Abnormal Frequencies: Sound Designing the Short Film Hum
When I made my first short film in 2011, the idea was to set a goal for myself and let that drive my process. The short ended up being Mr. Fitzpatrick, and my goal was simply to present a character and show a day in his life. That’s it. No story or anything complicated. I didn’t even want to get to know him very well–just get an impression.
I’m pretty happy with the way the film came out, but the one thing people always comment on is its sound design. We shot the film completely MOS (with the FGV-PL7D and Arri Standard Speeds) and then actress and co-producer Cassandra Burrows and I foley’d everything in post. It was a great experience, and the sound design adds a level of surreality to what is otherwise a funny-looking guy riding around on his bike and reading his mail.
In early 2013 I decided to make another film, so I started looking for another process to help focus my work. I’d recently picked up V.I. Pudovkin’s Film Technique & Film Acting, and in my reading discovered this passage:
The camera, as it were, forces itself, ever striving, into the profoundest deeps of life; it strives thither to penetrate, whither the average spectator never reaches as he glances casually around him… To show something as everyone sees it is to have accomplished nothing.
Pudovkin and his contemporaries — Kuleshov, Eisenstein, and Griffith to name a few — felt responsible for separating the new medium of cinema from its ties to the theater, and it’s that hard-line of creative thinking that helped define what people now understand when they hear the word “cinematic.”
I wanted to make something cinematic, using only the most basic conventions of cinema: cinematography, sound, and montage. Pudovkin also writes about a “filmic environment,” which describes the specific aesthetic brought into being as a result of a filmmaker’s approach. Based on the feedback I’d received for Mr. Fitzpatrick, I chose sound as the basis of my next filmic environment. It would drive the actors, the camera, the direction, and the editing.
Another passage in Film Technique and Film Acting comes from a chapter entitled “Rhythmic Problems In My First Sound Film.” In it, Pudovkin rejects the notion of the literal approach to sound design that “begin[s] a sound when its corresponding image first appears and [cuts] it when its image has passed.”
He continues: “Every strip of sound, speech, or music may develop unmodified while the images come and go in a sequence of short shots or alternatively, during images of longer duration the sound strip may change independently in a rhythm of its own.”
Life in New York presents the ear with a cacophony of sounds and rhythms: horns, sirens, jets, garbage trucks, gunshots, the subway, random screams all bleeding together. On a roof all the sounds rise to meet you, mixing together into a single, continuous ambience. The only way to deal with living with the constant stimulation is to mentally block it out. But what if you couldn’t? This is what my film would be about: a guy who loses his mind after being plagued by an overwhelming noise.
I researched a lot of films with memorable sound design. The opening scene of The Conversation inspired the concept of using dynamic camera moves and sound design to focus character and audience attention. Production sound mixer Mike Storey and I watched Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, the plot of which involves a sound recordist looking for the perfect scream.
“Good sound design allows the viewer to bring their imagination to bear. It can also convey elements of the story that can’t be conveyed through spoken dialogue or visual means,” Mike comments.
I was particularly inspired by Gerald Potterton’s 1966 NFB short The Quiet Racket and the Twilight Zone episode “Sounds and Silences,” directed by Richard Donner. The former took a comedic, expressive approach to sound design, while the latter more seriously suggested that the main character’s problem was psychosomatic. A mix of the two seemed interesting.
In order to bring focus to the sound design, I started thinking of it as a character and gave it a name: the Hum. Making the Hum a character meant I would have to write sound design into the script. I used phrases that directly described what the main character—Bob, played by actor Billy Schultz—was hearing: “The sound of many voices mixing with an electronic whisper,” or I could be poetic about how “the Hum is a giant squeezing fist enveloping his head.”
The closest conceptual reference I had was a combination of the Nothing from The Neverending Story, and the Awful Dynne from The Phantom Tollbooth. It was all of the sounds, and none of them. We didn’t actually know what the Hum sounded like when we were shooting, but as long as Billy knew where it was coming from, how big it was, and what it was doing, he could react to it.
Production lasted four days with two days of pick-ups in and around New York City. We had two excellent and enthusiastic production sound mixers — Mike Storey and Chris Allen—always listening for interesting tones and rhythms and textures. Camera and lighting were focused. The actors hit their marks. Even so, we all knew that the film would only work with great sound design and a great mix.
The first cut of the film used only the production sound. From this version I made an ADR list — specifically for a scene we shot on a moving subway car and a scene where Bob is alone in his apartment and hears voices on another floor. I laid in the ADR, and trimmed the dialogue, and started looking for the Hum.
I knew it needed to be rhythmic and musical and inherently ambient. Piling sounds on top of each other wouldn’t work. One night I was at home in the kitchen, scanning the FM band on an old transistor radio we used as a prop for the film and I suddenly found it: a dark haze of static between stations. As I scrubbed the dial I could hear music and talking, but unclearly, and sometimes the signals crossed. When I flipped to the lo-fi AM band I discovered a soundscape of pulsing waves and white noises. It made sense for the story: The dial on Bob’s brain was stuck between stations. He can’t tune into the world around him, so all he gets is a Hum.
After my initial sound edit I handed the project off to supervising sound editor Brian Chumney, with whom I’d worked at LucasArts in the late ’90’s—and re-recording mixer Zach Martin at Skywalker Sound.
Like the acting and camerawork, the sound design needed to be expressive and huge. I encouraged Brian and Zach to make bold choices, and the result was often a balance of subtle and extreme.
Zach, whose credits as a re-recording mixer include Fruitvale Station and Beasts of the Southern Wild, found calm where I’d only found chaos, and new sounds where I’d only heard silence. He wasn’t afraid of trying something strange or risky, like actually making it hard for the audience to hear the dialogue, or pushing a moment right up to the threshold of causing the audience pain, but never crossing it.
“That was one of the more interesting parts about Hum,” he notes. “We had to be careful of the difference between doing something just to show off or letting an effect take its solo and then step back. I treated it like a song in that respect, passing the lead back and forth from moment to moment. A lot of it happened in coarse and abrupt ways, but always serving the story. Every time I pulled a sound out into the room or swept it across the theater it was to help reinforce the idea that we’re in this character’s head.”
Even when the effect was subtle, it needed to be different. The opening montage of Brooklyn rooftops features a mix of urban and forest ambience. The subway scene was created entirely out of ADR and old recordings I made on the U-Bahn in Berlin and a cross-country train in Poland. The dream on the mountain uses a mix of ocean and forest ambiences.
An extreme example is the final scene where the Pervert (actor Jeff Seal) antagonizes Bob at the bar. Brian, whose experience as a sound editor includes How to Train Your Dragon, John Carter, and Monsters University, removed the all the breaths from the Pervert’s monologue.
“Sometimes what’s between the words is just as important as the words themselves,” Brian remarks. “Breathing makes the dialogue sound real and alive, whereas silence and noise makes it unnatural and disturbing.”
It’s impossible to pick any one moment as indicative of the whole process; the cumulative effect of all the different techniques is greater than any of the techniques alone. Because our destination was always the same—put the audience inside another person’s head—we were allowed to take radically different and sometimes creatively hazardous paths to getting there.
I think Zach sums it up perfectly: “You have to take risk of doing something wrong otherwise your work gets watered down. With Hum we took a lot of risks and they worked.”
Iain Marcks is a writer and filmmaker living in New York City. His words frequently appear in the pages of American Cinematographer Magazine. His films are online at