”Don’t settle for the expected, common sounds. It will bore you and the audience.”—David Sonnenschein
A soundtrack has a “life” that breathes into a movie theater and helps us feel. Just like a fragrance might trigger a memory of a place once traveled, music and sound can be so powerful that even a one-second sample can trigger a memory. Take the two notes from the musical score of Jaws. That one-second sample can trigger fear or hesitation inside us.
Sound and music are very powerful devices. We deeply connect reactions in our collective unconsciousness to certain notes and sounds. For example, the iconic sound of Darth Vader’s breathing apparatus in Star Wars immediately triggers a memory.
So, if the soundtrack or soundscape of a film has a life, how do we break it down? The answer is in something called a sound map, also called a cue sheet or spotting sheet. Times are changing and more and more sound designers are consulted in the preproduction phase. This is where those spotting sheets can start to emerge. Audio cue sheets are good tools that uncover opportunities to save money on production. If done well, they save money in preproduction, and then allow for more creative contributions from the sound department in postproduction.
In this lesson, we will explain the use of spotting sheets in preproduction, production, and postproduction.
Audio Cue Sheets OverviewIn a soundtrack there are a number of sonic events. The sonic events are what I call the BIG FIVE.
THE BIG FIVE
- Dialogue (DX)
- Ambience (AMB)
- Sound Effects (SFX)
- Foley (FLY)
- Music (MX)
(The BIG FIVE could also be the BIG SIX when considering how important Room Tone (RT) is to the soundtrack).Inside each of these areas, some form of a cue sheet or spotting sheet is used. Remember, these words mean the same thing. Sound map is also the same as a spotting sheet or a cue sheet. It depends on how the production team chooses to name them. These terms will be used interchangeably, but understand that they are basically a spreadsheet that signals a “cue” or a “mark” for when sound or music needs to start.
Sometimes a spotting sheet is created as a tool to anticipate sounds that need to be at the ready—stored in a library. You can maybe read a script and anticipate sounds you will need to collect. This can be ideas that a sound designer has considered just from the script alone.
Then there is production sound. As you will recall, production sound has two focuses—to accurately record the dialogue from the actors and the room tone from each scene. That is it!! Dialogue and Room Tone.
All other sounds that will make up the scene are built into the film in postproduction. This is where the spotting sheet will come in for most sound editors or sound designers. They will watch the finished product and the final edit with the director and spot for the additional sounds that need to be placed into the scene.
Music Composition and Editing
While sound is being built and laid into the final project, the composer is also working with a different cue sheet called a musical cue sheet to place in musical score or song where the film needs it.
At the same time, if any recorded dialogue from production sound was not entirely useable, the ADR department has created an ADR cue sheet for any ADR/looping/walla tracks that need to be done during postproduction.
Sound designers will use Sound Effects and Ambience Cue Sheets to write down ideas as to what will be needed to build the atmos tracks (ambience) for each scene and construct all of the Sound Effects (SFX), both soft and hard. Their job is simply to create an atmosphere in which the audience will feel a part of the film. If they are able to scoop up the audience’s imagination and take them into a false reality for the duration of the movie, then they have done their jobs well.
Finally, anywhere in the film where Foley is the best texture for sound contributions, the Foley department will have their own cue sheets for laying in sounds to the final project.So you can see by this general description, the cue sheets are often everywhere in the sound department’s pipeline from preproduction, through production, down to postproduction. And they are used by each department in their own ways. No one cue sheet is right or wrong. They are simply a tool to keep each section organized.
Our Perceptions of Sound
Before we dive in further, watch the five-minute TED talk on sound. Consider how powerful just one-second samples of audio are to the human brain. Also notice how small our window to cognitively perceive audio is. That means that when we create soundtracks for projects, we need to choreograph the audio to push the story and control the sounds we want the audience to hear.
https://embed-ssl.ted.com/talks/julian_treasure_the_4_ways_sound_affects_us.htmlNow, you can understand why spotting sheets and cue sheets are made. They are a tool that controls the sounds we want the audience to hear and that serve the story best. We use spotting sheets to target and express what we want and what we don’t want on the life of the soundtrack because the soundtrack drives the emotional content of the film.
Sound Spotting in Preproduction
When you have a script, often there are several tips in it that can lead you to the soundtrack before you have even created one. Let’s break down the following script example from Back to the Future.
Back to the Future Screenplay Excerpt – Draft 4
So let’s just take in a few events that jump out by making a list of items or actions that make sounds that could be included in the production. This will be practice for spotting sounds in preproduction.
- Digital Clock
- Car Engine Starting
- Car Door Shutting
- Car Engine Idling
- Car Engine Roaring
- Car Tires Peeling Out
- Car Engine Accelerating
- Electronic Static as the car disappears
- Sound of flames on the road
This is a quick example of how to read a script for spotting sound in preproduction. You literally find the sound on the page and write it in a list format. You see the sounds as they are written, “The DeLorean engine ROARS to life,” and you know to create sounds for that image.
Postproduction audio includes Foley, ADR, sound effects, and musical score—each with its own cue sheet and team. In upcoming lessons, we will break down each of these departments in more detail. For now, it is only important to know what their cue sheets look like. Let’s take a glance at the types of cue sheets that can be expected. Keep in mind that a cue is like a mark, a moment in where sound or music will be placed.
On musical score cue sheets, the cue is the moment in when a composer is going to compose original music specific for the scene. Often there is a rich conversation between the director and the composer, moment by moment on the spotting list, where the cue is, along with a description of the type of music that will be needed. These cues help the composer stay organized, and it becomes easy as the process develops to adjust anything that the director might want changed.
Another type of music cue sheet is the MX cue sheet. Usually in music the cue is called M1, M2, M3, and so forth. Then there is a description, the type of music (either song or composed score), the time in, the time out, the total time, and maybe some extra columns for musical rights if it’s a song. Cue sheets are so valuable because composers are paid by the reel minute, or the time that is logged on the film, so every second counts.
These examples are here to show you that even though there are many ways to create a cue sheet, there is still a basic configuration.
When the final picture edit is locked, only then can postproduction teams begin to do their magic. After all sounds are layered into the film, Foley will be set to add the finishing details. A Foley cue sheet isn’t like the lengthy conversation of the musical score cue sheet. Foley is pretty straightforward and the artist can easily spot what is needed to add the texture and audio polish a film needs. Foley comes in after the sound effects have been placed.
Lastly, ADR (automated dialogue replacement) has a different kind of cue sheet. Here is one from The Lord of the Rings. As you can see, there is an in time and an out time, along with a good amount of space for the line that the actor has to re-record, or loop over the unwanted original recording. ADR is where we replace the old line with an exactly perfect in-sync line. Leaving the space for the line and a description of the kind of intention is often good. These are important for your own projects. They will make your life more organized and smooth when you go into your own recordings.
Diegetic and non-diegetic sounds in film.
We are not going to go into great depth on these two terms, but they add a healthy level of appreciation and language for you to use in experiencing sound in films.
Think of diegetic sounds as “actual sounds” we see in the story. And non-diegetic sounds as “extra” off-screen sounds that only the audience hears.
When looking at this explanation you can imagine several sounds that may be non-diegetic and used to increase emotional intensity placed in a different situation. Like while the main character is having an argument or a bad dream or a terrible headache, sounds like these could be used:
- Screeching of saw blades
- Thumping of hammers
- Constant yelling of workers
- Alarm sound to clear
- Sound of steam hissing through compressors or from heat
These are directly related to the main character’s backstory and give us creative ways to push the story forward from the point of view of one character. These few examples of sounds are what a sound designer might pick up from the script in preproduction that may or may not become useful in the postproduction phase of the project.
DIEGETIC AND NON DIEGETIC SOUND:
There are so many elements that bring a soundtrack together. Ambience fills the space and gives the feeling of whether the hero is in danger or safe. Music pushes the emotional content of a moment. Sound design can encourage the psychological elements in a scene. Foley gives us the texture and polish of detail that brings the story into a heightened sense of awareness. Sound is how the audience becomes enmeshed with the story. It engages the audience and guides them where to place their focus and how to feel in a moment.
For all this incredible power that sound has, there is even more reason to organize and control the sounds you want to express. It is especially good to learn what these spotting sheets are and how they flow in the pipeline because often enough these are the areas where interns get their first experience working on a project. You may get an internship with a composer who wants you to do the music cue sheet for his or her project. It must be exact, especially now that we are in a world where data is uploaded and sent over the Internet so easily. These cues have to be on point so that when things are laid in correctly, sync and timing are intact.
Postproduction lives by these important documents. There is no one single way to create them, and no one right way to create them. Their function is simply to make the life of the individual department both organized and easy for the overall flow of production to the very end.