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  • Writer's pictureJake Fielding

Sculpting Silence A Guide to Sound Designing Silence

In the realm of filmmaking, sound is a powerful tool that holds the ability to manipulate emotions, build tension, and immerse the audience within the narrative. While silence may seem like a straightforward absence of sound, achieving a sense of "silence" in film is an artful endeavour that necessitates meticulous attention to detail and a deep understanding of how we perceive and experience silence in our daily lives.


The Illusion of Silence

In our everyday lives, complete and absolute silence is a rare occurrence. Even in the quietest environments, there are always subtle ambient sounds—distant traffic, pipes and plumbing within the walls of our house, or our own breathing. Silence, as we perceive it, often emerges when we encounter these otherwise unheard sounds; it is the absence of our usual auditory experience and what replaces it. Though it sounds counterintuitive, silence actually describes what we DO hear that informs us of this so-called "silence".


Film sound designers leverage this understanding to create the illusion of silence in a quiet scene; the key lies in adding carefully selected sounds during moments of apparent silence. These quiet, often unnoticed sounds delicately influence our perception of silence, which we don't typically pay attention to. In the absence of familiar and expected noises, introducing subtle sounds—perhaps the _____or_____—creates a stark contrast, heightening the perceived quietness and enhancing the illusion of silence. This intentional introduction of unobtrusive sounds enriches the auditory landscape and allows the audience to experience silence in a manner that resonates with our daily encounters of quietude. Understanding this perceptual interplay between silence and subtle sounds is a hallmark of exceptional sound design in film.


The Art of Silence in "Tanya": A Case Study

In a recent documentary titled 'Tanya,' I had the opportunity to use sound to craft an illusion of silence in a poignant moment. During a radio interview, the contributor revealed a rare glimpse of emotion while recounting her departure from her homeland, Ukraine. This was a crucial juncture where I intended to evoke a sense of silence, emphasizing the gravity of her emotions.


A significant pause followed as she shared her experience, engulfing the room in a moment of absolute quietness. I strategically introduced additional sounds—background traffic noises and muffled murmurs from the adjacent room to intensify this perceived silence. These sounds were carefully chosen and blended subtly into the mix during this specific moment that lasted only a few seconds. Their introduction was discreet but effective, enhancing the emotional impact and the sense of silence by introducing otherwise absent sounds.

It highlighted the idea that true silence is not the complete absence of sound but the nuanced interplay between what we expect to hear and what we perceive in our environment.


In employing this approach, the documentary 'Tanya' captured not only the contributor's emotional journey but also underlined the power of sound in shaping our understanding of silence in storytelling. The subtle introduction of these carefully chosen sounds during what seemed like a silent moment left a profound and lasting impact on the audience, showcasing the artistry that resides within the manipulation of sound in the world of filmmaking.


When screening this documentary at the BFI Southbank in London as part of my NFTS Graduation Showcase, the entire room fell silent during this moment, highlighting the success of this technique.

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