I’m a true believer in the idea that sound design alone can turn a good movie into a spectacular one. Although it’s not always easy to single out, specific techniques in sound design bring nuance and atmosphere to a film and are absolutely crucial for tone management. In Nerdwriter’s video essay “Harry Potter: What Magic Sounds Like,” the YouTuber breaks down sound design techniques and the evolution of spellcasting sounds over the eight Harry Potter movies.
Nerdwriter claims that “people understand what they see, but they feel what they hear,” which is probably the most succinct explanation of why sound design is so damn important. One degree of sound design that he addresses is timbre, which is the textural quality of the sound. Is it grating or smooth? Does it pack a punch, or is it more of a wisp? Nerdwriter analyzes some of these textural elements when he covers what I’ll call “elemental spells,” which have to do with fire, water, ice, etc. The audience can see fire spurting from a wand, but they cannot feel its heat. Because of this, sound design is the filmmaker’s only chance to evoke a physiological reaction from viewers in that moment.
This gets at the greatest challenge of sound design, especially when it comes to something like Harry Potter. Sound technicians have to create sounds that don’t exist anywhere in the real world when characters cast any number of beautiful or terrifying spells. Therefore, the impact that sound design has on worldbuilding is seismic. If the sound doesn’t integrate with the reality that the visuals construct, the audience can become alienated from the story. Certain techniques, such as sound overlap can help ground the audiences’ experiences in a narrative.
A sound mix has three main components: dialogue, music, and effects (digital and Foley). Overlap occurs when two of these components occur at some point simultaneously (typically dialogue and effects). So when the voice speaking the spell and the sound effect combine, that’s overlap. Overlap is typically used in a way that suggests the characters can hear the overlapping elements within the story world, so score or music under dialogue — often only heard by the audience — isn’t necessarily considered an overlap. Nerdwriter explains this technique very well, citing a moment from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Harry casts a Patronus charm to save himself and his cousin Dudley.
This moment is particularly impactful because of the thematic implications alluded to during the scene. Earlier in the video, Nerdwriter speaks at length about the Patronus charm, and how characters casting this spell must project a particularly happy memory. This is reflected in the sound design of the charm itself. The sound of the Patronus is heavenly, lending a peaceful tone to what is a moment of extreme stress in the film — when they’re being attacked by dementors. Harry’s Patronus charm is a stag, a representation of his father, so the visual of the stag, combined with the evocative sound design, lends a lot to the film’s thematic goals. When Harry’s voice overlaps with the incantation, it’s almost as if his father’s spirit is leaping into action to protect his son.
There haven’t been a lot of films revolving around magic spells outside of the Harry Potter series (and its offshoot series in the Wizarding World franchise, Fantastic Beasts), but Nerdwriter’s video got me thinking about another modern representation of cinematic magic: Scarlet Witch — also known as Wanda Maximoff — in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though her powers are technically the result of scientific experimentation with an Infinity Stone, I’m comfortable calling it magic. Especially seeing the way her powers function in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
What’s stunning about the sound design in this film is that they craft distinct sound cues depending on whether she’s using her telekinesis or her psychic powers (the latter of which the series regrettably abandons after this film). The telekinetic moments — these include when she’s pushing Captain America down a flight of stairs or decimating a bunch of robots — have a real punch to them, with a distinct, lightsaber undertone. Her psychic powers, however, have an operatic echoing effect, and logically just sound more magical. This is noticeable in a wonderful moment of sound design when she hypnotizes Tony and the film uncharacteristically features little score. Watch below.
Director Joss Whedon and his sound designers also use the overlap technique in Age of Ultron, often during fighting moments. This gives viewers the sense Wanda is really exerting herself, which provides valuable grounding for her character. You buy the impact of her powers because you can hear how much effort it takes for her to produce them. Like in the Harry Potter movies, the sound design thus lends these moments urgency and tangibility.
The tactile sound of Wanda’s telekinetic powers overlapping with her cries of effort contributes to her character arc as well. Over the film, the sound technicians opt for less and less overlap, as the character grows into her powers and begins to believe in herself. Once her world-ending strength has been established, and her character arc reflects that strength, the pure sound of her magic is more than enough.
In terms of worldbuilding and mood-setting, sound design is undefeated as the most invisible yet important part of filmmaking. Techniques like overlap create verity and immediacy to the most fantastic ideas human beings come up with, like witches and wizards and superheroes.