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What is Sound Design?
You may assume that it’s about fabricating neat sound effects. But that doesn’t describe very accurately what Ben Burtt and Walter Murch, who invented the term, did on "Star Wars" and "Apocalypse Now" respectively. On those films they found themselves working with Directors who were not just looking for powerful sound effects to attach to a structure that was already in place. By experimenting with sound, playing with sound (and not just sound effects, but music and dialog as well) all through production and post production what Francis Coppola, Walter Murch, George Lucas, and Ben Burtt found is that sound began to shape the picture sometimes as much as the picture shaped the sound. The result was very different from anything we had heard before. The films are legends, and their soundtracks changed forever the way we think about film sound.
What passes for "great sound" in films today is too often merely loud sound. High fidelity recordings of gunshots and explosions, and well fabricated alien creature vocalizations do not constitute great sound design. A well-orchestrated and recorded piece of musical score has minimal value if it hasn’t been integrated into the film as a whole. Giving the actors plenty of things to say in every scene isn’t necessarily doing them, their characters, or the movie a favor. Sound, musical and otherwise, has value when it is part of a continuum, when it changes over time, has dynamics, and resonates with other sound and with other sensory experiences.
What I propose is that the way for a filmmaker to take advantage of sound is not simply to make it possible to record good sound on the set, or simply to hire a talented sound designer/composer to fabricate sounds, but rather to design the film with sound in mind, to allow sound’s contributions to influence creative decisions in the other crafts. Films as different from "Star Wars" as "Citizen Kane," "Raging Bull," "Eraserhead," "The Elephant Man," "Never Cry Wolf" and "Once Upon A Time In The West" were thoroughly "sound designed," though no sound designer was credited on most of them.
Does every film want, or need, to be like Star Wars or Apocalypse Now? Absolutely not. But lots of films could benefit from those models. Sidney Lumet said recently in an interview that he had been amazed at what Francis Coppola and Walter Murch had been able to accomplish in the mix of "Apocalypse Now." Well, what was great about that mix began long before anybody got near a dubbing stage. In fact, it began with the script, and with Coppola’s inclination to give the characters in "Apocalypse" the opportunity to listen to the world around them.
Many directors who like to think they appreciate sound still have a pretty narrow idea of the potential for sound in storytelling. The generally accepted view is that it’s useful to have "good" sound in order to enhance the visuals and root the images in a kind of temporal reality. But that isn’t collaboration, it’s slavery. And the product it yields is bound to be less complex and interesting than it would be if sound could somehow be set free to be an active player in the process. Only when each craft influences every other craft does the movie begin to take on a life of it’s own.