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Tasos Frantzolas: Everything you hear on film is a lie

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Sound design is built on deception -- when you watch a movie or TV show, nearly all of the sounds you hear are fake. In this audio-rich talk, Tasos Frantzolas explores the role of sound in storytelling and demonstrates just how easily our brains are fooled by what we hear.

- Entrepreneur
Tasos Frantzolas lives and creates at the intersection of audio and technology. Full bio

I want to start by doing an experiment.
00:12
I'm going to play three videos
of a rainy day.
00:16
But I've replaced the audio
of one of the videos,
00:20
and instead of the sound of rain,
00:24
I've added the sound of bacon frying.
00:27
So I want you think carefully
which one the clip with the bacon is.
00:31
(Rain falls)
00:35
(Rain falls)
00:39
(Rain falls)
00:43
All right.
00:52
Actually, I lied.
00:55
They're all bacon.
00:57
(Bacon sizzles)
00:58
(Applause)
01:04
My point here isn't really
to make you hungry
01:09
every time you see a rainy scene,
01:12
but it's to show that our brains
are conditioned to embrace the lies.
01:14
We're not looking for accuracy.
01:20
So on the subject of deception,
01:23
I wanted to quote one
of my favorite authors.
01:26
In "The Decay of Lying,"
Oscar Wilde establishes the idea
01:29
that all bad art comes from copying
nature and being realistic;
01:36
and all great art comes
from lying and deceiving,
01:43
and telling beautiful, untrue things.
01:49
So when you're watching a movie
01:52
and a phone rings,
01:56
it's not actually ringing.
01:58
It's been added later
in postproduction in a studio.
02:00
All of the sounds you hear are fake.
02:05
Everything, apart from the dialogue,
02:08
is fake.
02:09
When you watch a movie and you see
a bird flapping its wings --
02:11
(Wings flap)
02:14
They haven't really recorded the bird.
02:18
It sounds a lot more realistic
if you record a sheet
02:20
or shaking kitchen gloves.
02:25
(Flaps)
02:27
The burning of a cigarette up close --
02:30
(Cigarette burns)
02:33
It actually sounds a lot more authentic
02:37
if you take a small Saran Wrap ball
02:40
and release it.
02:42
(A Saran Warp ball being released)
02:44
Punches?
02:47
(Punch)
02:49
Oops, let me play that again.
02:50
(Punch)
02:52
That's often done by sticking
a knife in vegetables,
02:54
usually cabbage.
02:58
(Cabbage stabbed with a knife)
03:00
The next one -- it's breaking bones.
03:02
(Bones break)
03:05
Well, no one was really harmed.
03:08
It's actually ...
03:11
breaking celery or frozen lettuce.
03:13
(Breaking frozen lettuce or celery)
03:16
(Laughter)
03:18
Making the right sounds
is not always as easy
03:21
as a trip to the supermarket
03:25
and going to the vegetable section.
03:27
But it's often a lot more
complicated than that.
03:30
So let's reverse-engineer together
03:33
the creation of a sound effect.
03:36
One of my favorite stories
comes from Frank Serafine.
03:38
He's a contributor to our library,
03:41
and a great sound designer for "Tron"
and "Star Trek" and others.
03:43
He was part of the Paramount team
that won the Oscar for best sound
03:48
for "The Hunt for Red October."
03:53
In this Cold War classic, in the '90s,
03:55
they were asked to produce the sound
of the propeller of the submarine.
03:58
So they had a small problem:
04:03
they couldn't really find
a submarine in West Hollywood.
04:05
So basically, what they did is,
04:08
they went to a friend's swimming pool,
04:12
and Frank performed
a cannonball, or bomba.
04:15
They placed an underwater mic
04:21
and an overhead mic
outside the swimming pool.
04:23
So here's what the underwater
mic sounds like.
04:26
(Underwater plunge)
04:29
Adding the overhead mic,
04:31
it sounded a bit like this:
04:33
(Water splashes)
04:35
So now they took the sound
and pitched it one octave down,
04:37
sort of like slowing down a record.
04:41
(Water splashes at lower octave)
04:44
And then they removed
a lot of the high frequencies.
04:47
(Water splashes)
04:50
And pitched it down another octave.
04:53
(Water splashes at lower octave)
04:56
And then they added
a little bit of the splash
04:58
from the overhead microphone.
05:01
(Water splashes)
05:03
And by looping and repeating that sound,
05:06
they got this:
05:09
(Propeller churns)
05:10
So, creativity and technology put together
in order to create the illusion
05:16
that we're inside the submarine.
05:23
But once you've created your sounds
05:26
and you've synced them to the image,
05:30
you want those sounds to live
in the world of the story.
05:32
And one the best ways to do
that is to add reverb.
05:37
So this is the first audio tool
I want to talk about.
05:41
Reverberation, or reverb,
is the persistence of the sound
05:45
after the original sound has ended.
05:50
So it's sort of like the --
05:52
all the reflections from the materials,
05:54
the objects and the walls
around the sound.
05:57
Take, for example, the sound of a gunshot.
06:00
The original sound is less
than half a second long.
06:03
(Gunshot)
06:08
By adding reverb,
06:09
we can make it sound like
it was recorded inside a bathroom.
06:11
(Gunshot reverbs in bathroom)
06:15
Or like it was recorded
inside a chapel or a church.
06:17
(Gunshot reverbs church)
06:20
Or in a canyon.
06:23
(Gunshot reverbs in canyon)
06:26
So reverb gives us a lot of information
06:27
about the space between the listener
and the original sound source.
06:30
If the sound is the taste,
06:35
then reverb is sort of like
the smell of the sound.
06:37
But reverb can do a lot more.
06:42
Listening to a sound
with a lot less reverberation
06:44
than the on-screen action
06:48
is going to immediately signify to us
06:50
that we're listening to a commentator,
06:53
to an objective narrator that's not
participating in the on-screen action.
06:56
Also, emotionally intimate
moments in cinema
07:02
are often heard with zero reverb,
07:06
because that's how it would sound
if someone was speaking inside our ear.
07:08
On the completely other side,
07:13
adding a lot of reverb to a voice
07:15
is going to make us think
that we're listening to a flashback,
07:17
or perhaps that we're inside
the head of a character
07:21
or that we're listening
to the voice of God.
07:25
Or, even more powerful in film,
07:28
Morgan Freeman.
07:30
(Laughter)
07:32
So --
07:33
(Applause)
07:34
But what are some other tools or hacks
07:37
that sound designers use?
07:41
Well, here's a really big one.
07:44
It's silence.
07:51
A few moments of silence
is going to make us pay attention.
07:53
And in the Western world,
07:57
we're not really used to verbal silences.
08:00
They're considered awkward or rude.
08:02
So silence preceding verbal communication
08:06
can create a lot of tension.
08:11
But imagine a really big Hollywood movie,
08:13
where it's full of explosions
and automatic guns.
08:16
Loud stops being loud
anymore, after a while.
08:22
So in a yin-yang way,
08:26
silence needs loudness
and loudness needs silence
08:27
for either of them to have any effect.
08:31
But what does silence mean?
08:34
Well, it depends how
it's used in each film.
08:35
Silence can place us inside
the head of a character
08:39
or provoke thought.
08:42
We often relate silences with ...
08:44
contemplation,
08:48
meditation,
08:50
being deep in thought.
08:53
But apart from having one meaning,
08:56
silence becomes a blank canvas
08:59
upon which the viewer is invited
to the paint their own thoughts.
09:01
But I want to make it clear:
there is no such thing as silence.
09:06
And I know this sounds like the most
pretentious TED Talk statement ever.
09:11
But even if you were to enter
a room with zero reverberation
09:16
and zero external sounds,
09:22
you would still be able to hear
the pumping of your own blood.
09:24
And in cinema, traditionally,
there was never a silent moment
09:28
because of the sound of the projector.
09:32
And even in today's Dolby world,
09:34
there's not really any moment of silence
if you listen around you.
09:38
There's always some sort of noise.
09:42
Now, since there's no such
thing as silence,
09:44
what do filmmakers
and sound designers use?
09:47
Well, as a synonym,
they often use ambiences.
09:51
Ambiences are the unique background sounds
09:56
that are specific to each location.
10:00
Each location has a unique sound,
10:03
and each room has a unique sound,
10:05
which is called room tone.
10:07
So here's a recording
of a market in Morocco.
10:08
(Voices, music)
10:11
And here's a recording
of Times Square in New York.
10:17
(Traffic sounds, car horns, voices)
10:20
Room tone is the addition of all
the noises inside the room:
10:27
the ventilation, the heating, the fridge.
10:31
Here's a recording
of my apartment in Brooklyn.
10:33
(You can hear the ventilation, the boiler,
the fridge and street traffic)
10:36
Ambiences work in a most primal way.
10:47
They can speak directly
to our brain subconsciously.
10:52
So, birds chirping outside your window
may indicate normality,
10:56
perhaps because, as a species,
11:02
we've been used to that sound
every morning for millions of years.
11:05
(Birds chirp)
11:10
On the other hand, industrial sounds
have been introduced to us
11:17
a little more recently.
11:21
Even though I really like
them personally --
11:23
they've been used by one
of my heroes, David Lynch,
11:26
and his sound designer, Alan Splet --
11:28
industrial sounds often carry
negative connotations.
11:30
(Machine noises)
11:33
Now, sound effects can tap
into our emotional memory.
11:40
Occasionally, they can be so significant
11:46
that they become a character in a movie.
11:49
The sound of thunder may indicate
divine intervention or anger.
11:52
(Thunder)
11:58
Church bells can remind us
of the passing of time,
12:03
or perhaps our own mortality.
12:07
(Bells ring)
12:11
And breaking of glass can
indicate the end of a relationship
12:19
or a friendship.
12:24
(Glass breaks)
12:26
Scientists believe that dissonant sounds,
12:28
for example, brass or wind
instruments played very loud,
12:32
may remind us of animal howls in nature
12:38
and therefore create a sense
of irritation or fear.
12:42
(Brass and wind instruments play)
12:46
So now we've spoken
about on-screen sounds.
12:52
But occasionally, the source
of a sound cannot be seen.
12:56
That's what we call offscreen sounds,
13:00
or "acousmatic."
13:03
Acousmatic sounds --
13:05
well, the term "acousmatic" comes
from Pythagoras in ancient Greece,
13:07
who used to teach behind
a veil or curtain for years,
13:12
not revealing himself to his disciples.
13:16
I think the mathematician
and philosopher thought that,
13:19
in that way,
13:23
his students might focus
more on the voice,
13:25
and his words and its meaning,
13:29
rather than the visual of him speaking.
13:31
So sort of like the Wizard of Oz,
13:34
or "1984's" Big Brother,
13:37
separating the voice from its source,
13:42
separating cause and effect
13:45
sort of creates a sense
of ubiquity or panopticism,
13:48
and therefore, authority.
13:52
There's a strong tradition
of acousmatic sound.
13:55
Nuns in monasteries in Rome and Venice
used to sing in rooms
13:59
up in galleries close to the ceiling,
14:05
creating the illusion that we're listening
to angels up in the sky.
14:09
Richard Wagner famously
created the hidden orchestra
14:14
that was placed in a pit
between the stage and the audience.
14:18
And one of my heroes, Aphex Twin,
famously hid in dark corners of clubs.
14:21
I think what all these masters knew
is that by hiding the source,
14:27
you create a sense of mystery.
14:32
This has been seen
in cinema over and over,
14:33
with Hitchcock,
and Ridley Scott in "Alien."
14:35
Hearing a sound without knowing its source
14:39
is going to create some sort of tension.
14:41
Also, it can minimize certain visual
restrictions that directors have
14:46
and can show something
that wasn't there during filming.
14:52
And if all this sounds
a little theoretical,
14:55
I wanted to play a little video.
14:57
(Toy squeaks)
15:01
(Typewriter)
15:04
(Drums)
15:07
(Ping-pong)
15:11
(Knives being sharpened)
15:14
(Record scratches)
15:17
(Saw cuts)
15:21
(Woman screams)
15:22
What I'm sort of trying
to demonstrate with these tools
15:24
is that sound is a language.
15:29
It can trick us by transporting
us geographically;
15:32
it can change the mood;
15:36
it can set the pace;
15:38
it can make us laugh
or it can make us scared.
15:41
On a personal level, I fell
in love with that language
15:46
a few years ago,
15:50
and somehow managed to make it
into some sort of profession.
15:51
And I think with our work
through the sound library,
15:57
we're trying to kind of expand
the vocabulary of that language.
16:00
And in that way, we want
to offer the right tools
16:07
to sound designers,
16:11
filmmakers,
16:12
and video game and app designers,
16:14
to keep telling even better stories
16:16
and creating even more beautiful lies.
16:20
So thanks for listening.
16:23
(Applause)
16:24

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About the speaker:

Tasos Frantzolas - Entrepreneur
Tasos Frantzolas lives and creates at the intersection of audio and technology.

Why you should listen

Tasos Frantzolas is a Greek entrepreneur with roots in sound design and music. He is best known as the founder of Soundsnap.com, a sound effects and music library with over one million users and top clients such as HBO, Vice, Apple, NASA, Konami, Microsoft and Pixar.

Growing up in Athens, Greece with a studio under his house, Frantzolas began producing and writing music at the age of 13. He holds a diploma in audio engineering, a BA in sonic arts and an MA in music production and music business. After his education, he enjoyed a brief stint in the UK's music and post-production industries, including sound design work for the BBC and DJing in east London nightclubs. A keen student of electronic and Jamaican music, he has co-written songs with reggae legends such as Horace Andy and Mykal Rose of Black Uhuru.

Frantzolas's business philosophy focuses on the harmony of art and hi-tech and the use of technology to enrich and enable creativity. He divides his time between Brooklyn, NY and the Greek islands. 

More profile about the speaker
Tasos Frantzolas | Speaker | TED.com