August 2008

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Considering Sound      continued....

Besides how sound is used with picture is the consideration of the character of the sound itself.   Once was, each studio had its own, easily identifiable sound.   Consider these studios: Walt Disney, Fleischer, MGM, Warner Bros, Hanna-Barbera, Jay Ward, DePatie-Freling, Filmation.   Yes, even Filmation.    You can picture in your mind how those studios' cartoons sounded.    Now consider these studios: today's Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Blue Sky, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, DIC, Sony.   There is no signature sound., though many have a signature look.

Darrell Van Citters: " The reason for those distinctive sounds, besides the mikes and rooms they used, was their sound FX libraries. There are no distinctive animation sound libraries beyond what was recorded in the analog days.   Even as late as Hanna-Barbera and Jay Ward, new sounds were being created that identified a studio."

Tom Sito: " Audiences are very cinema-literate today. The average Joe-Sixpack may not be able to quote from A Tale of Two Cities, but they recognize the sound Scooby Doo's legs scrambling. We can use these audio references to our advantage. I recently asked my editor to dig up the Jay Ward chain cranking for a specific effect. The trick is to be aware when you are using it, because the audience can tell.  The famous cartoon sounds have become such an ingrained cliche' that their very recognizability can take an audience out of a film."  

The signature sounds extended to the musical style as well.   As for composers, Warner Bros had Carl Stalling. MGM had Scott Bradley. Disney had Frank Churchill, Paul Smith, and George Bruns.   Hanna-Barbera had Ted Nichols.   Jay Ward had Fred Steiner.   DePatie-Freling had Doug Goodwin.   Filmation had Ray Ellis, (credited at Yvette Blais).   The only studio that has that kind of musical identity today is Klasky/Csupo, with Mark Mothersbaugh.   Their music became as much a part of each studio's identity as its visual style.

To illustrate this point, consider Chuck Jones' Tom & Jerry shorts, produced by MGM in the 1960's.   Jones had many of the same artists from his unit at Warner Bros, so they LOOK like Looney Tunes. But Eugene Poddany's music separates them from the Warner's shorts completely.   Poddany's scores do not connect to the characters like Stallings work. Its just musical stuff in the background.    Same could be said for Hanna-Barbera's post-1970 work; its as though the musicians improvised the score in one take as the show was projected backwards.  

Kevin Wollenweber is an animation fan with a unique perspective - he's blind.   Once sighted, he now enjoys animation as a listener.  

Kevin Wollenweber: "Warner Brothers' LOONEY TUNES and MERRIE MELODIES are indeed the most fun to listen to because, now, I notice a lot of this kind of sound interplay as Treg Brown knits all kinds of sound together to add to the atmosphere, even when it has nothing to do with the action on the screen.  There was a ROAD RUNNER cartoon in which Wile E. Coyote is falling from yet another craggy cliff and the fall is so long that Treg slips in all sorts of other sounds amid the usual hiss or whistle of the fall, just to signify the sound of time passing, and it works.  We don't question anything about the bit.

In "HOUSE-HUNTING MICE", the Chuck Jones cartoon that introduced us to Hubey & Bertie, there is the actual slamming of a door indicated on the sound portion by a hard cough.  You have to listen a couple of times before you can pick it up, but Treg Brown knew how hard and coarse that cough sounded and thought he'd cleverly use that cough as the sound of the door slamming.

Sometimes, the scores and sound effects are seemingly done in the same room in "real" time, as was apparently the case at the Fleischer Studios during the early 1930's.  So you have this sense that the cartoon is living and breathing right there in front of you with the jazz orchestra playing out the music and the performers fitting in the sounds where appropriate as the music plays.  In POPEYE cartoons, as Jack Mercer voiced his character(s), he usually ad-libbed dialogue as the action was happening.  Even though we did not actually see Popeye's lips move, it gave new life to the character because we guessed that this is what the sailor man was thinking during any given moment."

Darrell Van Citters: "Sound libraries in those days didn't share their effects and even if they would have, you still needed expensive editing equipment to make use of the sounds.   Now, the libraries are routinely licensed and on formats even a novice can utilize.   Who can even afford to have a sound FX guy creating new sounds, particularly when whole libraries can be had for a few hundred dollars?"

Mark Mangini:   "Please, go buy a sound effects library, DIY, and eschew the 'sound effects guy' and, while your at it, why not buy some of those really great After Effects wipes and transitions because who can afford a 'visual effects guy' and in the same trip, stop off at your local Apple retailer and purchase Garage Band. No one can really afford one of those 'music' guys either, right?   You get what you pay for!! "

Signe Baumane: I prefer to work with sound designers, because they know things that I don't.   For example, I recorded voice over for "Teat Beat of Sex" with a sound designer, and a composer delivered music for intro/credits part of the film. But then I didn't have money to hire a sound designer to put it all together (actually, I thought it wasn't necessary). So I output the sound from AFX together with the picture as it was. Now every time when I watch the film I cringe - the intro music is too loud and the voice is too low - its not balanced.   I did need a sound designer after all.

Tom Sito: " In the end, you can get the libraries, but it's the taste of the editor that matters. Many animation filmmakers make the mistake of discounting the fact that an editor, including sound editors, are artists as well. An editor is not just a dumb manual laborer who exists to facilitate your brilliance. The editor is also an artist with an opinon. They can effect the pacing, the tempo as well as the overall sound of the film. I value their input on the cut. My editors do foley work and are not above grabbing a Nagra and running out into the parking lot to record a car horn. The best live action directors place a strong reliance on their editor, like Robert Zemeckis and Arnie Schmidt, or Martin Scorcese and Thelma Schoomaker. It's one of the tightest bonds of trust in all filmmaking."

Another Academy sponsored sound lecture this month is The Animation Soundtrack by Normand Roger. Check it out!

Listen to this!


By Kirk Wise

When it comes to feature-length animation, I believe in the power of sound to make our paint and pixel worlds come alive.   An inappropriate effect that jolts you out of that world and makes you question the reality of what you are seeing, shatters the delicate illusion.

But I also believe in the power of a well-placed poink.

Like many kids of my generation, I spent countless Saturday mornings plopped in a favorite chair, transfixed by a parade of   TV cartoons ranging from the sublime "Bugs Bunny-Roadrunner Show" to the barely tolerable "Hong Kong Phooey".   Though I would not hear the names Treg Brown, Greg Watson, and Pat Foley until my so-called adulthood, the sonic landscape of ricochets, zip-outs, anvil hits, and shotgun blasts they created was as familiar to me as the ones just outside my door.   The same door my mother would usually shove me out of around noon, to get something called "fresh air" and "sunshine".

In the summer of '77, I plunked down the princely sum of $2.50 to catch a matinee of "Star Wars".   What impressed me most about that truly transcendent moviegoing experience was not just the amazing creatures, environments, space ships and explosions, but the sounds filling the packed auditorium.   I'm not talking about the sounds of rustling Red Vines wrappers or the occasional runaway Milk Dud, or even the cheers and whoops that greeted Han Solo when he blasted that bastard Greedo.  

Through the miracle of a wondrous new invention known as 'Dolby Stereo', our tender ears were treated to a symphony of bloops, beeps, zaps, whooshes, clanks, alien gibberish, and planet-shattering KA-BOOMs, while John Williams' powerful score thundered from no fewer than six, yes, six theater speakers.   To a kid accustomed to hearing the scratchy, compressed histrionics of Tim Conway and Don Knotts spew forth from a single Drive-In speaker that looked like it had been scrounged from a German U-boat, this was something of a revelation.  

Here was a living, breathing, imaginary universe made unforgettably vivid by the masterful   blending of the visual and aural.   Sound could create worlds.

Years later, I was lucky enough to direct my first feature for Disney, "Beauty and the Beast", alongside the lovely and talented Gary Trousdale.   Despite a certain toothy, bespectacled executive's insistence that this movie had to be "Absolutely, totally, one-hundred percent real, without one scintilla of cartoonishness in it", I took it to mean that we were to create an animated world that would engage the audience's emotions every bit as much as a live-action one.   To me, it was a question of believability, not realism.   Sound, I knew, was going to play a hugely important role in accomplishing this task.

A wave of panic-induced nausea rolled through my innards when our well-meaning editors put together an early pass of our first act.   Evidently, someone had gotten hold of a dusty reel of old Hanna-Barbera sound effects. Every poink, zip, bonk, thud, and silly slide-whistle rose from the grave to torment me.   Our French village in the countryside sounded as if it were just down the road from Jellystone Park, an impression helped not at all by the fact that our temporary version of Gaston sounded like Dudley Do-Right's dimwitted cousin.   We were doomed.

We told ourselves not to worry. This was only a scratch track, and the real sound effects and dialogue would be recorded later.   Prior to the screening, we stood up and offered a laundry list of disclaimers to prepare our bosses for the rough nature of what they were about to see.   But Jeffrey was having none of it.   He believed he was seeing, and, worse still, hearing an early indicator of what the finished film floating around inside our addled heads was going to be.   And he hated it with the blistering intensity of an exploding Death Star.  

Our faces fried to a crispy Daffy Duck doneness by JK's tirade, we passed the edict along to our chastened editorial crew.   "No. Cartoony. Sound. Effects. Ever. "

As production eventually transitioned into post-production, we met with sound designer Mark Mangini and his crew at Weddington Productions in North Hollywood.   These professionals spent years building on the foundation laid by unsung artists like Treg, Greg, and Pat. They loved the challenge of figuring out what living teacups and mantle clocks would sound like when they moved, hopped, or danced. They supplied us with everything from the snarls, growls, grunts and howls of a seven-foot tall walking Bison/Boar/Grizzly/Gorilla hybrid, to the gossamer glissando of a petal falling from an enchanted rose.  

Even with a large portion of the film still in pencil test, Mark and his team brought our imaginary world to life in a way that never overshadowed the work of Glen Keane, James Baxter, Dave Pruiksma, Will Finn and the rest of our animation all-stars. It enhanced it, making it more substantial, tangible, and yes, real. Even Jeffrey seemed happy; now the Beast had the kind of weight, presence, and intensity that would elevate the movie from matinee fare to eventual Oscar contender.   

In the cavernous Stage D, where Walt himself heard the mixes for "Mary Poppins" and "Sleeping Beauty", a trio of wizards named Terry Porter, Mel Metcalfe and Dave Hudson worked their magic.   From them I learned that creating the soundtrack for an animated feature is a subtractive process, like sculpture.   Sometimes, the absence of sound could have as much impact as a full orchestra. I sunk into a plush couch while the Beast's toenails skittered on cold marble floors down echoey halls, and wolves seemed to snarl and pounce from somewhere in the back row.   All of it in magical, marvelous Dolby Stereo Surround.

The climactic battle between the enchanted objects and the townspeople was the broadest, most slap-sticky sequence in the entire film, and the guys at Weddington created an amazing variety of customized comic sound effects to accompany it. But when Cogsworth slid down a bannister to jam the business end of a large pair of shears into Lefou's unsuspecting behind, something seemed off.   Rather than being funny, it sounded gruesome. Cruel, even, as Snagglepuss might have put it.   One could practically feel the cold steel slipping into poor Lefou's rectum.  

What saved us? A big, loud, gloriously cartoony "POINK" straight from the Hanna-Barbera library.  

Since then, I've always believed that no matter how hard we strive for verisimilitude in our work, sometimes it helps to go back to our silly cartoon roots, and remember what made us laugh when we sat in that favorite chair on a lazy Saturday morning.

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