“Every sound can hold a meaning.”
Lights Film School had the opportunity to catch up with entrepreneur and former sound designer Tasos Frantzolas, CEO of Soundsnap. Soundsnap is a preeminent online sound library featuring high-quality sound effects and loops from Hollywood sound designers and music producers.
Independent filmmakers can find and license royalty-free assets on Soundsnap, from general ambiences to specific effects – useful when you don’t have the tools or means to create certain sounds on your own.
For an introduction to the world of sound design as well as Tasos’ business, check out his fantastic TED Talk, “Everything You Hear on Film Is a Lie”:
Hello, Tasos! Thanks for taking the time to chat about your experiences in the world of sound. As I understand it, you worked as a professional sound designer for a while. What drew you to this aspect of film production? “Sound is a language,” you explain in your TED Talk – What made you fall in love with it?
Looking back, I think that I probably have some form of inherent inclination toward music and audio, in the same way that some people have a good eye and can draw. It’s probably genetic because both of my parents can sing very well in tune, and my dad was in the children’s royal choir (back when Greece still had a monarchy!) I grew up with a piano in my bedroom, composed (really bad) music as a kid, I was in the school choir and in bands and started making electronic music at age 14.
That love for music turned into love for sound. Sound is science and art, and both of these are things I was always interested in.
Us too! Why is sound an important part of most movies? It’s easy for beginning filmmakers to obsess over the image and all but forget about the other 50% of the film that’s heard rather than seen. Why does sound deserve the same time and attention as picture? What impact can it have on an audience?
This answer could take up a whole library of books, but I’ll try to summarize a few points. 😉
We go to the movies to feel something. Sound is one of the two main senses that people experience in cinema.
Therefore, it’s one of the tools that filmmakers have in order to help create an emotion, show something that is not on screen, make us scared or create comedy.
Sound supports the story and can enhance a scene: every sound can carry a meaning (or not!).
The audio helps set the location of a scene by playing sounds that are not in the frame (for example, room tone or background ambiance).
On the contrary, bad sound can destroy the experience, taking the viewer out of the cinematic moment by reminding them that they’re watching a film.
Sound can influence us on a primitive and subconscious level, and that can make it very effective in a way that the image cannot be.
Audio can create the illusion of something that wasn’t there during filming, and filmmakers can even completely manipulate it after filming: for example, one could completely change words in post-production, changing the meaning of the dialogue.
Totally. I just saw Dunkirk and was blown away by the sound design – the insistent ticking of that stopwatch, the bone-rattling bass, all sorts of suspenseful atmospheric noise… The film wouldn’t have had nearly as much of an impact without the sound! I had a professor who was fond of saying that sound is at least 50% of your film. I’ve carried that with me.
So in your experience, how much sound in a film is captured during production, and how much sound is created and added during post?
It really depends on the movie. It can be anywhere from zero to a hundred percent.
Most modern movies have all sound effects added later in post-production.
The Dogme 95 filmmaking movement, spearheaded by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, claims to not use any sound manipulation in post-production.
Oftentimes, the atmosphere or room tone is captured on set, before or right after the filming of a scene, and blended later with the dialogue.
But even in documentaries, the final sound is usually created and manipulated in order help tell the “story” that the filmmakers want to say. It’s usually not “real” at all. In fact, if we were to hear the real sound on set, it would sound totally fake to us.
Every sound can hold a meaning and is in support of the message or meaning of a scene or the story as a whole.
How did you find your way from working as a professional sound designer to starting an online sound library, Tasos? What inspired the idea, and how did you get it off the ground? Today, Soundsnap has a tremendous client roster, from Disney to HBO. How did it gain this sort of high-profile trust and traction?
I studied Music Production and Sonic Art and was into everything sound related. After finishing university, Napster had killed the record industry, and that left me depressed. Budgets for music productions were slashed, and I felt lost.
I was thinking of going into advertising, but I soon got into sound design and started making sound effects for some video games in London as a freelancer. It was a very exciting time for the web, right after the 2001 bubble, and the internet was maturing with new kinds of companies popping up based around collaboration, user-generated content, and participation.
The sound effect websites at the time had some good content, but the user experience was horrible.
Initially my plan was to make a regular library that offered downloads, but my friends in London at the time turned me to community websites such as Flashkit, Flickr, Wikipedia, etc., that were all about community (this was the time of Web 2.0).
So I launched Soundsnap initially as a community website, and luckily it took off from day one!
Well congratulations! It’s such a rich resource. Let’s back up for a moment, here. To set the stage for our readers, let’s explore what, precisely, stock sound assets are. Who needs them, and why? Who makes and sells them, and why? What are the legal/licensing considerations, especially for independent filmmakers?
Stock assets (or stock art) refers to work that has been created to be used by others (not for a specific production). These can range from stock footage (video) to images to music, and from fonts and 3D models all the way to sound effects.
Each asset type has a different set of considerations that have to do with the medium and also its history. For example, images can have “model releases”, and music can have mechanical and publishing rights.
Generally speaking, sound effects are what we call “royalty free”, which means that you can buy them once and use them as many times as you want, in any way you want, without paying additional royalties – as long as you have downloaded them legally in the first place!
Very cool. So how does an indie filmmaker get started on Soundsnap? What about someone who wants to create stock sound assets for your platform? For example, what equipment, skills, and training are needed in order to become a successful creator of stock sound assets? How much time and money does it take to get up and running, and how much might one expect to make from doing this?
Anyone can pick up a microphone, but to get it right, you need to read, practice, and learn.
You need to understand basic sound theory and also know microphone types and how to use them, what the best practices are, etc. And then you need to learn how to use software in order to edit, master, and manipulate the sound.
It’s not brain surgery, but to do it right, it requires dedication and a keen ear.
I think one good way to start is to do an apprenticeship/internship with someone who records or makes sounds professionally.
In terms of earnings… The best sound creators and recordists make a very good living just by selling their libraries. But I think it’s getting more competitive with more and more people creating very original, high-quality libraries.
All of this competition is good news for the end user/customer, who can now access amazing libraries at very good rates.
Fantastic! As a creator, how do you choose what sound assets to create? More generally, what is the workflow, from idea through publication on Soundsnap?
We source our content from experienced professionals with whom we’ve developed relationships throughout the years. They are experts in capturing audio that people will find useful.
I think they try to find holes in the library and try to fill those gaps.
One way to always stay relevant is to record items and objects that weren’t available in the past: new vehicles, new objects, new technology, etc.
Interesting. At risk of generalizing, what types of assets do clients tend to look for?
Clients tend to look for a lot of generic/common things like thunder, wind, and footsteps. However, we’ve noticed a shift for the past two years: as the library grows, people are getting more sophisticated in what they’re searching for, using longer key phrases and more evocative key words and phrases.
For example, here are currently the last ten searches: lava melt slow, wind sunroof, vacuum air, electric car window, forest, light footsteps on metal, correct answer, walkie talkie military, pool hotel atmos summer, cinematic boom, light sweep.
That’s fascinating, Tasos! As you know, indie filmmakers often work with super-tight budgets and so don’t always have the means to license high-end assets. Any words of wisdom for people who want to create sound effects themselves, for their own productions? How can they get the best recordings possible? In your opinion, what’s the absolute minimum you need in terms of equipment in order to capture a sound you can use in a film?
Recording your own sounds is cheap, but you need the right equipment, which is not always that cheap. The Japanese company Zoom has some inexpensive handheld recorders that are very popular.
However, it’s not that easy to give tips for perfect recordings… If you don’t want to use a library, I really suggest working with someone who knows and loves sound recording. If you don’t have a budget, aim to find a friend who is into sound, or someone who likes the project and can help out for free.
I highly recommend Ric Viers’ Sound Effects Bible book and Paul Virostek’s Creative Field Recording blog. Also, for people interested in jumping a bit deeper into sound theory and aesthetics, you need to check out Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen; Sound-on-Film: Interviews with Creators of Film Sound; and Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice, and Sound Effects in Cinema.
Nice. If you’re a working filmmaker, then you’re probably running a business of some kind, whether you’re shooting wedding videos solo or running a production company with friends and colleagues. As someone who has a successful film-related business going, Tasos, what tips can you share with young and aspiring business owners?
Life is short, so do what you love. But be honest with yourself as to what you want (it may not be business!) Work hard and be consistent. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Be different – copying won’t cut it.
Try to innovate – think outside the box.
Focus on your strengths, and your weaknesses will take care of themselves (I think Roger Federer said this!).
Well said. Thanks for sharing your insights, Tasos!
In need of sound effects? Then stop by Soundsnap’s website and peruse their growing online library. Here at Lights Film School, we’re thrilled to have partnered with Tasos and the Soundsnap team to offer students of our online filmmaking course access to their more than 250,000 sound effects and loops – an extension of our shared commitment to empowering creatives around the world!
Michael Koehler, with
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