“Sound Communicates Ideas That Extend Beyond the Frame of the Picture”

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Sound Designer at ENVY Advertising, Marcin Pawlik, discusses the intrinsic relationship of sound and visuals, and offers insight into the Oscar nominees
“Sound Communicates Ideas That Extend Beyond the Frame of the Picture”

Sound is often described as an invisible art. When executed to perfection, the sound design within a piece of film should not even enter your consciousness. Perhaps this is why the importance of sound on screen can often be underrated. But sound has a pivotal role to play; providing essential cues, details and atmosphere that together with the visuals, presents us with the full picture.

Earlier this month, the film industry celebrated its year’s achievements at the 92nd Oscars award ceremony. In recognition of sound, awards were allocated in two categories: Best Sound Mixing, awarded to 1917 and Best Sound Editing, awarded to Ford v Ferrari. The nominations included the likes of Ad Astra, Joker, Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. 

In this interview with LBB’s Sunna Naseer, sound designer Marcin Pawlik at ENVY Advertising comments on this year’s nominees, the best in sound from film and TV over the past year, and reveals the true extent of what sound design can really offer on screen.

Q> There is so much more to film than just the visuals. How important do you feel sound design is to the overall success of a piece?

Marcin> Sound conveys a lot of information. It can define texture, distance, weight, location, space… Sound also communicates ideas that extend beyond the frame of the picture; it doesn’t always have to be about what is happening on screen. It can be something distant or something approaching which can be used to give the viewer more clues as to where and when the scene is set and also used to build tension. For example, sounds of cars honking and shouting in the street outside can tell you that you’re in a busy city rather than the countryside. And hearing a motorbike zooming towards you tells you what to anticipate.

Sound, together with music is also used to convey emotion. It has the power to move us, scare us, frighten us, lift us up, bring us down. So sound not only supports what’s happening on screen but can extend it. You can have the most amazing visuals but if you have bad sound then the whole experience will feel cheap. It has to be the perfect marriage of all those crafts. So in those terms, sound is very important.


Q> What about silence? How can the absence of sound be used effectively?

Marcin> As a sound designer, we need to know when the absence of sound is more effective. To know when to let the silence do the talking. This is used in film all the time but you often need to portray the absence of sound through some sound. You notice just how quiet something is when you hear a pin drop. I’d love to see this technique used in commercials too where the tendency is to grab attention through busy audio elements. Wouldn’t it be interesting to spark curiosity through more of a sparse, minimalistic approach?


Q> What was it that first got you interested in sound design?

Marcin> My career into sound isn’t something I found, it was something that found me. I’d always been interested in storytelling whether that’s through film, books or music, but I never really thought about having a career in sound. I didn’t know what to do and arbitrarily ended up studying English and American Literature. I’m from Poland originally and I really wanted to be able to watch English and American films without the subtitles!

I came to London after graduating and worked in a record shop which is when I thought about taking an audio engineering course. A friend of mine happened to introduce me to sound and post production and I got some work experience through him. I was a runner at around 26 years old which is quite late but sometimes it takes time to shape your interests. I was hooked immediately and I’m still curious to this day, always looking to learn more.

Q> Sound has been a bit of an invisible art. Do you think it is becoming more and more recognised?

Marcin> It’s definitely gaining recognition and more directors are taking it seriously. It’s being considered earlier on in the process as an effective narrative tool. Directors work closely between the crafts to see how one area can influence another. Music and sound departments have traditionally worked separately but are beginning to work more closely, in harmony with one another.


Q> Which directors do you feel are best at considering sound design as part of their scripts?

Marcin> Quentin Tarantino is great at using sound for storytelling - not just with music but with effects. He writes his scripts with music in mind and he is aware of the sound palette much earlier on in the process. I also loved the sound design in No Country For Old Men, directed by the Coen brothers. Although there was no music, you don’t feel like it’s missing because it’s filled with sound design.


Q> What have been some of your favourite examples of sound design within film or TV recently? 

Marcin> I absolutely loved Chernobyl - one of the best examples of sound design I’ve heard in a very long time. Especially the tension created through the crackling radiation gages - just brilliant. It’s a great example of how sound can work with the visuals to create an even more powerful feeling.


I actually had the chance to meet the legendary field recorder, Chris Watson last year who told me he went to a derelict Eastern European factory to record sounds for the show’s soundtrack, created by Hildur Guðnadóttir. She won an Oscar this year for the Joker which had a really dark, gritty sound palette and worked really well in conjunction with the music.  The subway scene in particular is done really well, where sound is used as a tool for building tension. It’s very well thought out.


Q> Speaking of the Joker, how do you feel about the Oscar nominations and winners this year?

Marcin> From the point of view of sound, I thought Joker and Ford v Ferrari were the best contenders. Ford v Ferrari in particular is a film built for sound. The sound editor, Donald Sylvester went to great lengths trying to capture the noise of the cars, recording sounds both inside and out to create an authentic feeling. When you see the character in the car, you feel it too. You’re enveloped in the sound of the engine creaking, the gears shifting and the air rushing past the windows.



Q> What elements make for great sound mixing and editing that the average viewer could listen out for?

Marcin> Well the issue is, when sound design is done properly, you shouldn’t actually notice it. It’s not supposed to take away from the story, it’s supposed to support it in a very subtle way. But you do notice sound when it goes wrong. 

One way to learn about how important sound is, is to watch a scene of a film on mute - you realise how much information is lost. When I watch films I think about the dynamics between loud and quiet scenes and how well the music is mixed in. But again, when it’s really good, I forget to pay attention to all that!



Q> How have you seen sound design develop over the past year and what do you predict to see in 2020?

Marcin> At ENVY Advertising we’re seeing more and more work come in for social media and Instagram. I think gaming and VR are going to get bigger too - it’s a huge industry.

Sound and music are being seen as more of a collaboration rather than two separate departments so I’m looking forward to seeing the two working more in unison.


Q> How do you approach your own work?

Marcin> My skill set lies in short form - commercials, trailers, promos and short films. These projects usually have quite a quick turnaround, so I have to work in a very organised way. I’ve also worked on a number of short films and with these I have much more time for experimenting. 

The work of a true artist is never really finished. You can always keep polishing but you need to be aware of your time frame and that’s the challenge with short form. It’s important to work on both though as I learn new things and expand my skill set through short films which I can then apply to the commercials and promos I work on. 


Q> What have been some of your favourite recent projects to work on?

Marcin> adidas 4D was such a fun and quirky commercial to work on. There were a lot of transition sounds to be created and I wanted to do those from scratch. I tied a cheese grater to the end of a piece of rope to create some swishing sounds which I took into the session to process.


I also worked on the launch for Ford Mustang’s promo film showing the retrospective of the car. We used a vintage voiceover effect for the 60s and then the tone develops as the decades in the film change.


Q> What is a little-known fact about sound design that you wish people would appreciate more?

Marcin> I wish people knew how intricate the process is. Let’s take the sound of an explosion for example. You think of it as one sound but there’s the energy that explodes, the build-up, the debris, and animals calling out to create a scarier effect. Most people don’t realise how long it takes to create just one sound.
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