Working with Silence

Working as a film sound designer, over the years I slowly developed lots of ideas to help clarify the directors intent for the soundtrack during our first spotting session, and one I used to really enjoy was I would ask them what they thought the loudest moment in the entire film would be. They would usually have no trouble identifying loud moments/scenes as they were usually based in action, and action scenes take a lot of planning & shooting…

Next I’d ask them what they thought the quietest moment might be. This often made them pause to think much harder. I had often already come up with a few potential moments and I would pitch them, with the aim that we not just have quiet moments but aim to reach complete silence, motivated by character & emotion… And in many, many films I worked on, we found a moment of silence in the final mix. And later, reliving and experiencing that effect with an audience is so powerful.

One favourite was in a film by Gaylene Preston ‘Perfect Strangers’ (2003) and we went from the loudest moment in the film to silence across a single action sequence where a fishing boat is swamped at sea during a storm… It took a lot of work in the final mix to shape all the elements and slowly deconstruct the soundtrack but OMG that moment hits emotionally like a ton of bricks!

In a later film O le Tulafale (The Orator) (2011) I had some ideas about where we could push to silence but the director and I hadn’t committed to any… But the FX mixer came up with an idea and again it was near a very dramatic loud moment: the hero is digging a grave for his wife, hoping to bury her body before her family come & try to take her body back… The shot is from deep in the grave watching him work digging, and a spot of rain hits. For a moment all falls silent – no ambience, foley, nothing. (This makes the audience suddenly listen like the protagonist… what is coming?) Then one of those torrrential storms begins that you only get in the Pacific islands (they sound like a freight train!) and he proceeds to fight for his life as the grave fills with water & starts to collapse around him.

Of course, having a brief moment of silence before an explosion is also an overused film sound technique, but for different reasons (ie briefly relieving your ear, to maximise dynamics)

It still amuses me but many years ago I mentioned this approach in a ‘sound design’ forum and received a lot of unwanted and misguided advice and I realised people are almost afraid of silence eg “You can’t go to complete silence – people will think its a mistake” Me: FFS, no one is randomly cutting to silence. Rerecording mixers are artists and they can make anything happen, given the right resources and a director who is open to such approaches. The transition as a dense soundtrack is stripped away with a form & shape that makes emotional & story sense, is what I consider some of the best work I’ve ever been involved with.

But I also noticed it with music. Also many years ago I was in Japan and saw a fantastic lineup of what I considered some of the leading minimalist touring musicians (not Japanese) so I went to the gig with great expectations, and left somewhat disappointed: every track by every artist started, varied and ended. And at no point was silence even approached, let alone engaged. All spaces were filled. I wondered if this aversion was more a practical issue/fear live eg will people think this track is over if I place silence in it? idk.

One last anecdote: I remember reading Jim Morrison talking about The Doors and with that song When the Musics Over and how when they played it live they would keep extending the gap just before the crescendo… and the greater that gap became, the crazier the audience became…

“We want the world and we want it…


In film sound design silence is perhaps ‘easier’ to engage, as there is no master tempo telling you when the next note or bar should fall… With that Doors song, you would expect the gap to be x beats long, and extending that is potentially breaking tempo and delaying the instant gratification of a crescendo that every fan knows…

powerful psyops!!

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