Secret to cinematic storytelling

Visual effects guru Rob Legato unfolds the secret to cinematic storytelling, sounds exciting? Watch the video below:

What do you think about this talk? I thought it was pretty awesome! Especially the part where he talked about how we remember events.

Reality vs. Perception

There is a huge difference between what we perceive (visually and audibly) and what we remember. To quote Rob Legato: “When we’re infused with either enthusiasm or awe or fondness or whatever, it changes and alters our perception of things. It changes what we SEE. It changes what we remember.”

Now, notice that I emphasized the word see in the sentence above. That is because Rob Legato thinks visually. But exactly the same can be applied to sound, we can change it to: “When we’re…it changes what we HEAR.”

Sound design guru Randy Thom said that in sound design you begin by trying to forget for a while what it would really sound like and start thinking about what it would feel like. (1)

Some of you may argue that this is a different approach (what we remember vs. what it feels like), but it is the same: Emotional experiences, whether good or bad, leave strong traces in the brain. (2) These emotional experiences are likely to be recalled more often and with more clarity and detail than neutral events. (3)

For example, I could describe you in vivid detail the evening when I cooked a meal for the first time for my girlfriend, but I wouldn’t be able to describe what I did that day in the morning, because there was no emotion connected to this.

The art of creating awe

The point is, we as storytellers (sound designers, VFX artists, cinematographers, editors, you name it…) use this emotional memory to enhance the story and make it emotionally true and real. In other words: We don’t replicate reality, we create perceived reality.

Apollo 13 (1995)
Apollo 13 (1995)

This is why Rob Legato replicated the launch sequence in Apollo 13 based on what people remembered and thought was memorable. (And memorable doesn’t necessarily mean real or accurate.)

Secret to cinematic storytelling

Sound designers use sweetening, cinematographers color palette etc., because this is how it would feel like, this is how we would remember the event. To paraphrase Martin Scorsese: “The idea behind sound effects in Raging Bull is to give impression of the battles inside the ring. It’s the way the character would perceive it.”

Again, we as filmmakers don’t replicate reality, we create perceived reality. And this is the reason why I fell in love with filmmaking and became completely obsessed with cinematic storytelling.




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).



Sounds of danger in The Incredibles

The Incredibles (2004)
The Incredibles (2004)

The movie revolves around heroes with super powers. They are called “Supers”. Once, they were seen as heroes and beloved by citizens, but due to several unfortunate deeds, they were told to fit in with the rest of the public and not to use their super powers anymore.

The central characters are father Bob, his wife Helen and their children Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack, all of them are supers. Bob has a boring job in an insurance company, so when he gets a message from a mysterious woman named Mirage, to stop a raging robot on a distant island, he doesn’t hesitate even one second and takes that job. However, the robot is controlled by an evil villain called Syndrome – lovelorn man, who once used to be Bob’s huge fan.

Meanwhile, Helen realizes, that her husband Bob is in danger and, together with her kids Violet and Dash, goes to rescue him. After they land on the island, Helen tells her kids, that if anything goes wrong, they are free to use their superpowers.

One of the key scenes in this movie is right when Helen and her kids separate. The kids are waiting in a cave, but suddenly there is a huge fire coming towards them and they have to leave immediately.

The Incredibles (2004)
The Incredibles (2004)

They found themselves in a jungle, soon discovered by an alarm system and in a moment, chased by Velocipods.

Randy Thom, sound designer of the movie, knew, that in order to make the chasing scene work, the Velocipods had to sound dangerous.

“The scene doesn’t work unless we think that those things are about to chew them up and spit them out any second.” [Randy Thom]

Nobody knows, how the Velocipod sounds like, but at least, there were some visual clues to that. They look like flying sources, with knives spinning around them – they fly, they are fast and they are life-threatening.

What Randy Thom did was that he thought initially about sounds, that evoke all of those above mentioned characteristics. Consequently, he came up with sounds of F1 racing cars, jet-bys, knives being sharpened and sharp pieces of metal rubbing against each other. All combined together in such a way, that on emotional level, the audience can feel the danger represented by the Velocipods.

Randy Thom is truly a great sound designer, he is focused on using sound as a storytelling device and he is willing to share his insight and knowledge.

If you want to read more about sound design in “The Incredibles”, I recommend you to read these two interviews with Randy Thom:

And if you want to learn more about Randy Thom, read the “Behind the Art” interview at and his articles at, these are golden!