ENVY Advertising sound designer Rich Martin on the importance of sound and the implications of getting it wrong
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.
In this interview, ENVY Advertising’s Rich Martin shares his passion for sound design, why it’s an essential art, and his hopes for more versatility and open-mindedness in 2022.
LBB> There is so much more to film than just the visuals. How important do you feel sound design is to the overall success of an ad?
Rich Martin> “What is essential, is invisible to the eye.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery was probably writing about the heart, when he wrote this line in The Little Prince, but it’s a truism that will leap off the page for any sound professional when they read it.
Sound is where the emotional content of your message lives and breathes, and it provides vital context. There’s an actor’s warm up exercise in which they repeat the following sentence, emphasising every word in turn “I didn’t say we should kill him” (try it!). The emphasis placed on each word gives the sentence an entirely different meaning, and this emphasis lives uniquely, in the sound.
If you close your eyes when you watch TV you'll still get the gist but if you mute the sound, you’ll be entirely lost. So much of the mood of the picture you’re trying to paint is aural. I often think about my wife covering her eyes while we watched The Blair Witch Project. It did nothing to diminish the horror. She only found relief once she’d also put her fingers in her ears. In short, sound has a hotline to the heart in the way that the pictures alone can’t.
LBB> What about silence? How can the absence of sound be used effectively?
Rich> Noise (disorganised sound) is everywhere, and so when it is absent, it’s “one of the most specific dramatic effects of the sound film. No other art can reproduce silence" - as theorist Bela Balaz says.
When directors want to be confrontational, they’ll often drop the music track entirely. A lack of music is very exposing, and when it’s teamed with silence, isolating.
LBB> Sound has been a bit of an invisible art. Do you think it is becoming more and more recognised?
Rich> I think people are beginning to understand that you can’t scrimp on sound. Good sound has never been more achievable thanks to many technical innovations, and this has made badly executed soundtracks stand out for all the wrong reasons. Poor sound devalues a film immeasurably.
LBB> What have been some of your favourite examples of sound design within film or TV recently?
Rich> I’m enjoying the Beatles documentary series on Disney Plus for the absence of trickery and fixing. It’s about craft, and getting it right in the first place. Values that still hold true today.
LBB> What elements make for great sound mixing and editing?
Rich> Getting sound post involved as soon as possible. I mean, they should be in the PPM. They could save you a fortune.
LBB> How do you approach your own work?
Rich> Every project is different. It’s important to look to innovate and be flexible. Some clients don’t want surprises, they like the project to be delivered exactly as they expected it, but I feel like I’ve missed a trick if I haven’t brought something to the table.
LBB> How have you seen sound design develop over the past year and what do you predict to see in 2022?
Rich> Post-pandemic sound design has been an exercise in lateral thinking, problem solving, and versatility. I expect to draw on what we’ve learned and be more open-minded about what is possible.
LBB> What is a little-known fact about sound design that you wish people would appreciate more?
Rich> Your sound designer is an expert. In a field obsessed with images, they are the only people with single minded devotion to the quality and effectiveness of the soundtrack. Involving them early and collaborating with them can be incredibly rewarding.