3 Short Films to Inspire Your Film's Sound DesignBecome a better filmmaker by breaking down this short film showcase.
“What we hear is just as important as what we see.”
I like to say that sound is like teeth: it’s an area you take for granted and to which you pay little attention until something goes wrong, at which point it’s all you can focus on.*
Generally, we’re drawn to the visual elements of a film – the camera movements, the colors, the subtle glances between actors – while sound goes unnoticed, despite the impact it has on the audience’s experience.
Many films treat sound as a way to enhance the visuals, but there are those that push beyond such an obvious application to unlock sound’s potential as a storytelling tool. When sound is treated as an equal collaborator, new doors open onto new worlds of audience immersion.
These three short films create, capture, and manipulate sound to reel in their audiences and provide important pieces of their narrative puzzles.
1. Belly | Dir. Julia Pott, 2011
“I can feel you in my Belly.”
An Official Selection of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Belly is a beautiful animated short film that carries the audience through a wave of emotions and ends on a poignant note about friendship – all in seven minutes.
Animation is a fantastic showcase for the art of sound design, since everything from the characters to the effects must be created from scratch in post-production. There is no syncing to your actor’s performance or finding ways to mask ambient noise in the production audio. The possibilities are endless.
Here, the sound of the ocean transports us to the beach with the characters as they arrive. Later, when Oscar and his friend set out in search of Alex, the sound drags us under the waves. Once inside the belly of the whale, the soundscape changes again so that we seem to be in a cave. As the story progresses, the sound does, too, lending depth and nuance to each location through which the characters journey.
Of course, each character has a distinct voice, and the creatures they encounter have distinguishing sound effects. Audiences encounter places and personalities both foreign and familiar within the film’s universe of sound.
The final sound of Belly – a bellowing that rises from deep beneath the ocean – is the perfect ending note, a soulful expression of love and regret that embodies the film’s themes.
2. Bag Man | Dir. Jonathan & Josh Baker, 2014
“The understated story of a 12 year old African American boy, who takes us on an introspective journey out of the city and into the remote countryside of upstate New York. On the road, we slowly discover his real intentions, and the startling significance of what is hidden inside a young boy’s bag.”
Spoiler Alert! Watch the short film before reading.
The beauty of Bag Man is how it suddenly shifts gears, defying our expectations as viewers. Since dialogue is minimal – in fact, the protagonist doesn’t utter a single word! – the sound design and music help build suspense and guide us through the film’s world.
In many ways, the environment speaks for the protagonist. We begin in his neighborhood in New York, a city full of life and sensory overload: a dog barking in another apartment, passing sirens, animated conversations on the street. We follow the boy into the countryside, where we’re met with a new, more tranquil soundscape: chirping birds, crunching leaves, snapping twigs and drops of water.
What begins as a minimalist drama with realistic aural ambience and a pared-down score morphs into science fiction, complete with visual effects. This is a sudden twist, but as the sound adapts, so does our understanding of what’s about to happen.
It’s the sound that sells it. The weapon whirs loudly, shattering the stillness of the landscape, and the violence that erupts onscreen is underscored by what we hear. Essentially, the sound lends weight to the visuals and thus credibility to the unexpected turn of events.
“I want you to listen, very carefully,” says one character to another – and if we do, there’s a surprise in store for us, too.
3. Migration | Dir. Fluorescent Hill, 2013
“A vintage nature film that follows the migratory pattern of a herd of wild creatures.”
Migration is a lovely mix of Super 8mm film and CG animation that enjoyed a major festival run, including the Toronto International Film Festival, AFI Fest, and the Melbourne International Film Festival.
There is no dialogue; the sound design and music work together to create a magical experience. Especially memorable is the arrival of the protagonist’s fellow creatures. They sound to be soaring through space during their descent into the sea, adding a touch of wonder and whimsey to the migration. The creatures’ dash through the grasslands also stands out, for its sensuous mix of crumpled underbrush and mighty wave sounds.
The music helps guide us emotionally through this strange film. Ultimately, we’re left wondering whether or not the protagonist – who has seen more of the world than his fellow creatures, now taking to the skies with gleeful abandon – will make the jump.
To my ears, the final piano notes sound lonely and melancholy, suggesting that even if the creature continues on like the rest of his kind, his experiences have changed him forever.
Remember, filmmakers, what we hear is just as important as what we see! Open your ears as well as your eyes as you prepare for your next project.
*Friendly reminder to make your yearly dental check-up appointments.
Courtney Hope Thérond, with
To learn more about sound design and other aspects of the filmmaking process, check out our in-depth online filmmaking course, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.
MORE FROM US: