Movies and Film: Sound Effects and Their Functions

Sound Effects and Their Functions

As sound editor Marvin M. Kerner says in The Art of the Sound Effects Editor, "the function of sound effects is three-fold":

  • To simulate reality.
  • To add or create something off scene that is not really there.
  • To help the director create a mood.

Simulating Reality

The simulation of reality can be something as small but distinctive as the sound of a door opening and closing on the Starship Enterprise, to the extremely complex creation of a language for the Star Wars series' Ewoks.

Sometimes the reality that sound creates is so compelling that even though it contradicts what we know to be scientifically true, we believe it anyway. Though we know, for example, that because space is a vacuum sound cannot travel in it, we are still utterly compelled by the sounds of intergalactic battle or just spaceships traveling at warp speed in nearly every space opera produced since the creation of Buck Rogers in the 1930s. And gunshots never sound as satisfyingly long or loud in real life as they do in Dolby with the bass cranked way up. Finally, in many of those great Hollywood musicals, the best songs are not actually performed by Audrey Hepburn or Debbie Reynolds, but by unsung singers like Marnie Nixon, whose faces and figures don't look as appealing on-screen as those of the major stars.

Filmophile's Lexicon

A Foley artist invents the sound effects that are dubbed onto the visuals.

A Foley stage is the workshop in which the props used to make sound effects are used.

ADR stands for Automated Dialogue Replacement, or a computerized method for looping, which is itself a method for redubbing dialogue.

Adding or Creating Something That Is Not Really There

You are the director of Victor/Victoria (Great Britain, 1982), and you want more emphatic applause for Julie Andrews's big number than the actual audience of extras was able to provide. This is the kind of sound effect provided by the Foley artist, who creates sound tracks that amplify or add sounds not easily available as ambient noise. Sometimes sounds can be added to a film from a "library" of sound effects. But for more particular and idiosyncratic sounds, the Foley artist creates effects on a Foley stage, which is simply a production room in which everything is a sound prop, including the floor, which can provide different kinds of footfalls. The film rolls on-screen, and the Foley artist matches the kind of sound the filmmaker wants to the image projected: submarines submerging, horses clopping into the distance, echo effects, crowds roaring, and so on.

Creating a Mood

Test your ability to create a mood. Here is the shot: A woman gets into a bath or shower. Match the movie to the background music we hear.


  • A. Driving, shrill string music leading up to discordant screeches.
  • B. Slow, stately full-orchestra music, filled with pomp.
  • C. Five-piece jazz combo playing something with a slow, bluesy beat.


  1. Cleopatra.
  2. Psycho.
  3. The Happy Hooker.
Director's Cut

One of the most significant theorists on the use of sound is a director we've encountered already in our section on editing: Sergei Eisenstein. Already a proponent of clashing visual effects, he saw sound effects as wasted if they simply helped explain the plot of a film. Rather, as with editing, he hoped that sound could be used "contrapuntally" with the visuals to make a thematic, political, or ideological assertion about a particular sequence. In brief, his theory of editing was precisely the opposite of mickeymousing.

Obviously, the erotic Cinemax soundtrack is meant to titillate, while the Cleopatra (1963) music is supposed to impress you with the royal pomp of the queen's most elementary activities, and Psycho (1960) sound effects are supposed to set you on edge from the very beginning of the famous shower scene. Of course the photography in these films is very different, but the mood of each is still dependent on the musical accompaniment. The same music, depending on context, can actually mean different things. The terrifyingly screechy violins in Psycho have a more comic effect when used as background music when a character stabs Mel Brooks with a newspaper while he is showering in High Anxiety (1977).

Besides setting the mood, sound can introduce important elements of the plot, or even intentionally confuse or mislead audiences. Because nothing about the voice of the transvestite Dil in The Crying Game (1992) is masculine, and because she sings the title song in a feminine manner, we assume the character is female until a full frontal shot informs us otherwise.

Because he describes himself as a nebbishy, nerdy character while narrating the story of The Usual Suspects (1995), we don't know that the small-time hood Verbal is actually the arch-criminal Keyser Soze. Sunset Boulevard (1950) is narrated by the film's hero. However, we don't learn until the end of the film that he is telling the story from beyond the grave. Narration can reflect a film's meaning in other ways. For example, documentaries have traditionally been narrated by male voices, suggesting that history is essentially a masculine domain.

Another theory—cinma verit—suggests that ambient sound is most appealing because it is the most authentic and realistic. If, like the French New Wave filmmakers, you are trying to create a "slice-of-life" film school, you allow the imperfections that the Foley artist deletes to remain on the soundtrack because they contribute to the believability of the movie. The New Wave filmmakers were famous, for example, for allowing street noises to remain in the final cut, despite the fact that they could make it difficult to hear the dialogue. See Franois Truffaut's The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups, France, 1959) or Jean-Luc Godard's Masculine Feminine (Masculin/Feminin, France, 1966) for terrific examples of such use of ambient sound.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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