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Music, Sound, and Audio Technology

Audio & Animation: What comes first?

By Bryant Falk
posted Jun 5, 2008, 08:44


Bryant Falk has been a producer and engineer for over 12 years working with such clients as “The Ricki Lake Show,” Coca-Cola, Sport Illustrated and Valley National Bank. He recently completed mixing for “The Shop,” a new show airing on MTV. His company Abacus Audio handles many aspects of the audio production field from creative and production to mixing and final output. http://www.abacusaudio.com



Animation is recapturing the popularity of years past. With the advent of computers, the capabilities of animators have grown 100 times what it was even 10 years ago. From 3D graphics to extremely life-like re-creations, all these shows have one thing in common, they need audio! In addition, animation audio is unique in that there is no location sound. In layman’s terms, it’s all made up! You name it – dialogue, sound effects, music – must all be generated for your masterpiece. Unless you record the grumblings and humming of your animator during the process, it all must be “designed”, as we like to say in the business.

The first big question when working on an animation project is a classic. What comes first, the chicken or the egg? The animation or the audio? A lot of first-time animators tend to jump the gun and start animating right out of the gate. Though I applaud their efforts, they are a bit short-sighted. I do agree that creating your cast of characters is the first item on your list, but the second should be recording your dialogue for your characters. Write a script even if it’s a rough one so you can have a better clue as to what is going to need animating. Nothing is worse than spending countless hours animating a character’s mouth to find out that what he says doesn’t really work!

I like to look at animating as first creating a radio script. Bring in your voice talent, and start capturing their dialogue. A lot of creative and spontaneous things can happen during this process that you would have missed out on had you “animated first”. We call them happy accidents. I also call them personality moments.

Once you’ve recorded and edited your voice track, you can begin bringing your characters to life. What you have just done is called pre-syncing. You’ve laid down dialogue that you will now sync your animation to. As for sound effects I recommend a rough track of essential items that may affect the timing of your dialogue like an explosion or a car door slamming shut.

Once the animation is built then all the final sound effects can be post-synced. Usually audio houses will handle the entire sound effects process as most animations will have hundreds and hundreds of audio elements.

Animation is a unique beast in many facets. Besides having no location audio, most animations have additional effects that relate to either the emotional status of a character or sounds that don’t exist in reality! Take for example a dog jogging down the street to meet its master. We can first hit the obvious sounds like the panting breath and footsteps. But how about a little “boing-boing”, sound as his curly tail bounces up and down in meter with his gate. The dog’s ears could also be making some very unique movements that might warrant a sound of some sort. This is just the tip of the iceberg; compound this with numerous characters and additional outside events, and Kazam! You have a lot of effects to get into place.

Sound effects placement can happen in many locations. From a video editor’s standpoint, he or she can manually place in effects on their timeline. This can be a very time consuming and cumbersome project when dealing with the quantity of effects we are talking about. Another option is a sound effects library tied into your non-linear system whether it be video such as an Avid or an audio editor like Pro-Tools. These are basically software programs that catalog your sound effects libraries. A lot of the programs will offer you the option to search via key-words, audition the sound, and then auto place them in the location on your timeline. One such program is Soundminer. It’s compatible with Pro-Tools and allows for the quick search and selection of literally thousands of sound effects. These effects can be of your own making or cataloged from a sound effects library. The key to this working effectively is having the proper “meta data”. In simple terms, meta data is the info on a sound effect that travels along with the audio. On the very high end side, many audio houses will custom design their own search system to facilitate the type of work they are doing.

“So which door slam is the right one for me?” Ah, the question of the century. The answer is found within… within your animation that is. What are you trying to achieve with your door? Is it a slapstick animation such as a Ben & Jerry cartoon? Or is it a serious and dark flick like Eon Flux? First decide your mood, then decide your mass! How big is the door? Is it old and squeaky, or middle-aged and moaning? See how much can go into a single sound! Remember your audio track can contribute so much to your storyline. This is even truer when dealing with animation. For example, the proper sound effect can reveal the fear in one of your characters better than any dialogue, (teeth chattering, knees knocking).

My last caveat when building audio for your animation is keep a sharp eye on sync. For whatever reason, tight sync can be more elusive with animation work. The clean lines and sharp edges found in animation allow the viewer the ability to really gauge when a door has closed or an anvil has fallen!

So the next time you’re up late at night cruising the channels and eating breakfast cereal and stumble onto your favorite cartoon, take a moment and close your eyes. You’ll be amazed at how much of the show translates through audio. Animation begins with the eyes and ends with ears!



This article may not be reprinted in print or internet publications without express permission of StudentFilmmakers.com.


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