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Cinematic environments are created through image, dialogue, music and sound, but the craft involved in creating an environmental soundtrack often goes unnoticed by the film viewer. Soundscapes are rarely just background: they are powerful storytelling vehicles in their own right, of equal importance to the visuals. This article examines the process of creating an environmental soundtrack for cinema from the perspective of a sound designer. Particular attention is given to how sound is created and layered to enhance, embellish and produce the film’s narrative.

Using contemporary Australian films, notably Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008) and Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006), the article examines the different challenges in creating an environmental soundscape for both an animation and a live action film. The films Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), Little Fish (Rowan Woods, 2005) and The Magician (Scott Ryan, 2005) are also cited to highlight various approaches to environmental representation in film sound. While both Australia and Happy Feet rely on the landscape and environment as integral storytelling components, the approach to creating their respective soundscapes requires not only natural recordings, but also the creation of many previously unheard sounds using synthetic sound design.


Sound design, Australian film, soundscape, environmental representation, animation


Soundscapes have the ability to transcend the social and cultural barriers that sometimes thwart language and even music. Creating an environmental soundtrack for cinema is as much a technical craft as it is an aesthetic art form.

Often overlooked by the audience, the sounds of the environment in many contemporary films are based on the synthetic design and recreation of many settings. Environmental soundscapes are some of the most intricate to create. The combination of image, dialogue, music and sound help create the overall soundtrack, however the film viewer is often unaware of the intricacies and craftwork used in the creation of these aural environments. Furthermore, narrative of the film is carefully considered in the creation of these environmental soundtrack elements.

This article examines the process of creating an environmental soundtrack for cinema from the perspective of a sound designer who has worked in the Australian film industry for over 15 years (Fig 1). The article’s focus is on the use of environmental recordings and sound effects to create a landscape, as opposed to the use of dialogue and music in the soundtrack. Using two contemporary Australian films, Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006) and Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008), this article examines the different creative process used for an environmental soundscape for an animation and a live action feature film.

Figure 1: The author at work at Australian Clay Target Association, Wagga Gun Club, Wagga Wagga, Australia. (Photo courtesy of Tony Turner.)

Soundscape Design

From earliest societies to contemporary musicians, sound has been an integral communication component to convey messages, express emotion and to tell a story. Communication through the use of sound has been significant to human social evolution. Although spoken language is the predominant form of sonic communication in our society, other oral and aural methods include rhythm, melody, percussion, humming, the mimicking of sounds through vocalisations and, in the modern era, by the recording and creation of music and sounds through the use of technology. As David Sonnenschein states, “[by] giving meaning to noise, sound becomes communication” (2001, p. xix). Through the use of recorded sounds and the creation of new sounds, the art of sound design has become an important approach to screen based storytelling.

Although landscapes appear to be ‘natural’, creative liberty is often given to the aural representation of these settings as required by the film narrative. While both Happy Feet and Australia rely on the landscape and environment as integral storytelling components, the approach to creating their respective soundscapes requires not only ‘natural’ recordings, but also synthetic sound design and creation. Whether natural or synthetic, neither approach is less significant than the other. In this paper my definition of ‘natural’ recordings pertains to sounds that are created organically through such elements as winds, ice, land mass, water, animals, vegetation and various other sounds naturally occurring without evidence of human or industrial influence or activity.

Difficulties such as accessibility and noise pollution make our most pristine locations increasingly difficult to capture sonically. Although not always the preferred method, synthetic aural environmental design will continue to develop as a necessary addition to assist in crafting the aural illusion of cinematic environments. Using a recent trip to Mount Kosciusko as an example (Fig 2), I was surprised at the amount of noise pollution tainting the sound recordings within the National Park. Many of these sounds were distant sounds, including small planes and agricultural sprinklers: however they still managed to appear faintly in the background of some of the recordings. When used in the context of a film these edited recordings appear to be ‘natural’ when first listened to by an audience, but they are unaware of the use of equalisation, filtering techniques, frequency band compression and other such technological solutions in eradicating this noise. This processing of the original recordings in turn transforms these ‘natural’ recordings to new artificially designed ‘pseudo natural’ sounding environments.

Figure 2: Yarrangobilly River, Kosciuszko National Park. (Photo courtesy of Caroline Candusso.)

When the sound designer commences production on a film, they study the environmental landscape, location and the period in which the film is set. This becomes the foundational building block of the soundtrack and determines the approach to creating the overall narrative for the film through sound. In the film medium, sound design purposefully communicates to an audience through recorded and created sounds that augment the onscreen visuals. In contemporary cinema, dialogue is the primary auditory component used to convey a story, however the sound ecology of the landscape and the sound effects are of equal importance. Sound design does not merely replicate what is happening on screen, it is an additional storytelling component. An example of this occurs in Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008), in the scene where we first learn of the impending attack

on Darwin by the Japanese. Here for the first time a soft, almost whispering of wind is heard. The plane approach has no engine sounds, only the sounds of the wings slicing through the air. This was a brief from the director who wanted the first plane to replicate a shark surfacing with only the fin piercing the water surface. It is not until the plane is revealed and peels off to the right of screen that we start to hear the sound of an actual engine, the roar of danger, the sound of an advancing Zero threat. The sound does not give away the shot before we see the plane, in fact it adds to the curiosity. The sound of the wind makes the scene even more menacing and, in this instance, the sound has foreshadowed the action on an emotional level before the visuals have presented it.

In cinema history, advances in sound technology have given filmmakers the opportunity to take advantage of the creativity of sound and allow it to play an equally important role as the visuals in storytelling. As George Lucas has noted, “Sound is 50 percent of the movie going experience” (2004: online). Hollywood has increasingly relied on sound to contribute to the contemporary film viewing experience. Audience expectations of sound place greater emphasis on the craft of sound design.

Approaching the Task of Environmental Sound Creation

With many factors contributing to the use of ‘authentic’ sound recordings (including budget, availability of personnel, deadlines etc.), often sounds need to be fabricated. These sounds may make up the entire soundtrack, or they may only make up elements of the soundtrack that blend with other recordings of actual environmental sound. If the soundtrack is created well, it will not appear to be out of place and the audience will not be aware of any disparities. It is only when the soundtrack jars that the audience is alerted to the sound and may question the legitimacy or integrity of the sound sources. A fictitious alien landscape scene, for example, containing recognisable sounds from our world may elicit a sense of disbelief.

When we see a storm onscreen, we routinely hear thunder; when we see a dog, it often barks; a door usually creaks; a car might skid when stopping; and explosions may shake the room. There are many sound clichés consistently used in the contemporary soundtrack. Through developments in cinema sound technology, many Hollywood film soundtracks are created to deliver what an audience expects to hear, rather than represent the ‘actual sounds’ of the real world. Also sounds are pared back from all of those that might be in a specific setting to emphasise those most relevant to the narrative. With the use of high quality speakers with a wide frequency response, the introduction of the various surround sound formats and powerful computers with an array of software options, technology is allowing for greater creativity and flexibility in the soundtrack.

The sound designer needs to balance between telling the story using the available tools, and delivering a soundtrack that is credible for the story and setting. While the overall soundtrack needs to be treated with careful consideration, so too should the individual sound components that contribute to it. It is not uncommon for the sound designer and editors to research the authenticity of various elements within the film to provide a guide as to the legitimacy of the sounds and the sound sets required. For example, if we see a shot of the Statue of Liberty, New York and, place of the sound of pigeons, the only birds we hear are kookaburras, the audience will be distracted from the story, and continuity of the film will be disrupted.In both Happy Feet and Australia, extensive research was conducted into the environments and locations of both film settings prior to the editing of any sound. Particular attention was given to the study of the wildlife, especially birds and insects, and the seasons. Other research investigated the locations on a larger scale including the weather of Antarctica-which notably does not develop thunder. Careful sound choice allows the audience to be situated within the depicted environment. At the commencement of sound post-production, one of the most important preparatory steps is to read the script or to watch an edit of the film in its entirety.

Depending on the film, the sound team may have the luxury of reading a script during the film pre-production phase or in other instances a rough edit may be given to the sound team to view almost immediately after shooting has completed. In some instances they may be given both. Providing either a script or an early edit of the film allows for the planning of the dramatic journey of the film, and the mapping of the narrative dynamics through sound. This can be in the form of physically drawing a chart or a graph mapping the drama and dynamics of the film over time. This allows careful designing of sounds to build up to the climactic scenes in the film, and then to use quiet moments to increase dramatic impact. Having a graphic representation of the film allows for the nuanced planning of the soundtrack, which will follow and often assist the onscreen narrative. Depending on the director’s approach to the film, this method can also be helpful for creating juxtaposition between the onscreen drama and the aural drama. Sound has the power to emphasise or soften a story depending on the director’s decisions. Happy Feet has a scene depicting a leopard seal chasing the central protagonist, Mumble, underwater. Due to the visual size and menacing teeth of the leopard seal the original sounds edited for the scene had to be re-crafted to suit the targeted audience of children. Many of the original growls were replaced by less aggressive grunts, and more breaths were added to soften the chase and viciousness of