a proper, experienced sound designer had done it, I’m sure it would be a hundred times better still.

First of all, the location, the villain’s lair, has been given a character through atmos tracks. The fluorescent hum is actually a combination of an electricity substation, recorded outside a local shopping centre here in Hereford late one night, and my own voice humming, layered up several times. The human element adds some randomness and makes the sound more alive.

There’s also an airy sound which is my mum’s gas oven, representing a Bunsen Burner that’s established in the room earlier in the film. This high frequency sound lightens everything up and gives it a sense of space.

The thick chains which Danté is carrying were ingeniously made by production designer Ian Tomlinson out of rolled-up newspaper. Clearly it was necessary to replace the light, crinkly noises this made on set with the heavy clanks of genuine metal chain. These were sourced from an online library called Sounddogs.

The smaller chain was real metal, but you’ll notice in the production audio that what little sound it makes is weak and off-mike. This is absolutely normal; your sound recordist’s job is to get the dialogue as clearly as possible; everything else can be re-recorded in post and therefore each element can be miked closely for the best possible sound. Using a length of the chain which I had kept from production, I recorded the sounds of it being handled and dragged over the lip of the chest using a coffee table in my living room.

The chains are the MacGuffin of the story, so giving them thick, clean, satisfying sounds is vital to cement them as key elements in the audience’s mind.

Ideally the chest used as a prop would have been more ancient-looking, but that was the best one we were able to get on our budget. However, adding the sound of a friend’s squeaky bathroom doorknob as Danté opens the lid helped to age prop the little.

Finally, once all these lovely clean sound effects were track-laid, they were all treated with reverb by mixer Neil Douek, to help them feel real, to tie them all together, and to convey the scale of Danté’s lair.

How have you used sound design in your own films to help tell the story?

The Importance of Sound Design

Soul Searcher: Low Tech FX

In this 2005 featurette I break down many of the visual effects in my feature film Soul Searcher, revealing how they were created using old school techniques, like pouring milk into a fishtank for apocalyptic clouds. Watch the shots being built up layer by layer, starting with mundane elements like the water from a kitchen tap or drinking straws stuck to a piece of cardboard.

Soul Searcher: Low Tech FX

Falsification of Precipitation

Yesterday I had to shoot some fake snow. Ironic, I know, given the weather lately, but it had to be composited over a pre-existing shot. Various software plug-ins are available to add snow to a shot, but I’m of the school of thought that says it’s always better to use a real thing. Even if it’s a fake real thing.

A few years back, Col sent off for some free samples of artificial snow from a weather effects company called Snow Business. (Eternal winter in Narnia? That was them.) When Miguel pointed out that a snow-covered shot of Belper’s bandstand in Stop/Eject looked like a still photograph in the edit, I saw a way to make use of these samples to bring some movement into the frame.

From the box of samples we picked one that appeared to be made of shredded carrier bags, because it floated the most realistically as it fell. I suspect you could make some of this yourself with a lot of patience and a few trips to Tesco. I set up black drapes with a redhead poking over the top to ensure that the snowflakes would be backlit without any direct light falling on the drapes. Then we rolled the camera and started sprinkling.

Afterwards it was a simple case of using screen mode (or ‘Add’ in Final Cut Pro) to combine the footage with the background shot. This mode gives exactly the same results as double-exposing a traditional photograph would: the black areas naturally become transparent because they have no brightness.

Must resist temptation to use snow-based puns...
Must resist temptation to use snow-based puns…

Several years ago, Col and I did exactly the same thing with rain, filming water from a hosepipe in his back garden against a black night sky, then layering it on top of scenes from Soul Searcher.

Must also refrain from rain puns. Uh-oh, I said "refRAIN"...
Must also refrain from rain puns. Uh-oh, I said “refRAIN”…

We also shot one scene for Soul Searcher in “real” rain – real in so far as it was actually there falling on the actors, but not in so far as it actually came from clouds. Perhaps I’ll upload a behind-the-scenes clip of that for my next post.

Meanwhile, if you’re going out to shoot in real snow, check out the tips I posted a couple of weeks ago.

Falsification of Precipitation

Music Cue Sheet

If your film gets picked up by a distributor, one of the many delivery materials they’ll ask for is a music cue sheet. If you’re unsure what one is or how to lay one out, take a look at Soul Searcher‘s as an example. See the Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook by Chris Jones and Genevieve Joliffe for more information on music cue sheets. For more on distribution and delivery materials, read this post about what to look for in a distribution contract.

Download Soul Searcher’s music cue sheet (.doc, 84kb)

Music Cue Sheet

Scott Benzie: Composer Extraordinaire

Scott Benzie conducts the Worcestershire Symphony Orchestra as they perform his score for Soul Searcher.
Scott Benzie conducts the Worcestershire Symphony Orchestra as they perform his score for Soul Searcher.

Today’s post is an introduction to Scott Benzie, composer of Soul Searcher, The Dark Side of the Earth and now Stop/Eject. (The series on VFX planning will continue next week.)

After becoming interested in music at a relatively late age, thanks to a synthesizer Christmas present and the inspiration of James Horner’s Krull soundtrack, Scott majored in music at Notthingham Trent University. In 2002 he wrote an impressive orchestral score for Jim Groom’s noir feature Room 36, conducting the Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra and recording all 50 minutes of music in a single day. Scott repeated this feat for Soul Searcher three years later, after responding to an advert I posted on Shooting People for a fully orchestral John Williams-style score – a goal which many people mocked as naïve or over-ambitious, but not Scott.

The composer’s other feature film credits include Ten Dead Men (dir. Ross Boyask), Fear Eats the Seoul (dir. Nick Calder), and Dinner with my Sisters (dir. Michael Hapeshis) which was released in UK cinemas last November. Several of Scott’s soundtracks have been released in their own right, including Room 36 which is available on CD from KeepMoving Records.

Scott recently took his first crack at some music for Stop/Eject and this is the result:

This is rough, unmixed and all done with samples. The finished version will, I hope, be recorded with live players. On Soul Searcher  we were able to persuade a choir and a symphony orchestra to perform Scott’s score for us. Here’s a clip from Going to Hell: The Making of Soul Searcher covering the music recording, one of the few things that didn’t go horribly wrong during Soul Searcher’s creation. (Remember that you can watch Going to Hell in full for a small charge at and Soul Searcher itself completely free on the same site.)

Visit Scott’s website at

Scott Benzie: Composer Extraordinaire

Planning VFX: Computer Generated Imagery

Following on from last week’s thoughts on planning VFX shots, I’m now going to look at the issue of CGI vs. miniatures. In this post I’ll cover some of the advantages of choosing computer generated imagery, and next time I’ll look at the advantages of miniatures. As any regular readers will know, I much prefer miniatures, but I aim to be completely impartial in what follows.

To start off with let’s go back 20 years to Jurassic Park, the movie that really started the CGI revolution, and find out why Steven Spielberg chose this emerging technology over traditional techniques. (Skip to 13:12.)

So Spielberg favoured CGI because it produced more realistic motion. In fact, watching Jurassic Park these days I find the CG dinosaurs are easily differentiated from Stan Winston’s full size animatronics by the fact that the former move much more fluidly. Even when miniatures move “live”, i.e. without stop motion animation – vehicles powered by motors or pulled on hidden wires, for example – the motion is often less realistic than a CGI equivalent because the laws of physics dictate a small thing will always move differently from a large thing.

Next up, here’s a clip from Going to Hell: The Making of Soul Searcher, in which I discuss how I arrived at CGI as the best method of creating the spectral umbilical cords the script required. (You can watch the whole of this feature-length documentary at

So control was the key thing there. There were 80 shots, many with camera moves, and the umbilical cords had to be locked to the characters. Trying to achieve this with string and cables was just not realistic, or would have required so much manipulation in post as to make shooting a real element pointless. CGI can be controlled completely and adjusted quickly, without the need for reshoots.

Here are some other pros of CGI over traditional techniques:

  • No shooting required, so no crew to pay, feed, transport, etc. On a micro-budget where the crew are unpaid, CGI is completely free, whereas any kind of miniature shoot will always have costs.
  • CG elements can be tracked to moving plates without the need for expensive motion control cameras.
  • There are far more talented and experienced CG artists out there than model-makers.
  • You can create anything you can imagine, without any practical or logistical restrictions.

Can you think of any others? Let me know. Next time I’ll look at the advantages of traditional techniques.

Planning VFX: Computer Generated Imagery

Planning VFX

A few years back I taught a module on Visual Effects for filmmaking degree students at the SAE Institute in north London. Rather than getting into the nitty gritty of how to actually do VFX, it focused instead on how directors and producers should approach and plan for them.

Here is one of the examples I gave, using a shot from my 2005 feature Soul Searcher. Joe Fallow (Ray Bullock Jnr.) sprints down the platform of Hereford station as the Hades Express departs, bearing away the villain of the piece and the kidnapped love interest.

Finished shot from Soul Searcher
Finished shot from Soul Searcher

The train was a 1:18 scale miniature and was dropped into the live action plate by means of a simple, static matte drawn in Photoshop – essentially a splitscreen effect.

But what if I, as director, had chosen a different camera angle?

Alternate angle 1

To achieve this version, the model train would have needed to have been shot against a green screen to make it appear in front of Joe and the platform. This would have complicated shooting the miniature slightly, as lighting for a green screen can be quite time-consuming.

Alternate angle 2

Here we have the opposite; now Joe is in the foreground, so he’s the one that needs to be shot against a green screen. Since he and the station are full size, the green screen would need to be much bigger and would require much more light. And remember we’re now talking about an impact on the main unit’s time on a location, rather than a small model unit in a studio, so the cost implications are magnified.

Alternate angle 3

Finally, what if I’d gone for a camera move? Now we’re into motion control rigs, to record the camera’s movement on location and applied a scaled-down version of that same move to the camera shooting the miniature. Either that or the live action plate has to be 3D-tracked in post-production, and that tracking data fed into the motion control rig that shoots the miniature. More time, more people, more equipment, more money.

This is the first step in planning for VFX: understanding how your choice of shots influences the techniques required to achieve them and therefore impacts on the schedule and the budget. Stay tuned for more on this topic, and remember you can watch Soul Searcher in full for free at

Planning VFX

The Power of Post

Ray Bullock Jnr. as Joe
Ray Bullock Jnr. as Joe, preparing to fight the marauding demon

As we search for an editor for Stop/Eject, here’s a demonstration of the power an editor wields.

A few weeks before the premiere of Soul Searcher, my fantasy-action feature about a trainee Grim Reaper, I showed the film to my flatmates of the time. One comment concerned a scene in which the trainee reaper, Joe (Ray Bullock Jnr.), fights a demon (Shane Styen) while drunken revellers cheer him on.

As scripted, the scene covers only the start of the fight – enough to show how cocky Joe has become in his new role. (On the day of shooting we decided to extend the scene to show Joe killing the demon, but after a couple of shots Shane injured himself, forcing us to revert to the shorter version.) My flatmate wanted to see Joe kill the demon, and I decided he was right.

I certainly wasn’t going to do a reshoot at that stage in the game, but nonetheless I was able to alter the scene to have the demon die. I did it in three steps, and these conveniently illustrate the three prongs of attack you can use in post-production to change and improve your story.

  1. Re-purpose existing footage. The demon knocks Joe’s scythe from his hand early in the scene, so my first challenge was to get the hero his blade back so he could strike the fatal blow. Fortunately I had left the camera running while shooting a series of takes of Joe’s scythe hitting the ground. Therefore I had also caught the scythe being picked up on camera. This was never intended to be used, but it worked a treat.
  2. Visual effects. I’m no fan of digital fixes, but there’s no denying they can get you out of a tight spot. The existing cut of the scene had a shot of Joe walking up to the demon, but now I needed to put the scythe into his hand, so I cut out the scythe from a freeze-frame of another shot and motion-tracked it to Joe’s movements.
  3. Sound. This is the most commonly-used tool for changing things in post. Any time in a movie that a line of exposition is delivered without the speaker’s mouth being clearly seen, chances are that it’s Additional Dialogue Recording (ADR). It’s far easier to get the actor into a recording studio to perform a new line than to go back to a location or a long-struck set and reshoot. But in this case all I needed to do was put in some slicing, crunching sounds and a grunt, which I ran over a handy shot of the drunken revellers.

Here is the original scene followed by the bits I changed and then the final version:

Remember that with great power comes great responsibility. I’ve heard of actors who’ve found themselves edited into scenes they’d never shot. If you’ve substantially changed the character with your tinkerings, or placed an actor into a sensitive or controversial scene, be sure to discuss it with them just as you would have done beforehand if it had been shot conventionally. The same goes for the writer if you’ve made a big change to their script.

Some might look at all this as cheating, and I confess I have mixed feelings about it myself. I believe in getting things right in-camera, but the reality is that all films are prototypes, and you’re often well into post-production – at least – before you really figure out what the best way is to make this particular movie.

The Power of Post

Trailer Tips

Watching the Soul Searcher trailer
Lara Greenway and Ray Bullock Jnr. watch the Soul Searcher trailer for, like, the gazillionth time.

For independent filmmakers, there was a time when trailers were something you didn’t worry about until the movie was finished and you were looking to get it distributed. Maybe you cut a basic one during or just after production to show the cast and crew some of the fruits of their hard work. (This proved a massive morale booster during Soul Searcher‘s six-week principal photography slog.)

But times have changed. Now the saturation of broadband has made video on the web an everyday thing, and a trailer for your short film or micro-budget feature posted on-line has a good chance of reaching some kind of audience and starting to build word of mouth about your project. Not to mention the rise of crowd-funding, for which having a pitch video – typically consisting partly of a trailer – is essential. Indeed, shooting a trailer before you’ve shot the film, in order to raise finance, has become extremely common.

So today I’m going to share some advice on editing trailers. I can’t claim to be an expert on trailer editing – it’s not an area of editing I’ve ever been able to specialise in – but the trailers I’ve cut generally get a good reaction, so I must be doing something right.

By the way, these tips assume that you’ve actually shot the film. If not, you’re more in the area of a teaser trailer, which is a whole other subject.


The first trailer I cut for Soul Searcher – the morale-booster – used Mark Mancina’s theme from Speed. Since it was just for cast and crew and wasn’t going on the internet, the copyright thing wasn’t an issue. But these days you’ll definitely want to put your trailer online, so make sure you have the rights to use the music.

If you already have a composer lined up for your film, it may seem logical to have them score your trailer. This is what I did for Soul Searcher’s second trailer, edited primarily for a preview screening at 2004’s Borderlines Film Festival. Unfortunately this didn’t really work. The composer dutifully reflected every little change in the on-screen action. But that’s not how trailer music works. Trailer music needs to be driving and insistent, and should only change moods at two or three carefully planned points. So here’s the tip:

ALWAYS CUT YOUR TRAILER TO MUSIC. Never edit first and try to add music later or have music written to fit.

Watch the Dark Shadows trailer and notice how they use music to pace the edit and underline the transitions. Also note how they punctuate the comedy by stopping the music for the bigs gags, then bring it back in over a reaction shot.


Everything you need to know about how to edit a trailer can be learnt from simply watching trailers. You’ll notice that they’re structured into well-defined acts, with a key plot point and a change in the music between each act. Like an actual film, the first act will normally set up the world and characters, the second will present a sticky situation and the third will be about trying to resolve that situation, although of course in a trailer no resolution will come.

These days the studio logos tend to be a few shots in, or even at the start of the second act. If you don’t have a motion graphic logo for your production company, now’s the time to sort one out because it won’t feel like a trailer without it.

At the end of the third act will be the title and the “button”. This is a final beat – a sort of exclamation mark at the end of the trailer’s sentence – and is usually comedic. That’s followed by a couple of brief screens of credits (SFMoviePoster is a useful font to get hold of here) and a release date.

Look at the structure in The Dicator’s trailer below: a prelude building mystery, a first act setting up the character, a second act showing the kidnapping predicament, and a third act in which hilarity ensues. Possibly.


Two stylistic things that have been pretty big in trailers for a few years are speed changes and lines over black.

Speed changes work best on tracking or craning shots, and quite simply involve speeding up the first part of the shot for no other reason that it looks kind of cool. Slow motion is used a lot as well, often because you need to emphasise a dramatic point in the trailer more than the director felt was necessary for the film itself. For the same reason, adding a digital zoom-in to a key close-up is quite common.

Running lines of dialogue over a black screen is another emphasis tool. Typically these come at the transition points between acts. We get a montage of shots and music, then everything goes black and silent except for one key line of dialogue, then – BOOM! – a new piece of music kicks in and we’re assailed with moving images once again.

Similarly, fades to black get used a lot in trailers. These can help hide continuity issues caused when you compress a scene, but also aid generally in pacing.

Strobing has become popular lately too – cutting black frames into shots to break them up. It adds pace and makes the viewer feel like they’re not getting to see everything. See the end of this Prometheus trailer for an example.

Text and Voiceovers

Keep these to a minimum. In fact, don’t do a voiceover at all unless you can afford to hire the actual Trailer Voice Guy. Anyone else voicing over your trailer will immediately make it sound amateurish, unless it makes sense for one of the characters in the film to do the VO.

And don’t put your cast’s names up in big letters in your trailer, unless they’re genuine name actors.

Taglines are fine as on-screen text. Check out trailers for films in a similar genre to help you choose a font. There was a time when every trailer had text which moved towards you, with the letters simultaneously separating out. That fad seems to be over now, but look out for things like this in big movie trailers which you can emulate. Dramas and chick-flicks tend to have their captions over a background of out-of-focus points of light – easy enough to shoot with a DSLR and some Christmas lights if you can’t get hold of a stock motion graphic.

Take This Waltz, below, uses this kind of text background.


Sound is just as phenomenally important in a trailer as it is in any other moving image format. Bad sound can instantly ruin all the hard work you’ve put in to make your trailer look like a “real” trailer.

It can be difficult, especially if you’re cutting your trailer early in post-production. You haven’t done your ADR yet and you don’t even have a post-production sound crew on board.

The solution? Download Audacity – a free piece of audio editing software – and use its noise removal filter on any troublesome production sound. It won’t work miracles, but if you have background noise like traffic, hiss or mains hum it will seriously reduce it. As a side effect you will get digital artefacts, but these will be inaudible once you’ve mixed in your music.

Make judicious use of good sound effects. Get hold of some nice, chunky whooshes to underscore your speed-changes, or your captions zooming on. If your film is a comedy, maybe throw in a record scratch effect when your music jars to a halt for an act change.

Check out the use of loud, whooshy, slammy noises (technical term) in the Men in Black III trailer:

And finally…

In case you somehow missed it, here’s the trailer for my new short film, Stop/Eject:

Trailer Tips