Most non artists think that a work of art begins with an imaginary grand design, which is then made real by using the techniques the artist has developed. That’s not the way it usually happens. It’s certainly not the way interesting art usually happens. In the beginning there is most often nothing, and nothing, and nothing for hours and days, and sometimes weeks and months. There are scores or hundreds of false starts. Then, when something does pop into the artist’s head it isn’t anything close to a grand design. It’s usually an inkling, a notion, a fleeting feeling. It’s an unintentional smear in one corner of the same canvas the painter has been fruitlessly fiddling with all along. But it suggests something. It’s a start, only an idea, a hunch, but nevertheless something concrete to work with.
People think that doing sound for animated films or for live action sequences that are mostly computer graphics must be especially challenging because it involves “inventing” a sonic world. Not really. For one thing it isn’t accurate to say we “invent” anything. We discover, and the distinction between inventing and discovering is very important. To “invent” or “create” implies something comes from nothing. In fact, what we do is to borrow or steal, and then when we’re lucky we find a way to use the stolen goods in a new combination, a new way. For example, there is no doubt that Picasso appropriated images in African art for some of his most famous paintings. (http://www.pablopicasso.org/africanperiod.jsp)
So, if “creating” is really about discovering something that is already there in a different or scattered form, then how best to do this discovering? You have to become a connoisseur of mistakes, accidents, and the unintentional. Very few people in human history have been so lucky and/or so brilliant that they actually invented anything. Even Einstein, coincidentally peaking about the same time as Picasso, borrowed from the work of many others as he developed his theories, but it was an “accidental” image of someone falling through air and not being able to feel his own weight that was probably the key to developing his theory of general relativity.
At the start of a project I learn as much as I can about what the director and writer have in mind in terms of the story, the characters, and places (they usually haven’t thought much at all about sound), and then I start randomly listening. I listen to sounds in the library and on the street, randomly. As I do it I’m not thinking “I need the sound of thunder,” I’m just skipping around from category to category listening to whatever pops up. Most of it won’t suggest any connection to the project I’m working on, but it usually only takes a few minutes of random listening until I stumble upon a sound that feels deeply connected to the project, and often it’s connected in a way I would never have anticipated if I had just started making a list of what kinds of sounds I thought the project needed. When I’m going about my daily life during the project I try to be open to the same kinds of obliquely but profoundly related sounds. Sometimes it isn’t the spectral content of the sound at all, but a certain rhythm or a certain loudness dynamic.
In “The Right Stuff,” when Yeager’s rocket accelerates, the high pitched sound is a piece of chalk squeaking on a slate board. I had gone to the old school to record doors, but happened to hear a brief chalk squeak across the hall, and it occurred to me that several of those cut together could express the scary intensity of that rocket, like it was on the edge of exploding, screaming through the air.
I try to train my ear to get better at these things, to begin with as few assumptions as possible, and to be open to the unanticipated sounds rolling past me that glue the story together better than any grand design I could have dreamed up.