(Pictured: Justin working in his home studio.)
Post Sound Workflow for Animation
Written By Justin Matley
Generally speaking, post sound, and re-recording mixing in particular, is the end of the line. The last leg of the conveyor belt. We come into play after the shots are perfected, the dialog recorded, the foley stomped, clattered, and jingled, and the music scored. Our job is to tie it all together with a bow. But, in animation, the folks who handle post sound come into play much, much earlier. In fact, we’re right there at the beginning of production; shaping the visual arc in ways we never get to experience in live action pieces. In many ways, our role transitions to a production one.
I venture to say the most essential pieces of effective animation are: the script and the talent. It goes without saying these are always critical to the success of a piece of media, but the talent in particular have a unique role: the effectiveness of their performance is solely reliant on their voice. No facial expressions, no gestures, no cleverly timed dance moves.
Once the script is settled, the first step in the audio process becomes casting the talent. I’ve been close to this process over the years, and working with agents and casting directors who have the right roster and connections are critical to getting actors that fit the desired spec (demographic, performance style, references, etc., of a potential role). After multiple men, women, girls, and boys are wrangled in for their short auditions, generally selected takes are assembled and presented to the client. These are picked by either the casting director or the client who attended the session, and reviewed by the wider team. It may take multiple auditions and callbacks (when an actor is brought back to redo the lines) to acquire the perfect talent. But, when everyone agrees and the contracts are signed, we get to move into the first layer of audio production: the record.
Prior to the record, we often have a good sense of who or what the character is we are trying to create in our recording process. Sometimes, we have storyboards, animatics (early animation sequences), or character designs that help inform everyone as to the style and look of the piece. This could very well impact how an actor chooses to perform their part, which will finally start to breathe life into this static drawing.
Once in the booth, the fun begins. It’s incumbent on the people in the control room: audio engineers, producers, directors, etc., both give enough information to the talent to put them into the character’s imaginary body and environment, but not so much as to block their own creative intuition. Remember, they have been hired for their skills and instincts as an actor, not to pack Amazon boxes (no offense to the hardworking Amazon employees!). Each actor will work through their lines: sometimes in long swaths of uninterrupted dialog, sometimes in short spurts. This largely depends on the nature of the script, if they’re reading with other talent in the booth, or how a particular actor prefers to operate. Regardless of the methodology, this process flicks the room’s imagination into gear, and it’s a delightful process of trial and error, experimentation and revelation.
As the takes and selected performances are assembled, the Jenga tower is built. Stacks of audio built upward and outward, some preferred lines, some alternates, but finally some sense of timing and flow. This assembly, or multiple assemblies over time, is sent to the animation team for a good disassembly. They will work with these building blocks, roughly compiled by the audio engineer, and start to fine-shape the piece; syncing the visuals to the recorded audio and stitching the elements together with all of the other visual elements being designed by, oftentimes, many dozens of designers and artists.
All the while, audio isn’t taking a proverbial months-long nap. Plenty is taking place. Sound effects are being assembled as more is shared with the ever-maturing visuals and music is being found or scored to shape the emotional and creative tone of the piece. This way, these sonic bones can be cut, stretched, and convened when the locked visuals come our way without having to start entirely from scratch. When visuals do settle into final edit form, the above referenced aural odyssey begins. While some visual folks like to use sound design in their process to aid in their work, all of the fine tuning comes once most of the visuals are complete. And in this case, the regular role of audio post-production kicks into gear.
This audio post process is highly dependent on the team. Some projects pass through a singular person, others through multiple teams tasked with handling their own department: dialogue, sound effects (both found and foleyed), music, and re-recording mix. For the sake of conversation, let’s focus on a project that runs through one primary post mixer.
I start this process like most any post audio workflow: digging into the dialogue; finessing the edits and fades, adjusting levels, and fine-tuning plugin settings to accommodate the scenes. From here, we build out the backgrounds / ambiences, providing both a tool for creative shaping around dialogue and adding life and realism to the visuals. Next, we weave in sound design from various sources. These sounds, much of which are known as “hard effects”, lend authenticity to movements, impacts, and any other specific, often momentary, noises that build out a scene. Sometimes these effects are natural, other times these are other non-diegetic sounds that are more abstract. Animation is ripe with these sounds: whooshes, swooshes, clangs, and bangs that do not sound as if they come so much from the natural world but help brighten or add humor to animation. And finally, we finalize our music edits and levels, molding the levels and sonic character in and out of dialogue; popping it out when it is featured, and pulling it underneath when it’s supportive.
In the end, like in any post-production audio process, our job is to support the visuals: the story, the theme, the characters, and the overall tenor of the piece. But animation is unique in that the palette is clear, filled by a team’s imagination and collaboration. It’s a highly creative process with complete control and limitless potential. And for us in post audio, it’s a really special position to be in.
Justin Matley is an award-winning Audio Engineer, Re-Recording Mixer, Sound Designer, and Music Director/Supervisor. After a decade at NYC’s largest audio post-production studio, Sound Lounge, he went solo seven years ago, and currently works out of multiple studios in NYC and Connecticut. Justin works on a plethora of film, TV, radio, internet, music, and experiential projects for dozens of high-profile clients worldwide. An accomplished veteran of the broadcast, advertising, and film industries, Justin has thousands of projects under his belt, and has a reputation for being an excellent problem solver, team player, and creative executor. Justin is a husband and father of two girls. He loves the outdoors, skiing, politics, good tequila, and Boston sports teams. www.justinmatley.com