Experiments in Sound Design

Creating an audio-only version of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” as an exercise, gave me a huge lesson in sound design. The process is so much more analogous to songwriting or written composition than I ever realized. As when working with words or chords (or both) each element or character must be able to stand on its own, be imbued with a purpose, be well-considered in terms of structure, and all those singular elements must then come together to form a cohesive whole, with a beginning, middle and end. Rhythm, mood, pacing, and environment are all carefully developed, edited, tweaked and revamped again and again until each element is perfectly placed, pitched and balanced for the intended audience.

“Wild Things” is a particularly good challenge because the book consists almost entirely of images – probably what it is best remembered for – but when you study the very few words in the story again and again, you realize that the tale of Max and The Wild Things is a brilliant psychological peek into a child’s mind and the way that children use their limitless imaginations to entertain themselves, and to process anger, sadness, loss and a host of other human emotions.

So — how to translate that into sound only, and do the book a modicum of justice?

First, I approached the book as if it were a storyboard – and “spotted” where I’d need or want audio, and of what type (music, sound effects, narration, e.g.). I recorded the narration first (my audio “A Roll”). The theme music idea (Thomas Newman’s wonderful “American Beauty” score) came from a friend of mine – and as soon as she suggested it I instantly “heard” in my head exactly how it could work. One particular cut gave the mischievous tone I wanted to set. Here’s a clip of the opening, with rain added as an environmental indicator:
Wild Things – EXERCISE – Clip 1.mp3

As the story progresses, the character of Max gets in hot water for making mischief, and is sent to bed without supper, where his imagination begins to run “wild”. Another section of Thomas Newman’s haunting score worked perfectly here for me as well and underscores (pardon the pun) how important music is in helping establish or change mood, environment and situation:
Wild Things – EXERCISE – Clip 2.mp3

Once Max has become “King of all wild things” – he gets bored and lonely, and wishes for more familiar surroundings:
Wild Things – EXERCISE – Clip 3.mp3

Finally, as Max sails back home, the closing music bookends the piece and re-establishes the listener where they began:
Wild Things – EXERCISE – Clip 4.mp3

The next time you rent a film, try just listening to all that goes on, without the aid of the picture – you’ll be amazed at how much the audio creates and moves the overall story – sometimes more than the pictures themselves.

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