" class="video-button fancybox-article-video">Play video " class="fancybox-article-video"> Using sound to tell stories in art, design and media

Stories are amazing. Adding sound to creative work is easy and adds and exciting aspect to work.

Being engaged with narrative is amazing. That’s why we go to the cinema, to be engrossed so much that we even forget what time it is. Art, design and media students love making movies for that very reason, because they can connect easily to our emotions through audio, visuals and time based media. However, telling a story is actually really difficult. This article looks at a simple project that both makes it easy for students to generate a narrative, while also helping them develop an awareness of audio production.

A project for developing narrative

This exercise came about because of a terrible experience I had teaching Level 3 Art students a narrative image project. To me it seemed simple, take a few images, add some words or something that would connect them, and it would become a narrative. What I found was that students got totally stuck. At first I couldn’t work out the issue, I spoke to them about all sorts of movies and suggested that they looked at graphic novels, but it just didn’t work at all.

So I spoke to media lecturers and found that the reason the students weren’t easily able to generate a narrative was because they didn’t know about the codes and conventions of narrative. It was really interesting to discover about narrative theory, but I didn’t have time to teach students how to draw, paint, make movies and learn about narrative theory. I wondered if there was a way that the students could produce a media product, but learn in experimental and familiar artistic ways.  What I found was they only needed to realise that images can be connected in simple ways, that almost any image can become part of a story through a little imagination. The trick was to force them to connect the gaps in images through words.

The exercise

When I worked with students I already knew that I wanted them to make a narrative about Homelessness for a local charity. But, you could use any theme you like. I started by gaving them images to work with that I thought would work well with the topic. You should consider the topic you would like to work with and find about 10 images that you can give to the students for them to use. The students will need access to an audio recorder (mic) and video editing software that will allow for multiple channels of audio. The following is a worksheet that can be used with the students covering all of the aims and objectives to help generate a meaningful movie.

Narrative audio lesson

Aims: To create a narrative using audio


  • Outline the difference between diagetic and non-diagetic sound
  • Operate audio recording equipment for voice over and wild sounds
  • Generate a narrative to link disjointed images using audio
  • Evaluate capture and manipulation of audio


1. Watch the film La Jetée. Discuss interesting aspects, specifically focusing on how audio drives the Narrative. Also look at how feelings and abstract situations (time travel) are presented. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bq-OEZmBCQM

2. Undertake the image and subtitle exercise (please see over).

3. Research and answer what the following points mean in relation to Audio recording:

• Monitoring of dB levels

• Ideal dB levels

• Overmodulation risk

• Signal to noise ratio

• Presence

• Clean sound

• Impedance

• Gain

• Limiter

• Low Cut

• Directional – Cardioid / Hyper-cardioid


4. What kind of microphone would be best for recording voice-over and why? Be specific and use technical explanations and references where possible.

5. Discuss what technical and hardware considerations would have to be made?

6. Consider the images you have been given by your lecturer. Now try to think of a story to go with them. The narrative could cover a long period of time or just a few moments. It could be a general view of something or just a very short experience. It could be about feelings or it could cover an actual event. It could be about memories or worries about the future.

7. Arrange the images in an order that might create a story.

8. Write a word, series of words or sentences for each of the images. The sentences should help the viewer understand how the image has changed from one to the next. Remember that the images don’t have to tell a clear story on their own, but the text can make it clear what is going on. The text can make it very clear or just be suggestive of a feeling. Consider changing from just single words to full sentences instead of always using the same process.

9. Record the text in separate takes (one for each sentence or single-word caption) or as a long single take. You can use your own voice or someone else’s. Use appropriate equipment and recording levels in order to capture the sound.

10. Try to avoid other noises in the environment such as other people. Notice how hard it is to find a quiet space. Set the record levels manually for efficient level recording, this will avoid the microphone trying to pick up sound and increasing the levels when you stop speaking and during silent gaps (this will give a hiss between sentences).

11. Put the images into an editing programme in the correct order. Put the audio on top. You can include basic editing effects at this stage such as fade to black, dissolve, zoom, etc.

12. Now record pieces of audio to match some of the images. This will enable you to create a soundscape that helps the images feel real. Input these into the video editing program and balance the audio levels with the voice-over.

13. Output and present to the class. Make notes on what others have achieved and the feedback that you get. Consider the similarities and differences and notice the wide range of narratives that come out of similar images.

14. Evaluate the quality level of audio that you were able to achieve while capturing in production and how the quality was managed in post-production. Note what you could have done differently and if there was any way of improving the quality levels. Consider what you might have done differently in a creative sense too, i.e. would it have been better with a different voice or with more levels of sound?


La Jetée – Chris Marker (1962) France, 27mins

A Photo-roman or Photo Novel made with stills and then transferred to film for cinema release. We can learn a lot from some of the simple techniques used on a very modest budget in order to create stories.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bq-OEZmBCQM – for full movie

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056119/ – for full technical details

La Jetee Poster

Daniel Freaker Daniel Freaker Educational Consultant, Painter, Writer, Designer danfreaker@processfreaks.com