Quick! Think about what a handgun sounds like. Do you have it? Chances are that even if you’ve shot a real handgun before, you sort of think it sounds like this… When they really sound closer to this.
The two sounds share a similar “idea;” they’re both loud and explosive sounds, but when John McClain fires his sidearm it sounds like a cannon while the real thing is closer to a ‘pop’. It almost sounds like cap gun! In fact, every time I see actual news footage of a firefight, I think, “is that actual gunfire?”
There’s an odd loop happening here. Movies take the real world and enhance it, including actual sounds. Many times they’re sounds we don’t usually hear in our daily lives, but these theatrical sounds create an expectation for us as media consumer: we expect the next movie we watch to sound like the previous movie we watched.
Everything in the real world makes noise. Even soundproofing can’t eliminate every noise. Because of that, our hearing and our vision are linked so closely that whenever we see anything, we expect a sound to match the visual. To make it more complicated, we anticipate and imagine the sound we expect in our head before it happens. I’ve had real life experiences when something makes a noise I wasn’t expecting. The spring door stopper comes to mind.
That odd loop I discussed earlier goes even deeper than accurate gun noises. Ambient sounds like rooms, cars, the ocean, wind, plastic bags, are all things we expect to have clear and enhanced sound effects matched to them. The perfect proof to this odd audio loop is that we generally expect music to underscore our movies when we don’t have any actual real life equivalent of a soundtrack, even if we’re constantly listening to Spotify.
You can prove how effective the expected noises are when watching unedited deleted scenes and making of features. Check out this truly amazing behind the scenes clip from Mad Max: Fury Road: what we see is 18 minutes of footage, unedited except to cut between clips. While seeing the real life stunts is incredible, almost none of the sounds match your expectation as a viewer. I’m not sure if anyone would pay to see this version of the movie.
This phenomenon is likely why older movies are often so jarring to younger viewers; the sound effects and soundtrack we expect is so specific our own culture. Part of what makes the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre so terrifying is it’s eerily sparse soundscape, and even though it is designed to be horrifying, a lot of movies from that time period are also oddly sparse, even in comedies and dramas.
A professional sound designer who is aware of the trends and expectations of the time is indispensable when making a movie, television, video game, or even podcast. What makes a good sounding film is less about how accurate the sound is, and more about what the audience thinks is accurate based on repetitive exposure. Nothing takes our perception out of a scene quite like seeing an image matched with a noise it didn’t expect! Next time you watch your favorite movie, take note of this often under appreciated, yet incredibly important and very detailed job.