Miguel Isaza of designingsound.org posted info on the Sound Design for Pros webinar on Aug. 18, with an exclusive interview of David Sonnenschein.
DS: David, please tell us about your career. How you did you get started in sound and how has your career evolved?
David: I’ve always loved sound and image. I started playing clarinet at 8 and was in three symphony orchestras by the time I was 16. Then I got into rock and jazz with the flute, as Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull inspired me to realize that dream of playing popular music with my buddies. Meanwhile, I was really into visuals too, winning photo contests, mastering portrait painting, dance and wood carving, so it seemed a natural to put all that together in filmmaking and storytelling. I am equally interested in science as well as the arts and have a fascination for mind-body connections, studied neurobiology, researching in a sleep lab for several years. This really informed me of how our nervous system processes sound, a very important component in sound design.
I always felt that sound was as important as image, not only from an expressive point of view as the artist, but also from the audience’s point of view of having a complete multi-sensory experience. As I went through my filmmaking career as a writer, producer and director, getting my Masters at USC film school, making features and documentaries, film sound became even more of a focus, and I started to help other filmmakers with their sound design. I’ve continued making films and doing sound design over the last decade because I really enjoy the creative process, but more and more I’ve been focusing on teaching, leading to the current webinars which gives access to everyone with an internet connection. I’ve got all my credits and other cool stuff on SonicStrategies.com, and the new website SoundDesignforpros.com has the webinar info.
DS: Why do you love to work in sound?
David: My own world is so rich with sound, whether it is the music I’m playing, the coyotes howling outside my window at night or my own stomach growls. Sound makes me curious, philosophical, surprised, all kinds of emotions and experiences. I don’t know how many people do this, but I also hear sounds in my head, do all sorts of virtual editing, processing and layering inside my mind, which has been happening since I was very young. Most of all it’s fun and I’d do this whether I got paid or not, because I’m in the “zone” when I’m doing my sound work, and especially when others show their appreciation when listening to the results. I’m lucky to work in an area that has a demand which is only growing with digital, mobile and interactive media. What motivated you to write a book about sound design?
In 1997, I posted an article online about my approach to sound design and was contacted by the international film school in Cuba to teach there. Although I found lots of technical books and interviews, there was no text I could offer my students that covered the creative aspects of sound design, integrating the scientific, artistic and practical sides. Based on the 60-hour course that I created, I wrote a book proposal to my eventual publisher Michael Wiese Productions, then took about 3 years to write Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema. The book is now being used in film schools all over the world, gotten lots of 5-star ratings on Amazon and been translated to Chinese and Korean.
DS: Are there plans for a second edition of the book?
David: Yes, I’m currently working on it. After the steady success of the first edition, I see that almost everything in it can also be applied to other forms like interactive, games, mobile, radio, sonic branding, installations, anywhere that sound is important for communication of ideas and feelings. So I’m creating new chapters on these topics, as well as adding some amazing interviews with film masters like Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, Randy Thom, Mark Mangini, Wylie Stateman, Skip Lievsay, and interactive talent like Tommy Tallarico, Charles Deenen, David Collins, Don Veca. There will also be some new theoretical work, including an essay on Sound Spheres that I find very useful for discovering the psychoacoustic and geographical story of sound in time and space.
DS: The creativity advice section in your book is very detailed, but if you have to tell us just one thing you consider the most important for a sound designer’s creativity, what would you say?
David: Don’t settle for the expected, common sounds. It will bore you and the audience. For example, take the image of a woman with mouth and eyes wide open. The obvious sound would be a scream. Listen to that sound and imagine what other sounds could be similar, but coming from a different source. How about a time-expanded turkey squawk, car brakes screeching, pitched-up tugboat whistle, granulated ambulance siren, or whatever has a sustained, loud, high pitched, irritating sound? If you are struggling to find something out of the box, try going to findsounds.com, where you can search for sounds by their similar waveforms, just to get a new possibility. And then layer the new found sounds with the obvious scream to give it an exotic familiarity. It’s not about the technique, so much your willingness to experiment, lay aside judgment, and try things you’ve never imagined.
DS: What is the best advice you could give to a sound designer (both young and experienced)?
David: In some form you should get to know the story, characters and intended message or feeling that is intended by the director (or yourself if it is your own piece), so that your sound design is integrated into the whole piece. I use a technique called Sound Mapping, which helps get past what may not be so obvious and gets everyone on the same page. so I always ask the following info: Title, genre, theme or message, conflict, protagonist/antagonist (and that doesn’t always have to be people, maybe forces of nature or even sides of the same person). Then I plot out the dramatic turning points with the director and create a curve based on the story conflict that will be the basis for not only the sound design “bipolarities” – opposites like loud/soft, fast/slow – but also for all other filmic elements like camera, lighting, costume, editing. You really need some strong communication tools with your director and this is just one you can use to make sure that your sound design work will be serving the overall vision and intent.
DS: We see you’ve been doing online webinars. Why are you doing this and what is the most you’ve learned from this experience?
David: After teaching sound design for over a decade in film schools all over the world (more and more are beginning to offer the approach that I use for creative design), I realized that the technology of interactive, audiovisual online learning is now available to help individuals who may not have the opportunity to go to school. Although I love visiting foreign countries and will continue to teach when invited for extended periods, with webinars I don’t have to spend the money and time to travel, and can pass that savings on to the participants and make it quite affordable for everyone. Amazingly, I’ve found that the quality of learning seems almost the same as if I’m in the classroom, probably because we’re all using computers, audiovisual tools and vocal interaction in both scenarios. The most learning seems to occur when the participants submit their own work and the whole online group watches and gives feedback. I am extremely motivated when coaching people on their sound design and find that others absorb almost as much just by watching the interaction.
DS: Finally, what are the plans for the future of the webinars? Could you give us an advance about not yet announced webinars?
David: The overall aim is to help sound designers develop their craft, creativity and career. So far I’ve given six webinars in areas of psychoacoustics and the power of the human voice. They are archived as recordings, as will all of the future live webinars. The free webinar intro coming up on August 24 will outline the content of the series Sound Design for Pros that will go for six weeks from Sept. 8 to Oct. 13. In the series, we’ll have lecture/demo, then analysis of participants’ work, as well as specific sound design assignments, which will earn the participants a Certificate of Completion. I’ll be offering the most important and stimulating materials that I’ve found over the years have given students tools and motivation to become top professionals. In the future, there will be advanced classes in specific areas of voice, film music, sound effects, games, and sonic branding with expert co-presenters and guests. I love collaborating with the best people in their fields, and we’ll be able to give some really fascinating, interactive presentations for all who have an interest.