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Das Auge hört mit
Sound Design in Animation

Text: Thomas Görne

Translation: Emily J. McGuffin

Films need sound. Silent movies were accompanied by live music, at first to entertain the audience and later to accentuate the emotionality of the stories on the screen.

When talkies where introduced in the late 1920s, it became possible to hear the actors’ voices and the locations and objects in the film: for the first time, it was possible to reproduce the diegetic [1: “Diegesis” is a term from classical narrative theory, introduced to cinematic theory circa 1950 by philosophy student Anne Souriau and her father Étienne Souriau, which denotes cinematic reality. Diegetic or intradiegetic elements are “real” things within the cinematic reality which the protagonists of the film can see and hear. All other elements are non-diegetic and can be subdivided, if necessary, into extradiegetic objects (objects that do not exist in the cinematic world) and metadiegetic objects (which exist only in the perception of a character in the film and are thus “subjective”).sounds of the cinematic world in synchronicity with the picture and, like music, they became an integral part of film production. This tradition explains the conservative distribution of film sound roles into diegetic soundscapes and non-diegetic (extradiegetic) music which prevailed until the 1970s and even today is implemented in many films with strictly workmanlike and, regrettably, frequently banal sound design: “see a dog, hear a dog,” and – just as in silent movies – the emotion and depth are provided by the music.




Soviet directors and cinema theorists Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin called for creative film sound design, artistically autonomous sound design that was “contrapuntal” to the visuals, already in 1928 – simultaneously with the introduction of the sound film – in their “Manifest of Sound”; in it, Eisenstein and Pudovkin deplore the “naive use” of sound. However, except for isolated, outstanding early examples of creative sound design such as Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (1963), cinematic sound remained naive for a very long time. It was not until the 1970s, under the auspices of the New Hollywood movement and the influence of new technical capabilities, that the self-conception of cinematic audio production was transformed from craft to art by films that blazed new trails in sound design, such as the first film in the Star Wars franchise, “A New Hope” (1977), and especially “Apocalypse Now” (1979), as well as by seminal sound designers like Ben Burtt and Walter Murch.



Now sound design for animated films is a special challenge: the typical visual reduction and abstraction demand adequate sound design. Moreover, in narrative live-action movies, the “real” sound of the cinematic diegesis – assembled, for example, from the sounds on set – is usually a secure foundation for sound design. With animated films, however, the sound design frequently begins fundamentally with the question of the diegetic sound of the cinematic world. It is only in exceptional cases such as “Waltz with Bashir” (Ari Folman, 2008, sound design: Noemi Hampel) that the diegesis is clear and unequivocal. Here, the sound designer and graduate of the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf believably communicates the drawn worlds as documentary material. While the animation takes the audience through artistically abstracted, partly realistic, partly surreal hallucinatory visual sequences of the 1982 Lebanon War, the relentless and detailed realism or documentary nature of the sound design (even the sounds of the various types of weapons shown in the film are authentic) are the adequate means for lending veracity to the autobiographical story.


In other animated films, the key task of sound design is to bring abstract images to life and to find convincing soundscapes for the frequently fantastic worlds, even and especially if they have no connection to everyday reality. David Kamp manages this in an impressive manner. The graduate of the Institute for Computer Music and Electronic Media at the Folkwang University of the Arts has a clear style as a sound designer. His soundscapes are strictly diegetic; he fills the diminished and often starkly abstracted pictures with clear, precisely placed audio objects in equally reductionary aural scenes – conceptually, this can be understood as quasi-realism or hyperrealism. Comparable approaches are found in mainstream cinema, among other things in the sound design work of Ben Burtt (for example, “Wall-E”, 2008). Kamp rejects impressive sound effects and consistently avoids all clichés.


One key to emotionally effective sound design is the downright magnetic attraction between video track and soundtrack. If a visual stimulus is accompanied by an auditory stimulus, then our minds inevitably connect the two to form an audiovisual object, provided that their spatial positions are at least roughly congruent and the sound and the visual event are synchronous (“spatio-temporal congruency” – Michel Chion refers to this as the “synchresis” of picture and sound, synthesis through synchrony). The magnetism between picture and sound makes it possible to deal quite freely with the sound of the cinematic world. Sound design can make an audiovisual object seem mundane, meaningful, disconcerting, eerie, scary, nauseating, cute or funny by means of cross-modal audio imagery, decontextualisation, diegetic transformation and diegetic ambivalence, alienation, and semantic overload: just consider the castanets-accentuated eyelid batting of the title figure in the German TV children series Die Sendung mit der Maus (or Mouse TV, as the English version is called). David Kamp uses these stylistic devices very cautiously, but deliberately: his sounds explain the objects of the cinematic world and – in the manner of classic sound design – make the materiality of the objects perceptible, but also subject them to evaluation. In Robert Löbel’s “Wind” (2013), for example, the objects of the cinematic world have a metaphoric ease that is transferred to the atmosphere. David Kamp’s soundscapes open up the cinematic space beyond the framework of the screen, entirely in the spirit of Béla Balázs, who noted: “The possibility afforded by sound films to hear the space without having to see it, the ability to regard the most intimate close-up and simultaneously hear the entire breadth of the huge space, offers contrapuntal potential which has seldom been exploited in cinema and hardly ever to full effect.” [2: Bela Balázs, Der Film. Werden und Wesen einer neuen Kunst, Vienna: Globus-Verlag, 1949, p. 53.]

Further Reading:


– Thomas Görne, Sounddesign. Klang Wahrnehmung Emotion, Munich: Hanser, 2017.

– Michel Chion, Audio-Vision. Sound on Screen, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

– Jay Beck, Designing Sound. Audiovisual Aesthetics in 1970s American Cinema, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2016.

– William Whittington, Sound Design and Science Fiction, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.

– Kathrin Fahlenbrach, Audiovisuelle Metaphern. Zur Körper- und Affektästhetik in Film und Fernsehen, Marburg: Schüren, 2010.

– Barbara Flückiger, Sound Design. Die virtuelle Klangwelt des Films, Marburg: Schüren, 2001.



Thomas Görne was employed as a film sound engineer after his study of electrical engineering and acoustics in Berlin and Potsdam. From 2004 to 2008, he was a professor at the Hochschule für Musik Detmold. Since 2008, he has been a professor at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences and director of the university’s sound lab. His book publications include “Mikrofone in Theorie und Praxis” [Microphones in Theory and Practice] (1994), “Tontechnik” [Audio Engineering] (2006), and “Sounddesign” (2017).


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