Sound sweetening in Mission Impossible

Mission: Impossible (1996)
Mission: Impossible (1996)

Helicopter scene at the end of Mission Impossible is another amazing example of sound sweetening. It’s very similar to the Velocipod scene in The Incredibles. The scene looks great, but doesn’t really work unless it FEELS like Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is about to be chewed up by the helicopter blades, that’s where sound sweetening comes into play.

Sound sweetening is about enhancing existing sounds to make them sound and feel emotionally true to the scene (enhancing is by the way the secret to cinematic storytelling).

Sound(s) used to sweeten up the helicopter blades might be sound(s) of a circular saw, but maybe it is something completely different (dental drill?). But no matter what sounds were used, they made the helicopter blades sound and FEEL really dangerous and life threatening. And that’s virtually all that matters, really.

P.S. I originally uploaded the scene to YouTube, but it is blocked in several countries (almost all English speaking). Nevertheless, you can try to watch it by clicking here.

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).



Dreamy world in (500) Days of Summer

Being in love is beautiful. When it happens, you just know it. Everything changes around you – to be more precise, you perception of things around you changes.

When you meet your dream girl (boy), you enter a new, imaginary world, where everything is possible, a world without any limits or barriers. Living in this world is great – it’s an endless source of inspiration, motivation and energy.

In this example, we’ll look at how sound effects were used, to create this gorgeous world.

When Tom walks by the water fountain (youtube video above at 0:26), instead of hearing the sounds of splashing water, we hear sounds of fireworks.  What a beautiful touch in terms of sound design!

The sounds of fireworks portray, how Tom perceives the world around him (hears what he wants to hear) and at the same time, visually it also makes sense – the water fires up, same as the fireworks do. Hopefully, you can see everything more clearly in the picture below:

(500) Days of Summer (2009)
(500) Days of Summer (2009)

However, you can’t live in this beautiful world forever. Someday, you have to leave. Needless to say, the leaving really hurts, a lot. The good thing about it though is that you’ll learn probably one of the most important lessons in your life…

“The movie’s conclusion hinges on Tom realizing that he can’t impose his expectations on her, and that adult relationships are about accepting people as they actually are, not how they’re fantasized to be, a place he can’t arrive to if he doesn’t begin by considering her as a unicorn.” [David Greenwald]

Read more:

GITS Script Reading and Analysis Series: “(500) Days of Summer”