A Filmmaker’s Guide to Movie Sound Effects & 6 Iconic Examples

What’s the first thought that comes to mind when you think about movies? Casual movie-goers (and many film buffs) likely respond visually – watching a film. Crystal video and radiant special effects captivate the audience, pulling them into the cinematic universe.

Often overlooked in filmmaking, sound design composes the auditory soundscape that convinces viewers they are living in that universe for the entire movie. A camping scene won’t convince viewers they are deep in the woods without crickets chirping, leaves rustling, or mosquitos buzzing. Would the audience sense the magnitude of a boxer’s vicious uppercut without the deafening thump of a thunderous blow?

Sound effects strengthen the production and create a realistic – or artificially designed – setting in which characters exist. This article explores how sound effects impact the viewing experience, how filmmakers create sound effects, how to incorporate sound effects into a movie, and highlights iconic examples of sound effects from award-winning films.

How do movie sound effects impact the viewing experience?

There are three types of sound in film: dialogue, music, and sound effects. Dialogue provides direct context, while music and sound effects work together to establish a mood and sense of reality. Sound editors use effects to fill gaps that aren’t captured on the set and increase the quality of production.

Here are several ways that sound effects make films compelling and entertaining:

  • Highlight action: Certain sounds emphasize movement and action in a scene, and can intensify the impact of a particular motion. Sounds can range in size, from zinging metal clashing to display the sheer force of warriors’ swords to frantic keyboard taps in an angry office email rant.
  • Add context and emotion: Filmmakers use sound effects to influence the audience’s emotional response and add subtle context to a scene. Particularly in horror films, sound effects and music (or lack thereof) can work in tandem to create a sense of fear – the deafening silence of a dark, empty basement shattered by an abrupt, thunderous door slam.
  • Provide ambiance: Asynchronous sound effects, which are background sounds that don’t correlate to the action occurring, help establish the setting. Distant car horns, echoed wailing sirens, and muffled chatter places viewers on the bustling street corner of a booming city, while birds singing and a whispering breeze construct the soundscape of a peaceful meadow.
  • Bridge shots and scenes: Abstract sound editing can bridge the gap between shots or scenes in a movie. A dramatic whoosh paired with video wipes creates striking shot transitions in a fight scene. Distant alarm clock beeps that increase in volume is an effective use of sound effects to shift a dream sequence back to reality, known as a J cut.

The role of music and sound effects in filmmaking

Music and sound effects establish a reality within a film, making the action on-screen feel organic. While sound effects alone impact the viewing experience, a cohesive sound design with effects and music subconsciously guides the audience’s emotional reaction to a film.

Matching stock music and pre-recorded sound effects won’t always create the right emotional atmosphere and can reduce the quality of a film. Specialized facilities like Marmoset Studio offer custom music production and sound design services for filmmakers.

These studios staff in-house production teams that tailor the songwriting process and sound design to each particular project’s needs – a one-stop shop for audio in your film. Customization ensures that the final product accentuates desired mood of your movie and enhances the impact of your visuals on-screen. If you’re in need of cohesive music and sound design for your projects, contact Marmoset to work with an award-winning staff of producers.

How do movies make sound effects?

Within a production team, sound effects editors are in charge of adding sound effects in post-production. Sound editors compile and manipulate effects from various sources, such as:

  • Identifying and modifying existing effects from sound libraries
  • Synchronizing sound effects pre-recorded by Foley artists with the on-screen action
  • Recording sound effects in the field and studio
  • Designing sound effects for unnatural elements that cannot be captured in real life

Foley sound effects

While extensive libraries of pre-recorded effects exist, Foley effects are crafted in sync with the film during post-production to recreate everyday sound effects. Created and recorded by sound designers known as Foley artists, this technique allows the artist to control the timing, quality, and volume of sound effects.

With the introduction of “talkies”, silent film director and former radio sound artist Jack Foley pounced to the forefront of sound’s inception into film. The first to record movie sound effects live in real-time, Foley’s technique became the industry standard – named after the pioneer who bridged the gap between visual and auditory entertainment.  

How are Foley sound effects for movies created?

In specially designed recording studios, Foley artists use a wide range of objects and surfaces to recreate everyday sounds within a film. Before recording, Foley artists watch the film in its entirety, identifying every sound they’ll need to recreate in each scene. The artist then collects props and items from the studio and records each sound.

In the early days of movie sound effects, Foley artists watched the film on-screen and recreated sounds in real-time on one audio track. Every sound was timed with precision and recorded in one take. Modern audio recording and filmmaking technology transformed Foley techniques. Today, Foley artists can track multiple takes for each sound and have the creative freedom to combine and alter sounds in audio editing programs.

Types of Foley effects

Foley effects create the everyday sounds in a film, categorized into the following three types:

  • Footsteps: Matching proper materials and surfaces to create the sound of footsteps on a specific terrain is an important type of Foley effect. Since the field recording (sound recorded on set) rarely captures footsteps, Foley artists are tasked with recreating sound ranging from boots stomping through a snowy battlefield to shuffling slippers of an elderly nursing home resident. Studios equipped with a wealth of different shoes and floor surfaces, called Foley pits, ensure that footsteps in any environment can be replicated.
  • Movement: These effects emphasize movements of all degrees, from someone swiping the side of their pants to the swoosh of a swinging baseball bat.
  • Props: Sound designers use random items, referred to as Foley props, to recreate other sounds. A common example is using celery to mimic the sound of bones cracking.  

How to use movie sound effects legally

Filmmakers in major studio productions have the budget to obtain sound effects and a team of professionals to ensure they are acquired legally. Independent filmmakers don’t have the same resources, but there are several ways to add legal sound effects to an indie production. You can:

  • Access free sound libraries with extensive selections of legal sound effects
  • Create sound effects using Foley techniques or hire out a freelance Foley artist
  • Use preset sound effects available through audio and music software you already subscribe to like Pro Tools or Adobe Audition
  • Pay for thousands of professional sound effects through subscription services

Where to find sound effects for movies

Indie filmmakers juggle many roles. They often don’t have time to record sound effects or finances to pay for them. Fortunately, free sound effects libraries give filmmakers access to high-quality, pre-recorded sounds. Freesound and Free Sounds Library are two popular online databases with thousands of free sound effects and music available in different formats. Alternatively, you can reach out to Marmoset’s team at creative@marmosetmusic.com!

How to incorporate sound effects as a filmmaker

To create a viewing experience that captivates all senses, filmmakers have to add seamless sound effects to their production. The best sound design goes unnoticed as it incorporates well-timed, natural-sounding effects. Here’s a list of tips to use when incorporating sound effects into your projects:

  • Develop a sense of how sound and images work together to create an entertaining viewing experience.
  • Touch up on basic acoustics and audio production fundamentals (recording, editing, and mixing).
  • Record original sound effects rather than relying on pre-recorded effects from sound libraries.
  • Incorporate asynchronous sound effects for ambiance to provide a realistic background environment.

Sound effects are most impactful when paired with a soundtrack that encapsulates the appropriate mood of a film. Marmoset Studio provides a holistic sound design experience, ensuring the effects and music of a film work together. Email creative@marmosetmusic.com to learn about Marmoset Studio’s award-winning team.

5 examples of iconic sound effects from prominent films

To develop a sense of how sound and visuals work together, you can analyze critically acclaimed movies known for their sound design. The list below features six examples of iconic sound effects that contributed to the success of prominent films.

  • Lightsaber, Star Wars (1977): Sound designer Ben Burtt’s effect for the lightsaber was inspired by two film projectors harmonizing with each other. He combined the projectors with the buzz of a tube television and recorded their sound. To capture the iconic whoosh of the lightsaber, Burtt passed a microphone in front of loudspeakers that played back the prerecorded sound. The lightsaber became an integral component to the Star Wars universe, one of the most popular film franchises in history. Burtt also designed sound for video games in the franchise.
  • Rolling Boulder, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Brutt contributed another iconic sound to the history of cinema, creating the thunderous rolling boulder that chases Indiana Jones in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. By recording a car without its motor rolling down a gravel road, Brutt brought the barrelling boulder to life. That sequence set the scene for the Indiana Jones film franchise, in which Brutt won an Oscar award for sound design in the series’ third film.
  • Tyrannasauraus Rex, Jurassic Park (1993): Sound designer Gary Rydstrom shaped the roar of a tyrannosaurus rex by slowing down audio of smaller animals like baby elephants, alligators, and even Buster, his Jack Rusell terrier. Rydstrom also brought dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park by breaking ice cream cones to mimic velociraptors hatching – winning two Academy Awards for sound editing in doing so.
  • The Wilhelm Scream (1951): Not one film but an effect used in a number of movies and television shows, the Wilhelm Scream is a generic screaming sound. First hollered in the 1951 film Distant Drums, the scream has been featured in award-winning films such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Toy Story, and Up.
  • THX Introduction: Another iconic sound featured in not one but many films, the iconic THX introduction is blasted at the beginning of several blockbusters. Created by James A. Moorer, the sound consists of over 20,000 lines of coding that produce a sound similar to a crescendoing orchestra.

Use sound effects and music to increase your film production

Now that you know how to create sound effects for movies and the impact they make on a production, it’s time to start incorporating them into your projects. By analyzing the examples listed in this article and other movies that inspired your passion for film, you can form an idea of how sound and visuals work together to produce a compelling cinematic experience.

Hit the ground running, whether you use pre-recorded effects from a free sound library or create your own using Foley techniques, and take the production value of your independent films to the next level.

If you want music and sound effects to mesh in an organic soundscape, consider working with a specialized recording studio to produce a complete audio experience for your film. Contact Marmoset Studios to collaborate with an award-winning production team for the sound design in your next project!

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