Peircean semiotics applied to film sound design

A film typically undergoes three discrete phases of creation: the script stage, governed by the writer; the production stage, governed by the director; and the editing stage, governed by the editor. The script is the basic structure of the story on which every other creative decision is based and sets out the extent to which sound is part of the structure of the film. Sound practitioners are acutely aware of the importance of the first stage in determining the eventual implementation of the overall sound design (successful or otherwise) of the production. The shooting stage (production) has a profound impact on sound, not simply because of the sound that is recorded or how well it is recorded. The visual storytelling choices made at this stage of production also profoundly influence how sound will be utilised to match the pictures. The picture editing phase again influences sound in that it can open or close off areas for sound to help the story.

For each of the films, the Peircean concepts of the sign can be brought into the discussion concerning particular elements of specific sounds or sound choices or the overall aims of the soundtrack in order to better explain the rationale for the sound choices. The aim is that the application of Peircean semiotics shed light on the reasoning in the production/creation stage of the film, where the fundamental requirement is the creation of a meaningful soundtrack.[1]

Three productions will be examined:


The Road Not Taken (Fasolo 2011) is used as an example in which the Peircean model can be applied to the overall sound design of the film. Here the use of sound, used non-literally in the main, allows for the narrative to be created in many ways. By removing many of the literal and grammatical elements of the soundtrack, more focus is placed onto its non-literal elements, which allow other metaphorical links to be made between sound and the narrative.

Eleven Thirty (Ciallella 2012) shares some of the themes of The Road Not Taken but uses a markedly different approach. Here the Peircean model is applied to the practical aspects of the soundtrack to illustrate how the model can be used to illuminate various issues, such as dialogue intelligibility and the practice of sound editing. Eleven Thirty also illustrates how sound elements, once established, can subsequently be used as a sign later in the film.

Weewar (Stasiuk 2006) is a short drama used to illustrate a number of aspects of the Peircean model, highlighting a particular sound that is used iconically, indexically and symbolically at different points in the film. Weewar illustrates the importance of the concept of Peircean indexicality for sound where it is used to refer to a specific person, culture, or place and shows that there are times when ethical issues emerge in fiction films such as this, which is based on real events and which portrays a culture that has rarely been shown on film.

[1]  "Meaningful" is used in the broadest sense, as involving any meaning, whether it be the simplest element of the narrative, such as a knock at the door, or the entire musical score working as a whole to inform and guide the audience about the narrative, the characters, or the mood.