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Explaining what sound design is through The Shining

If we visit Wikipedia and we search the tasks of a sound designer, we’ll find the following: “Sound design is the process of specifying, acquiring, manipulating or generating audio elements. It is employed in a variety of disciplines including filmmaking, television production, theatre, sound recording and reproduction, live performance, sound art, post-production, and video game software development. Sound design most commonly involves the manipulation of previously composed or recorded audio, such as sound effects and dialogue. In some instances it may also involve the composition or manipulation of audio to create a desired effect or mood. A sound designer is one who practices the art of sound design.”. In other words, like the video editor (with the filmmaker, the cinematographer, etc) gives order and meaning to the visual aspect of the story, the sound designer should do the same with the work’s sound concept.

This profession, especially in Spain, is quite unknown. Unless we talk about high budget products, it’s a work that never appears in the credit of a short film, an advertisement or a 3D animation, for example. However, it’s a very difficult job to accomplish. A sound designer must deal with the sounds as if they were a story character. That is to say, antagonist’s footsteps don’t sound the same as the hero’s footsteps, just as the typical birds, those we hear on the street, aren’t the same in a romantic scene or in a scene where an important character is going to be killed.

For a more detailed explanation, let’s watch one of the most famous scenes in movie History: Danny’s tricycle pedal power through Overlook Hotel in The Shining.

The sequence, in terms of sound, just has the tricycle movement. From an exact point, we have the music of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, creating an even more disturbing atmosphere (we don’t hear it on the linked video). The tricycle’s movement continues in the sequence. The sound of the scene changes between the sound of the pedal power on the parquet and the carpet. It might seem a poor scene about sound, but it’s enough. This abrupt change between wood and carpet makes that an innocent action such as we see on the screen (a child enjoying his beloved toy) becomes a shocking and disturbing suspense.

Thus, Kubrick uses Danny’s pedal power to define the location and to show the relationship between the environment and the character. Throughout the film, Kubrick uses the sound effects to personify the Overlook Hotel as a supernatural force. He alters the acoustic qualities of the dialogue and sound effects to emphasize the isolation of the characters. It happens the same with Danny and his movement. Every sound carries a distinctive reverb dealing, therefore, with the Overlook Hotel as a main character in the story.

Without this precise construction that Kubrick and his sound department provide to the movie sound design, The Shining would loose much of its dramatic intensity. An example:

In this editing, I added different backgrounds to the mix. Attending to the script, it does not get misplaced: we hear the typewriter in the hall (it’s where Jack writes) and the same crows we hear in other fragments of the film (for example, the opening scene). Also, I added a hum that follows the way of the tricycle between hall carpets. The final result would have been this, loosing much of the emotional burden scene that it has and, possibly, not being anymore one of the greatest scenes of cinema History.