How much could Pixar’s Wall-E have in common with a short marketing animation about the value of a Red Hat subscription?
Take a listen, and you might hear it. The driving engine behind both is sound design, and neither would have been nearly as successful without it.
Most people don’t really think about sound editing or understand exactly what it is (other than a category at the Academy Awards). In regards to film, sound design is the process of creating a sonic world that complements the visuals on screen. According to Ben Burtt, principal sound designer on all of the Star Wars films and on Wall-E, “For each film, a sound designer is responsible for making, usually, everything you hear—from the ambient sound of locations…the handling of electronics—every time someone presses a button, there’s got to be a sound [sic].”
A sound designer’s job can include recording new sounds, augmenting existing ones, curating a collection of sounds for a progressive narrative, and then coordinating their placement with the visual action. Sound design doesn’t merely allow the audience to “hear” everything they’re watching; it helps the viewers truly believe in what they’re seeing on screen and helps them feel like invested participants, rather than just spectators.
In the “Value of Subscription,” we used sound design to help bring to life a bouncing ball that represents a customer who—once paired with Red Hat—can solve a problem. We needed a variety of sounds, including a rolling sound, electrical noises, fire sparks, air blowing, and dial tone, many of which we recorded ourselves and many of which we used under the Creative Commons (CC) License.
Here’s a sample of a few standalone sounds from our animation:
The full video is only 1 min and 42 sec, but we used more than 30 individual sound files in addition to 2 original music tracks—about 19 sounds per minute! A rate like that can hold true for a feature-length animated film as well. In a presentation at Pixar, Burtt estimated, “For Wall-E, I made about 2,600 new sound files…usually a Star Wars film has about 1,000 sound files…in an Indiana Jones film, which I’ve done [sic]…there’s usually 700 or so new sounds.” With Wall-E clocking in at 1h 44 min, it averages at about 25 sound files/minute. And because it’s fully animated, Wall-E’s sonic world completely relies on the sound design.
The link below takes you to a short scene from Wall-E that really displays the sound designer’s contribution.
First watch it with the sound muted, then watch it again with the sound on:
Notice how the scene comes to life when you have a sonic world to accompany the visuals? The funny and entertaining interaction between Wall-E and M-O now becomes hilarious.
Now watch a short clip from the “Value of Subscription.” The first 15 seconds of the video will play with no sound effects added, and then it will repeat with all of them turned on.
With the sound effects now added, we can really understand how much the problem is escalating. As the spark turns into a crackle and we hear the ball anxiously bouncing during the customer service wait music, we start to really sympathize with the experience of an animated shape. It helps us relate emotionally to a grey planar world on our screens. To see the bouncing ball’s entire adventure, the full video lives here.
So next time you’re at the movies, consider if the sound design wasn’t there, and you may want to stay through the credits to see who helped create it!