• Victoria Altern

Sound is more important than picture in Documentary

"...Rick Altman has described the conventions of sound in classical Hollywood cinema as an interplay between intelligibility and fidelity, a system in which fidelity is sacrificed in favor of the more narratively central dimension of intelligibility." (Ruoff, 1993) In other words, narrative films are meant to be easily understood, even if that means compromising on the authenticity. Most often it is not the realness of Hollywood film that attracts the viewer but rather the heightened comprehensibility. "If audiences were truly interested in greater fidelity to the real world, then presumably documentary film would form a larger part of the corpus that has made motion pictures a very popular art form in the 20th century." (Ruoff, 1993)

We can then say, in terms of sound, that this means we need to pay close to attention the fidelity of the story. Dialogue, which although the centre-piece of both narrative and documentary, especially needs to be treated carefully as to really bring out the emotion. In narrative films, dialogue is scripted an rehearsed and even though great actors know how to really draw the emotion out regardless, it's not the same as a real life moment. It's important that the dialogue stands out against the rest of the film and that it is introduced by score. This simply means that we need to dip the score/sfx out about 1.5 seconds before the dialogue comes in to let the listener know it's time to pay attention.

It's easy to think that documentary doesn't leave much room for creativity when it comes to sound. However, there are unique challenges in sound mixing for documentary. In a lot of cases, it's that creating something simple can actually be more difficult than being able to hide behind chaos. Knowing where to leave space is probably one of the more challenging but also more rewarding forms of sound design in documentary. There are also things like dealing with a complicated frequency spectrum of the natural world. In Unstoppable , a documentary about Bethany Hamilton's incredible story as a surfer, sound mixer Jurgen Scharpf expresses the difficulty of trying to tame water in the mix. The team also talks about having to include emotional resonance, which is more of a narrative sound technique but will have the same effect. This is when we inject the scene with certain sounds to evoke certain emotions within the viewer, such as in horror films including wolves howling or owls hooting to set a creepier tone. They also used Foley techniques that would probably be more familiar with narrative sound mixing, such as using the steam from a clothing iron to better capture the 'hiss' of waves in Unstoppable.

In documentary, sound is more important than pictures. This is because the sound is able to envoke more emotion than if it were just the picture - even if it was just picture and dialogue, a lack of thought-out sound design would mean a far less impactful documentary. The sound design really drives the story forward. Having emotional cues where necessary to subconsciously tell the viewer when to feel, essentially, as well as having the right music that not only creates a beautiful sonic landscape for the picture to sit in but reaches into people's hearts.


Meyer, R. (2020). Evoking emotion in pure sound design. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Mar. 2020].

Morrow, J. (2018). Why Sound Design is Just as Important for Documentaries—and Two Ways to Approach It. [online] No Film School. Available at: [Accessed 1 Mar. 2020].

Ruoff, J. (1993). Conventions of Sound in Documentary. Cinema Journal, [online] 32(3), p.24. Available at: [Accessed 1 Mar. 2020].

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