Project Ico:
The Sound and the Fury

A long time ago, in a New York City far away, I was theatrical sound designer.

I was good at it, by all accounts. I studied how to do it at school, and I paid my requisite dues interning at a summer stock theatre festival where I learned things like: the best sound design is heard, not seen, so keep that cabling tidy and hide those speakers if you have the opportunity; running a sound board is like playing an instrument—designers write the scores their board operators perform night after night, taking cues from their conductor stage managers and the variable timings of both actor and audience; fade-ins are faster on the entrance and fade-outs are slower on the exit, and you gotta make that happen with the fader and your hands, which means you’ve got to feel it more than anything, especially if you’ve got to do a cross-fade (bringing something in while simultaneously taking something out); performing a cross-fade can define what kind of sound person a board op is. Well, performing a good one, anyway.

I did some sick cross-fades that summer.

When I started doing big-girl designs myself, I played with all the ways music and sound can affect mood. I discovered the most effective soundscapes were close to invisible—the audience shouldn’t be hyper aware sound cues are coming in and out, especially the ones adding to the emotional tone of a scene.

Then again, sometimes you’ve got to go with this for Milky White’s death in your quirky version of Into the Woods.

I learned that everyone from performer to spectator benefits from a good sound design, and even people who know nothing about how sound happens in a live space can tell when something’s off. They will also tell you when something’s off. They will tell you when something’s off eight shows a week, twice on weekends.

Sound is largely unconscious. We’re hearing things twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Clock alarms bleed into dreams, lover’s voices whispering our name morph and amplify in our sleep. If you put a heartbeat, or something resembling a heartbeat, in your design, you can make the audience’s hearts synch up. Then, vary the speed. Is this part of your story frightening? You can literally make your audience’s collective heart beat faster.

Don’t believe me? Watch Alien with your eyes closed and put your hand on your chest.

When I, as Ico, set off a bomb next to a broken bridge support, I reveled in the satisfying bang of the explosion and the subsequent rumble of the stone bridge rearranging into a ramp leading from one tower level to a lower one. As I grabbed Yorda’s hand and ran down that ramp towards a magical door only she could open, I was only subliminally aware of the music heralding the arrival of the enemy shadow creatures. This time I chose to run straight for the door, not stopping to fight a single one. It was harrowing. Would I make it? Couldn’t Yorda run any faster? Couldn’t I? But make it we did, and when Yorda stepped forward to activate the door, the shadows were blasted away from us with a scintillating crackle of electricity that also abolished their nerve-wracking music.

I didn’t notice its entrance, but I did notice its absence. I caught my breath at last. It was a brilliant moment of sound design from Team ICO.

So when I later fought the shadows in the graveyard (there was no way to run past these), and I died and fought again and died and fought again, and finally, finally, finally emerged from the battle victorious, I WAS PRETTY DISCOMBOBULATED WHEN THE SCARY MUSIC DIDN’T STOP, TEAM ICO.

Are you trying to make my heart give out from anxiety? I don’t think this is what Gavin meant when he said Ico is broken to work.

Sound bugs. Not cool, y’all.

Still, l’ll allow it. For the moment at the magical door. For the possibility there will be other moments that take my breath away, or allow me to breathe again. I’ll see you next week.

(But seriously, not cool.)

Project Ico Posts

Week 2:

Read Daniel J. Hogan’s Take My Hand, Leave the Camera at Clattertron
Read Gavin Craig’s Broken to work at GavinCraig.net

Week 1:

Read Daniel J. Hogan’s First Thoughts at Clattertron
Read Gavin Craig’s Fear and trembling at GavinCraig.net

Read Videodame’s previous Project Ico posts.

[art credit]