“Stop! Hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”

Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth (1966)

 

The folk band Buffalo Springfield not only put out some hit songs that revolutionized the music scene in the 60’s, but with this line they inadvertently gave some good advice about sights and sounds in cinema. Sometimes it’s useful to associate a sound directly with the image of the thing that is producing it. Other times, it’s far more effective to let the sound live on its own without revealing the source.

For the most part, movies have a show-and-tell method to telling a story: you see something about the same time that you hear it and vice versa. If a phone rings with an important call coming in, we cut to a close-up of it. If a person screams out of fright, we cut to their face. If a vengeful trucker is chasing someone down a highway, we cut to an ominous shot of the giant 18-wheeler as it blows its horn.

However, if you never saw the phone, the person or the truck with your eyes but still heard the sound, would you still know where the sounds came from? And would seeing the source have a greater or lesser effect than if you didn’t?

Sounds that exist in a scene without their source being revealed to the audience are referred to as acousmatic sound.

Some sounds are so common to us that our minds immediately picture what the object is that is producing them. Maybe we have heard them in our daily lives or we’ve heard them in movies countless times before (I have not personally heard a live lion roar right in my face, but I’ve heard it enough times on the big screen that I think I would recognize it right away).

So how can we determine when to reveal the source of a sound and when to keep it a mystery? Let’s look at some effective examples of acousmatic sounds in cinema.

 

 

WALK SOFTLY

Jurassic Park (1993) was a milestone in filmmaking. Spielberg advanced both CGI and practical robotics to bring dinosaurs to life in a way that we had never seen before. The granddaddy of them all was the mighty and fearsome T-Rex. So Stevey would never let the reveal of this massive beast be as simple as it popping up and saying “Hello!”. He gave it a grand entrance that built up dread in all of our minds.

As the characters sit bored in their powerless vehicles during a hurricane, one of the characters starts to hear a weird sound. A low rumble. A faint boomboomboom

 

boom…boom…boom

 

As each character clues into the noise one-by-one, we another detail in a water cup on the dashboard…with each beat there is a ripple in the surface of the water.

They ask themselves “What is that sound? Where is it coming from?” as it slowly grows louder and louder.

The build-up is intense and drawn out until…

 

 

The terrifying tyrannosaurus rex appears in all its glory!

As this moment builds up to this monstrous reveal, our level of dread matches the characters. They clue into the fact that something is coming for them. Something big. Big enough to shake the very ground with its footsteps. We can’t see what is coming or where it is and so our imaginations run wild trying to picture what massive thing could be causing the earth to shake. The longer you let your audience’s imagination guessing as to what the source of this mysterious sound could be, the longer the fear has to build and build.

Watch the full scene from Jurassic Park play out here.

Got some ideas of what foley sounds you could use to signal the arrival of something fearsome for your next movie? Check out our article on working with foley audio.

 

DID YOU HEAR THAT?

It’s not the darkness itself we fear, it’s what could lying within it staring back at us.

Cloverfield (2008) ushered in the great era that is J.J. Abrams’ filmography. The man simply has a masterful understanding of cinema and how to manipulate the audience. One of his greatest and earliest successes was this found-footage genre horror film (at a point where the very mention of the term “found-footage” made eyes roll) that smartly showed very little of the creature(s) that the main characters are running from.

At one point our characters escape into the subway tunnel system of New York to get away from the gigantic Godzilla-like creature tromping through the city. With their flashlights and night-vision capable camcorder cutting through the darkness, they believe they have a safe passage to the other side of the city. That is until they hear a soft, scuttling sound somewhere in the shadows.

 

Cloverfield (2008)

 

Just as with the t-rex previously, our characters (and we) go through the same stages of terror. Did we just hear a noise, or was that in our heads? If that was a noise, what could it be? Something dangerous or are we just being paranoid? If it’s something we should be afraid of, how close is it?

Our limited view because of the pure darkness of the subway tunnel means we are left with just our wild imaginations again. The clicking sound could be mechanical…or it could be an insect of some kind? It could just be a small rat…or what if it’s something larger?

The curiosity and fear of the group gets to be too much and they just HAVE to know what is out there. Once they catch a glimpse of the alien, parasitic creatures stalking them like lions in the night, all hell breaks loose. They panic, they run, they scream. All of this chaos is seen through a camcorder being shaken around frantically as they try to get away.

Take a look at the full Cloverfield scene here and imagine what it would have been like with no sounds in the darkness but if the creatures just appeared from nowhere.

 

GAME OVER, MAN!

This one is kind of a cheat…but let’s allow it because the scene is still downright chilling!

Aliens (1986) did what no one thought possible before then: it one-upped the perfect-hit that was Ridley Scott’s original sci-fi in space horror, Alien (1979). James Cameron essentially blended the action genre in there for good measure, but managed to retain much of the scare factor that the original brought to the scene. Not an easy feat to pull off!

As the aliens have ambushed our team of marines and cut them off from their escaping, they retreat further into the colony and take shelter, barricading down and setting up defenses. Once they are secure and are waiting for rescue, their motion detectors pick up a beat…

 

Aliens (1986)

 

They arm themselves and prepare for the coming horde of xenomorphs as the dots on the radar surround them and close in. The sound that these motion detectors give off with each ping has become unique to this movie. It starts off as an intermittent tone increasing slowly in pitch, similar to strings on a violin slowly rising.

Although the sound is coming from the motion detectors themselves, it is an indicator to the approaching aliens. As the tone goes up and up we know the creatures are drawing closer and closer…even after the motion detectors have picked up that they are within the same room that the crew is standing in, yet no one can see them yet!

Mr. Cameron is not known for his takes at horror scenes, but he knew that even with the means to show any amount of the xenomorphs they wanted to, that less would be more terrifying. Just the same way that the original movie made us realize that in space no one can hear us scream.

So we are left with this incredibly tense buildup to a fantastic action sequence. The steady ping of the motion detectors ratchet up the creepiness of something alien closing in around you. You may not know where it is, but it clearly knows where you are.

Check out the full scene of Aliens for yourself here.

 

FEAR GOD

Kevin Smith spun some heads around when he released his movie Red State (2011). It centers on a radical group of Christian fundamentalists engaged in a violent stand-off with ATF agents.

 

Red State (2011)

 

The fundamentalists believe they are doing God’s will by defending themselves against the authorities. Without going into too much detail about the ending itself (it’s REALLY worth seeing for yourself), everything seems well-grounded in reality while the violence escalates until suddenly deafening trumpets blare out. Everyone engaged in the firefight is stunned by the cataclysmic horns as they sound again and again.

ATF agents cover their ears and look to the skies, trying in vain to find out where those trumpets are coming from. But the Christian extremists believe they know exactly what that sound means. They rejoice for the rapture that is about to go down.

This sound is where the movie completely deviates from how it has been established until now. Up until now there’s been absolutely no mention of any supernatural or heavenly forces at play here. This sound turns the story right around on its heels and fills the characters with awe that the power of the Almighty is about to rain down upon them. And it shocks the audience just as much.

Watch this incredible scene here…but you should really watch the movie in its entirety to get the full effect.