August, 2008

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Considering Sound
by Steve Moore

Butch Hartman, Dave Stone, Darrell Van Citters,
George Griffin, Signe Baumane, Tony Stacchi,
Mark Mangini, Tom Sito, Bob Seeley,
BennieWallace,  KevinWollenweber

" does go with animation like peanut butter and jelly." -Nancy Beiman

I was working in the den while my kids were watching tv - specifically, cartoons.   Specifically, The Fairly OddParents.   I wasn't watching, but could hear it quite well - a non-stop cacophony of shrill noise.   My kids loved it.  

Next up: a half hour of old MGM Tom & Jerry cartoons.   My kids also loved it, and so did I.    The sound was fantastic.   These shorts were entertaining WITHOUT THE PICTURE.   Dialog, sound effects, and musical score worked together to create a tapestry of sound; as elements of a singular creative thought, as opposed to disparate elements which fight it out in the sound mix.

I contacted Butch Hartman, creator of The Fairly OddParents (and my old Cal Arts roommate) to get his take on sound.

Butch Hartman: "Sound MUST be funny. From the tiniest sound effect, to the loudest character, every sound - if you're going for comedy - must, in some way, contribute to the funny. Even if you use a straight-talking, normal-sounding character, they must have a voice that somehow accentuates the characters with the funny voices."

While Butch's show is wildly successful and Butch himself is the coolest guy in the animation business, I disagree with his theory.   By requiring all elements of sound to be funny, you lose harmony between the elements.    Imagine an orchestra where every musician played as hard as they could. The end result is a sound collision.  

Dave Stone is a thirty year veteran of sound editing and design. He won an Oscar for sound editing (Coppola's Dracula), but started out editing for Hanna-Barbera.

Dave Stone:   "Saturday morning cartoons, where I learned my editing chops in the early '70's, always had such collisions; which I blame on the practice of   tracking music cues composed generically, or for an earlier episode of the series. The FX editors would not hear the cut music until the mix, and you had the horrible clash of FX and MX (music).

FX editors in TV animation were responsible for covering action that had traditionally been covered by composed music. A good example would be a character in a sneaking sort of walk. In a theatrical sort, that's some pizzicato version of whatever melody was happening. My brother (composer Rich Stone)   tried to work this way for the "Animaniacs" in the '90's, but for most of TV animation, this would have been covered by an FX editor pulling out some xylo hits, or other percussion cartoon cliche, and it would create dissonances, especially if there were already a music cue in place."  

Darrell Van Citters began his career at Disney before co-founding of Renegade Animation in 1992.

Darrell Van Citters: When it comes to the use of sound, I try to keep it in mind even in the animatic stage by leaving room for it in the picture.   Sound can add immensely to a gag and can even be the gag itself.   FX can add weight to a gag or even to bad animation.   Don't believe me?   Check out the last feature incarnation of Godzilla and turn off the sound.   How heavy is that guy with no sound?

NewYork based animator George Griffin has been creating independent films since the 1960's.

George Griffin: "Animation has been so well-suited to technically perfect synchronization ("mickey-mousing") that it has rarely developed any modern, dissonant, contradictory relationships.   Overhearing kids listening to cartoons on TV describes a process I used for a film called Flying Fur.   It describes a methodology that I haven't actually used before or since, based on aspects of chance and appropriation."


"Which comes first: the picture or the sound? There is a rich history of animated synchronization including "Mickey Mouse" as a verb, Fischinger and McLaren, and the codified phases of character mouth actions. But there has also been a deep antagonism toward sound from some formal experimenters like Breer and Engel who are more concerned with creating purely visual rhythms. I didn't want merely to use a piece of prerecorded sound; I wanted to seize it, "appropriate" it, and use it to play with cartoon conventions and stereotypes.

I spent an afternoon aimlessly (and blindly) gathering cartoon sounds from one of the TV channels in NYC which played old cartoons. I turned on my reel-to-reel deck and recorded the audio for a 4-hour period without watching the show. When I played back the tape, one soundtrack jumped out of the batch and stole my heart. It was a melange of typical cartoon effects (boings, whistles, squealing tires), stitched seamlessly together with orchestrated music that swooped from jazzy routines to dissonance: Basie meets Bartok, with a bit of Varèse on the side; no language, aside from doggie woofs."

With no knowledge of the visuals or the soundtrack's source, George improvised his own visuals in a straight ahead, stream of conscious approach.   In effect, he turned the process on its head.  

Indie animator Signe Baumane takes a more literal approach.  

Signe Baumane: "My sound effects preferences are different from classic cartoons - I like real sounds.   I love doing follies. I love when a character that is a drawing does something and the action is accented by sound effects from real life.   It grounds the character and the film. "Five Fucking Fables" (sound designed by Josh Heineman) is a good example what I like in sound. It actually doesnt have ANY music, only sound effects, so there is no way to hide behind anything, sound is right there. Sound effects become the rhythm, the music of the film."

Tony Stacchi is a 25 year veteran of animation, and co-director of Sony's Open Season.

Tony Stacchi: I've never known any animators who actually used a metronome.   Bud Lucky could and did - for Sesame Street and other things. I worked with him at Collosal in San Fransicso.   He was fun to watch and it was great to see his rough animation and soundtrack come together."

Tony brings up a good point - in my first animation class at Cal Arts, Jack Hannah brought in two pieces of equipment - a metronome and a stopwatch. He demonstrated how first to time your scene on a stopwatch, then find its rhythm on the metronome.   Getting the rhythm working in contiguous scenes helped the overall pacing and cutting.   Did any of us listen to this?   NOOOOOO!   We were, and still are, just too undisciplined.   Let the music composer figure it out!  

Tony Stacchi: Jules Engel and his Film Graphics department at Cal Arts thought about sound much more. Its funny that in an experimental department, one of the oldest and most striking elements of commercial animation - syncopation (I think what you mean by "mickey-mousing") - would be such a big concern. They were very interested in abstract films that generated their imagery from musical cues. Freshman year, I thought this was amazing and new. It took a while for me to find the old Disney, Fleischer, etc shorts that had made it an art form.

I also remember reading, in Eisenstein's Film Form and Film Sense. his admiration for the syncopation in Disney films like Steam Boat Willie. In my jaded, wanna-be intellectual youth, I found it very gratifying to see the great Commie theoretician was impressed with animation - got me some critical theory cred... I thought.

Those earlier films have a fantastic quality of anarchy - when animation WAS a genre - a place where within the frame anything could happen - a character could have an idea and an exclamation point would appear above his head, then he could grab the exclamation point, bend it into a hook and climb miniature skyscrapers with it - all to   rhythmic, bouncy steps and perfectly synced beats of movement, really is magical. Most contemporary animation people revere Snow White as the beginning of "mature" animation. I think its was Snow White and Fantasia that disillusioned Eisenstein and gave animation more traditional soundtracks."

Sound designer Mark Mangini's work spans forty years. The three-time Oscar nominee (Star Trek IV, Aladdin, The Fifth Element), is giving a lecture on sound in animation at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood on August 8th. If you're in the Los Angeles area GO SEE THIS!  

Mark Mangini: I had an eye opening experience where I had taken my son to see WALL-E. As would be expected, the film was preceded by an onslaught of trailers (five) for every (major) upcoming animated film. It was a star-studded, hyperbole soaked, neural attack that refused to allow anything resembling a pause for the senses. Animation trailers makers, like their theatrical release brethren, seem compelled to fill up every nook and cranny of sonic space with a tirade of dialog uttered breathlessly and only marginally competently by their over paid charges. And I am sure that the movies they represent are equally as unrelenting.

This was in stark contrast to the opening of Wall-E that featured not one English utterance for close to 20 minutes and it was pure joy from there on out as the audience was left to figure out for itself, through clever storytelling, what this movie was about. How is it that the animated film has devolved to the sad state where we are force-fed inane dialog lest we be confused for a nanosecond? "

c.2008 Moore Studios, Inc

Darrell Van Citters: "When it comes to vocals, I prefer to have all the parties read together. In the early stages of a production, vocal similarities or incongruities between characters show up immediately.   I also think the performances are better when characters play off one another and that many serendipitous inflections or ad libs come from that interplay."

When it comes to casting, I not only consider the personalities of the characters, but also how the sound of one actor's voice would play against another's.   On my short Redux Riding Hood, I cast Michael Richards   as the Wolf.   The voice for his long suffering wife would have to play gently against his gruff manner.   And while executives were pushing for Rosey Perez, a Michael Richards / Rosey Perez combination would have sounded like a blender full of rocks.    I went with Mia Farrow.   Her flat, plaintive voice was a perfect counterpoint to Richards.   They not only play well together as characters, they sound good together.

Tom Sito's animation career goes back to Windsor McCay (I think). He directed the animation for Warner Bros' Osmosis Jones.

Tom Sito: " You definitely want to cast with the musical quality of the voice in mind. You want to find a chemistry. Matching gregarious with sullen, brutish with refined, etc. I find many times the best actors for animation are people with some experience in radio. Radio disciplines a performer to rely upon their voice alone to create character. When I ask a radio artist to give me a line three different ways, they vary tempo, timing and emphasis, yet still maintain the character."

In recording actors, I let the actors read their lines THEIR way. Even if it seems like a weird read, I let it go, let it become that character's own way of speaking.   As long as it works with the character and the moment, I let the actors do their jobs. I also like using accidents - they're real moments.   A slurred line, a remark made after the take, a cough, a sneeze - anything to add a feeling of spontaneity to a filmmaking process that is painfully picked over frame-by-frame is welcome.

Tom Sito: " It's much tougher to rewrite and ADR a line of dialogue to fit into an animated characters mouth than a live actor. Our sync is so tight, it becomes obvious when you try to change the emphasis. This is a hard concept to explain to live action writers and producers working in our medium. They are used to constantly rewriting and dropping in lines on live action films all during production."

The actors' performance does not end with their recording. The dialog editor will often cut the best parts of several takes together to create an uber-take (a term I just made up). Sometimes there are cuts within a single sentence.   Precision is of the essence in finding the right spot to cut so that the final line sounds natural, not Frankenstein-ed together.   A good editor will pick up on the actor's breathing rhythm as they speak, and edit to that rhythm.  

The pace of an actor's performance can also be manipulated through compression. About 70% of the dialog in Rover Dangerfield were Rodney's lines.   During the storyboard stage, directing animator Matt O'Callaghan played a tape of one of Rodney's live shows for our amusement.   We were struck by how much faster and funnier his delivery was compared to his lines in Rover.   His manic energy was a big part of what made him funny.   Directors Bob Seeley and Jim George experimented with compression, and it worked.   He sounded younger and sharper with just a 4% increase in playback speed.

Bob Seeley: "We were trying to shave a few years off of his actual age (69) and regain some of his luster. After all, he was the leading "man" and (his love interest) Daisy, voiced by Susan Boyd, was quite a bit younger than him. We all wanted a believable relationship between the two of them, and were afraid of it playing like a daddy/daughter kind of thing."

Rodney had so much dialog, that speeding up his lines shaved ten minutes off the film's running time. Editors still worked with magnetic tape in those days, and it was Tony Mizgalski's job to physically recut Rodney's dialog for the entire film - a painstaking process, but it ultimately improved the film and saved the production hundreds of thousands of dollars.    Rodney never knew.  

What do you do if your vocal star cannot keep time to music? On Rover Dangerfield, composer David Newman and a 100-piece orchestra musically chased Rodney through his songs in a Warner Bros sound stage.   David tried very diplomatically to coach Rodney to listen to the click track in his headphones, but Rodney found it distracting and insisted he didn't need it.    

Bob Seeley: "In addition to the dialogue editing there was the surgical precision of the music editing that was done to sync Rodney's singing to the full orchestra who was chasing his LIVE performance. David Newman, the composer, and his music editors, earned all of our respect on those seemingly endless days of song recording and editing."

While final music is mostly a post-production process, the role of music comes into play at the earliest stages of pre-production.  

Tony Stacchi: "I always start out with a song, or a type of music. If I can't, then there's a tone problem with the idea. The band or type of music usually gets lost along the way, but really helps in the beginning.

I have tried to have a composer at the beginning of the story process, coming up with character specific music - themes and movements that really help to discover how a character "moves" and what his "presence" should be.

At the beginning, a lot of characters are archetypes. It's great find a musical theme that adds a new element - a tragic quality to a villain, a lighter presence to a big, intimidating, but essentially gentle character. I've always loved a soundtrack that adds a new level - like the loved or loathed theme to The Third Man - it feels like the famous Third Man theme is actually another character who is watching the action and laughing."    

I find prescore to be extremely valuable if you can swing it.   It goes a long way in giving the film its own identity in the reel stage.   Using scratch music from other film scores can be dangerous.   If you edit too closely to it, if the scratch shapes the film too much, the final score ends up as something derivative, and generally not as strong as the scratch.

Within the first month of pre-production Redux Riding Hood, I was talking music with the score composer Bennie Wallace.    Still in a very nebulous stage -there'd been no casting, and little artwork created -   we talked first about the characters, and then about music. From those discussions Bennie sent Charles Mingus tapes to listen to, which floored me.   The music of Charles Mingus, though not used in the film, influenced its visual style as well as the musical style. Creating those chicken-or-the-egg layers in the filmmaking makes the film become alive to me - like a Sea Monkey.   It becomes a strange living thing that lives independently of me.

Part of what I love in directing is the element of improvisation.   This tends to freak out producers, but I love it.   When Bennie Wallace recorded his score for Redux, he used bar sheets only insofar as to know what visual cues he needed to hit. But the specific notes   - not there.

Bennie Wallace: "There are really two elements in the score.  One is the improvisation, pretty much as you described it, although there were always written guideposts.  They were just notated in the language of jazz rather than that of the orchestra.  The other is the written part which is more like traditional scoring, thematic continuity and actual written parts.  Both are subject to the same precise timing as traditional cues in order to "play the scene'.  A clear example of the second type in "Redux" is the bass clarinet cue.  That is played exactly as written, although Gary Foster brought his distinctive sound, and sense of time, to the part, giving it that element that can only come from an authentic jazz musician.  Throughout, there's actually a lot more control involved than the music supervisor perceived."     

When, at the recording session,   the music supervisor discovered there was no specific written score, she turned into the Tazmanian She-Devil.   When she was done gnawing holes through the studio walls,   Bennie explained, "Jazz is spontaneous. These are real jazz musicians. You don't write it down for them. "    (You would think a music supervisor would know that.)   The end result was a live musical moment that could never have been created written down note for note.

Bennie Wallace: "Perhaps we should have put up large pages of manuscript paper in front of each musician and charged Disney a hefty music preparation fee to pacify the Tasmanian She-Devil.  Something to think about next time." (The Tasmanian She-Devil is no longer at Disney.   At least not THAT one.)

Darrell Van Citters: " I would much rather start a picture to music than to have it post-scored.   By doing so, you can add all sorts of little animation touches and hit beats that would be missed if the music were added later.   Everyone knows that music can have a major impact on the emotion of a scene. but sometimes the absence of sound can strengthen a piece -occasionally its better for the scene to play without cueing the audience on the emotional content or on what's about to happen."

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