Any students and fans of great filmmakers can tell you the importance sound plays in visual storytelling. There’s even an entire documentary on Alfred Hitchcock’s creative use and attention to sound design. But London-based Grand Central Recording Studios says marketers aren’t sufficiently utilizing the power of sound, and is hoping a new educational campaign launching this week will counter what it claims to be the creative discipline’s “poor-cousin status” in advertising.
“Sound design plays an important role in many types of content–in particular, film. Yet in advertising, all too often it is left to the last minute,” says GCRS deputy managing director Nicola Gilbert.
The problem with this is that a lack of planning and lack of budget means advertisers often miss out on a powerful creative tool.
“As every film director knows, an audience’s understanding and enjoyment of what they watch depends significantly on what they hear as they are watching,” says Gilbert. “So we set out to find a way to open that conversation by demonstrating in a simple, visual way the impact of sound.”
The result is “Experience the Sound,” a series of talks running this fall that will use two commercials specifically commissioned to sell agencies and advertisers on the value of sound design with an invitation to “listen to the pictures.”
In “Ssh,” a man drives at night toward a house inside which a group of people crouch behind a sofa. After parking, he goes inside to meet whatever reception awaits. The ad uses three different versions of the same originally shot sequence to tell three very different stories through different sound effects–subtle use of insect sounds to lighten the mood in one, for example. Or, in another, a dog’s bark and the distant rumble of thunder to build tension.
The second ad, “Train,” uses the same technique to tell three very different stories about an encounter on a train through the use of different voices.
“The idea isn’t for these films to showcase the best in sound design but to clearly and simply demonstrate how sound can be used,” says GCRS sound designer Miles Kempton.
It might surprise some that such an initiative is needed, he agrees, but quickly adds that he encounters evidence of lack of understanding almost weekly. “We were recently asked in the edit to create a rhythmic music track from sound effects to accompany a TV ad. But this was after the shoot, and the visuals had not been cut in appropriate way to make this work,” says Kempton.
“We’ve also worked on car campaigns when the production team have arrived in the studio assuming they can simply drop in a car engine sound from our library when–with a new launch, especially–that sound should have been specially recorded, because there are enough ‘petrol heads’ out there who just by listening will be able to tell the difference.”
A number of factors have made sound a poor cousin, according to writer and producer Paul Burke, who created “Ssh” and “Train” for GCRS. “One reason is that most creatives nowadays are visually trained graduates from art college where the emphasis today is more on ideas than on traditional craft skills,” says Burke. “They are taught about direction and editing, but tend to assume sound, like CGI, will be sorted out in post-production.”
This college issue has, in turn, contributed toward what Burke sees as a “cultural issue within agencies,” with insufficient attention paid to filling in less experienced creatives’ skills gaps.
A marked behavioral shift is also to blame, it seems, as more and more video advertising is consumed online. More commercials are now being consumed across a wider array of devices. But many of these, like laptops and phones, have built-in speakers with only limited quality, which risks further compromising good sound design, says Kempton.
Worse, according to one recent analysis by advertising intelligence company Exponential, a growing number of online viewers don’t listen to the sound at all, with an estimated 20% of video ads consumed online in the UK played with the volume turned down.
It’s not all bad news, however. “There are brands out there using great sound design,” says Gilbert. “They do plan ahead. They are willing to invest money and time. And the attention paid to sound can make a good creative idea great when they do.”
Wimbledon 2015: “Sony Presents Wimbledon in 3D” (Anomaly London / Red Bee Media)
“This trailer is the very definition of sound design,” says Kempton. “The decision to steer clear of using any real tennis sounds was made early on in the process, as sound designer Ben Leeves felt the depth and variety required could be achieved without using synthesized sounds. The complex sound design is a mix of many things. Other than the crowd, there are no realistic sounds–partly to portray power, not tennis.”
Powerade: “Power Through” (Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam)
“It’s the perfect combination of music, sound design, and dialogue,” he says of this work by sound designer Raja Sehgal for Powerade. “All three complement each other with their surreal, slowed-down effects, distorted dialogue, sound design and dialogue, and on-point music. The result is a dynamic piece of sound, working in partnership with a beautiful film.”
National Autistic Society: “Sensory Overload” (The News)
“Director Steve Cope collaborated with the National Autistic Society and brought GCRS sound designer Munzie Thind onboard at the start of the creative process. Together, they created this powerful film that effectively uses sound to highlight sensory sensitivity,” Kempton explains.
Benadryl: “War” (JWT London)
“The cleverness here is that the spot is so unexpected and intriguing–the contrast of beautiful images and springtime paired with the contrasting sounds of war to tell the story,” he adds. “A best-in-class example of pure sound design at its best, again sound-designed by Munzie Thind.”
Nike: “Write the Future” (Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam)
“Nike wanted this to be the most powerful football campaign ever. They achieved just that with numerous featured football legends and cameos, and a sound design that was complex and incredibly detailed,” says Kempton. The sound designer was Raja Sehgal.