With no experience in movies, Randy Thom felt lucky to get a job in 1975 gathering sounds for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. But he wasn’t so happy when he first heard what Walter Murch, the Academy Award® winning sound designer and editor, had done with his meticulous recordings of helicopters in flight. Murch had run the recordings through a synthesizer and blended them into a smear of sound.

Then Thom saw the opening scene of the film: the movie’s main character, Captain Benjamin Willard (played by Martin Sheen), wakes up from a drunk, drugged sleep in a Hanoi hotel, drifting between the sound of the blades of a ceiling fan and that of helicopter blades moving above a jungle floor that explodes into flames. Suddenly, Murch’s choice made sense. “We’re listening to [Willard’s] mind,” said Thom, “not to helicopters.”

The experience taught Thom an important lesson, he told an audience at a recent lecture at Dolby Laboratories headquarters. The sound designer should think about what the character hears, and what those sounds tell the audience about the character.

“Sound design is about creating, fabricating, choosing sounds” that will intrigue the audience and pull them into the story, as they try to figure out what’s really going on, said Thom, who now owns two Oscar® statuettes for his work on The Right Stuff (1991) and The Incredibles (2004) and has been nominated 12 times for work on other movies.

Scenes of hallucinations, dreams, odd camera angles, darkness, and slow motion are “a playground for sound design,” he said. “They open the door to subjectivity.” Creative use of sound helps the audience follow the shift out of authenticity and into a character’s mind.

“Mixing a film is mostly about getting rid of things,” said Thom. “Our job is to bring in sound, then figure out what to weed out.” Reproducing authentic sound is less important than creating sounds that develop the story and present the characters’ points of view.

Designing movies for sound

For years, Thom has advocated designing movies for sound from their inception. In the best-case scenario, a director would bring together the composer, sound designer, and sound effects specialists early in the filmmaking process to create a sound storyboard to decide which scenes should be driven by which kinds of sounds to tell the story.

Unfortunately, that’s seldom how movies are made, Thom said. Moviemakers usually think of sound only after all the visuals are already produced and, in some cases, try to use sound to cover holes in their films. Directors sometimes allow the composer and sound designer to compete over audio real estate, telling each that the success of a troubled scene is entirely their responsibility. But this can produce what Thom called “a logjam of aural product.”

“When a film track works well, either dialogue is in the foreground and music and effects are muted, or music and effects are in the foreground and dialogue is muted.” The sound designer’s work is to “gracefully change the focus from one sound to the next sound” in a “careful orchestration” that keeps the audience in the story.