Sound sweetening in Backdraft

 Backdraft (1991)
Backdraft (1991)

In the previous article, we talked about a very powerful technique that is used in film sound design. In this article, we’ll talk about another technique which is equally powerful, but maybe little bit more fun to do.

Sound is all around us. Each human experiences sound every day, and learn about them, just like we learn a language (1). Most of the sounds have the ability to create an emotion or feeling inside us. For example, the air-distorted rippling effect you hear when a fighter jet flies by creates a sense of incredible speed. Or the sound of rattlesnake might create sense of fear, threat and anxiety inside you.

We could name thousand examples like this, but the important thing is that to each sound we hear, we usually connect some emotion or feeling. It’s really like learning a language; to every word (sound) you connect some event, space, thing, person, emotion, feeling etc.

Now, the job of a sound designer is to learn that language, transcribe it, understand it and enhance it (1).


Knowing what feeling and emotions various sounds evoke in us could be used in a very powerful way in sound design. In the video below you’ll see an example of car sweeteners created from animals. This gives the car an animal like quality; it creates the feeling of raw power inside you.

So sweetening is a process of subtly mixing an additional sound to a pre-existing sound to “sweeten” the pre-existing sound (2).

Now, the type of sweetener that gets subtly mixed into the pre-existing sound really depends on the story you are trying to tell.

Sound sweetening in Backdraft

If you ever tried to record something with a microphone, you’ll know that not always the recorded sound conveys the feeling and emotions associated/connected with the recorded element. Fire is a very good example, because simple sound record of a fire wouldn’t convey the threat, menace, danger or fear that fire represents. Fire itself is actually quite boring in terms of sound that it produces. But there is an “easy” solution.

Sound designer Gary Rydstrom used animal sounds like growls and coyote howls as sweeteners for the fire. You don’t hear them as animal sounds, but subconsciously it gives the fire intelligence or a complexity it wouldn’t normally have. A lot of the fireball explosions were sweetened with monkey screams and different animal growls (like cougars that make a great fire explosion sweetener) (3).

The video below shows, how Gary Rydstrom used sweeteners (animal sounds) to give a truly menacing quality to the fire, flames and explosion, enjoy!

I’d like to finish this article with words from a brilliant film sound designer Randy Thom. The following paragraph comes from his article written for

You begin by trying to forget for a while what the Nazi tank in an Indiana Jones film would “really” sound like, and start thinking about what it would FEEL LIKE in a nightmare. The treads would be like spinning samurai blades. The engine would be like the growl of an angry beast. You then go out and find sounds that have those qualities, or alter sounds to make them have those qualities. It makes no difference whether the sounds you collect actually have anything to do with tanks, samurai blades, or growling animals. The essential emotional quality of the sounds is virtually ALL that matters (4).



Sound cues in Inception

Inception (2010)
Inception (2010)

I think that Inception by Christopher Nolan needs no introduction. However, what may need a brief introduction are few sound design/musical terms that will be used throughout this article. So, here we go, starting with my most favorite – pitch shifting!

Pitch Shifting

Pitch shifting is about changing the pitch of a sound. With pitch shifting we basically detune the sound up or down in semitones (=musical half-steps) or even cents (extremely small finite intervals) (1).

To give a real-world example, try to imagine a fast lift in some skyscraper: When it slows down or accelerates, you’ll hear a change in the pitch of the sound.

Or if you play a musical instrument, particularly keyboard, there might be a pitch wheel located to your left that changes (raises or lowers) the pitch of a note being played.

By the way, there is a great talk by my favorite sound designer Randy Thom, who talks about pitch shifting in SoundWorks Collection sound show: How to Train Your Dragon. If you’re interested in sound design and haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it! (Or if you are interested in pitch shifting only, he starts to talk about pitch change at 00:24:00 and gives away one of his secrets btw.)


Reverb is actually pretty tricky to describe/explain. Therefore I think it is best to use an example. Imagine yourself singing in a bathroom and than in a church.

First, you’ll hear your voice, but then it will be followed by sound waves reflected from the surrounding surfaces (=reverb). The type of reverb you’ll hear depends on the type of surface (ceramics tile vs. stone) and space (bathroom vs. church).

In any case, each place or space has a specific reverb that helps you orient where you are.


Tempo is a musical term that dictates the pace/speed of any musical composition (2). In other words, it dictates how fast or slow should we play the musical composition. The tempo is usually given by BPM (beats per minute) or using words (Largo, Adagio, Allegro, etc.).

Sound Bridge

Sound bridge can lead us in or out of a scene (3). It connects seamlessly two scenes together by overlapping the sound from one scene to another. Either by overlapping the sound from previous scene to the following scene or by playing the sound from following scene into the previous scene. It is the same as J or L cut technique in editing.

Anyway, the best sound bridge is when the sound not only overlaps, but transforms to something else. That’s pure cinema!


Inception is pretty complex and complicated movie when you watch it for the first time. When I was leaving the theater I had only a rough idea what was and what wasn’t a dream. But at the same time, I knew that this wasn’t a simple mind fu*k and immediately wanted to see the movie again.

The characters travel into various levels of a dream (=dream within a dream within a dream), so especially the first time, it was quite difficult to keep the track where we are. However, sound works as a guide for us, the audience, to help us orient whether we are in a dream and whether we are transitioning from level to level. Here is how the sound cues work:

Pitch Shifting

Change in Pitch

When we transition into another level of a dream, pitch shifting occurs (4). Not all the time, because that would be totally annoying. But in some scenes, when the characters fall asleep and start dreaming (or travel into another level of a dream), there is a change in pitch of surrounding sounds.

When we transition into deeper level, the pitch goes down (and vice versa, when we transition into upper level, the pitch goes up as well.)

Change in Speed

In the case of Inception, pitch shifting changes also the speed of the surrounding sounds (4). When we transition into deeper level of a dream, the surrounding sounds slow down (and vice versa, when we transition into upper level of a dream, surrounding sounds speed up). This directly correlates with the time-flow in various levels of the dream. The deeper the level of a dream the slower the time-flow (and vice versa).

Sound Bridge

Lastly, pitch shifting may work as a sound bridge at the same time in some scenes. For instance, interior jet roar becomes traffic when we transition to the first dream level (4). Or tire screeching becomes metal screeching when we transition to the second dream level. Very, very cinematic use of sound!


Hans Zimmer used throughout the movie leitmotif from Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (5). The music slows down based on the dream level we are currently in. The deeper we are, the slower the music plays back (and vice versa). Again, this directly correlates with the time-flow in various levels of the dream. The deeper the level of a dream the slower the tempo of music.

To illustrate this, watch the video below that went completely viral.


Dreams feel usually very real. But there is always something that is just not quite right. It could be weird behavior of people you know or messed up physics, like different time-flow or unnatural reverb.

So in some scenes, you’ll hear a very unnatural reverb. Especially when a piece of glass shatters or breaks. This tells us, that we are in a dream.

Sound Cues – Audio Examples

If you skim through the articles I wrote so far, you’ll notice that the vast majority are examples of visual storytelling. The reason for that is that examples of visual storytelling are easier to describe and explain. You can simply see it. However with sound, it is much more difficult. Even the most skilled writer is not able to fully describe the visceral feeling and sensations that sound has to offer.

I used to spend a lot of time at and now I’m spending significant amount of my free time at I’m deeply in love with film sound design, because it is one of the most powerful storytelling weapons that filmmakers have in their arsenal. Heck, the very first article written for CINEMA SHOCK is in sound design category.

Anyway, the reason that there are so few articles about film sound design is that I was afraid (and still I am) of uploading copyrighted material to YouTube.

Fortunately, there are few exceptions. One of them is the principle of Fair Use. I sincerely believe that the following video I made for this article is in accordance with this principle. Enjoy!

P.S. During my research and preparation for this article, I “watched” the movie with my eyes closed. Try it someday as well with your favorite movie; you’ll be surprised what you’ll hear! I know that this might sound like a totally weird idea, but hey, welcome to the club! 🙂



Inception and Sound Design

SoundWorks Collection: The Sound of Inception from Michael Coleman on Vimeo.

Movies that question state of dream/illusion/reality

Inside the head of Jake La Motta and Victoria Page

The standard way of shooting a ballet scene, up until 1948, would be to photograph the dancers from head to toe. However, Red Shoes – photographed by Jack Cardiff – completely changed this. The movie is photographed in such a way, that we’ll see what goes on inside the dancer’s head – we are shown what they see(=their POV). (And there is nothing better than POV when it comes to sound design, but wait! 🙂 )

Few years later, Martin Scorsese applied this in boxing scenes in Raging Bull. If you pay attention, you’ll notice, that the camera stays always inside the ring. Watch the video below to see a comparison of ballet and boxing scenes in Red Shoes and Raging Bull (taken from the documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff):

The similarity is clearly visible. But Martin Scorsese took this concept even further.

POV and Sound Design

The POV shots are amazing opportunity for sound designers – the POV gets us inside the head of the character. That means, that we see what they see, but also hear what they hear! And this is extremely exciting, because you can, as a sound designer, play with the sounds what they hear. Being inside the head of the character gives you license to distort and manipulate the sounds.

Frank Warner, the sound designer of Raging Bull, created whole library of sound effects, that you’ll hear during the boxing scenes. These include: Smashed watermelon and tomatoes, animal like noises, gunshots(these were used for the sound of camera flash bulbs going off) and many others. (Sound mix for Raging Bull took six months!)

I can only guess, what sound effects were used in the boxing scenes, but the truth is, that even Martin Scorsese doesn’t know. Frank Warner was so protective about his sound effects, that he destroyed them later, so nobody else could use them again.

Anyway, POV shots are brilliant for sound design. Especially for self-destructing characters like Jake La Motta.

Plus, the boxing ring in itself creates an attractive environment for sound design. I think everyone would be interesting in terms of sound design when standing inside the boxing ring, not just Jake La Motta. In boxing ring, you just see and hear differently, trust me.

In January 2012, I wrote a post about POV and sound design, you can read it by clicking here.


Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff