While cartoons still air on Saturday mornings to the amusement of the 10-and-under set, many animated projects are being used to attract an older audience. These days animated films, television programs and spots are entertaining and informing all ages, which pushes creatives on all sides of the process from idea to execution to post.
For those working in audio post, animation creates an interesting challenge since entire soundscapes must be built from nothing and special care must be taken with dialogue recording and sound effects. So sound designers have to be careful when it comes to laying in sound effects depending on the direction from clients. There was a time, many say, where sound effects and design sounded purposefully exaggerated, but nowadays the goal is to sound a bit more realistic.
As with other formats, facilities looking to bid or work in the animation field are focusing more on hiring the right talent than getting the newest and fastest gear. In fact, it's part of how the facilities market themselves to potential clients. "I think the difference [in how the facility markets itself] is who we present as far as a creative team for a show," reports Mark Kaplan, VP of sales and marketing for Technicolor Sound. Then again, the majority of those asked had already upgraded to the top-of-the-line digital tools in order to work in the live-action market.
Bloogie's Brad Carow performs track-reading duties via Pro Tools for Cartoon Network's The Grim Adventures of Bill & Mandy.
KEEPING IT CLEAN IN-STUDIO
The team at New York City's Pomann Sound (www.pomannsound.com/) works on just about all aspects of the projects that come through the studio, says president Bob Pomann. The company also does a handful of spots, including a recent project for Sweet & Low that's tied into the still-in-production Pink Panther film, and radio work, which Pomann feels animation is closely related to. "I think it's very similar because you're painting pictures with the sound and you're filling in things that aren't there," he says.
While the company made its name in animation while working on the cartoon Doug over 13 years ago, it continues to build its name by working on JoJo's Circus for Disney, Kids Next Door for Cartoon Network and two shows - Pinky Dinky Doo for Noggin and Little Einstein for Disney - that will begin to air in September. "The Little Einstein show is a big ticket for them, because it's a spin off of the Baby Einstein tapes," Pomann says. "It's classical music and classical pictures, and it's done in a really great way."
Pomann Sound also works on Moving Up, a reality show that airs on TLC. "That show is just cleaning up dialogue, and for those shows you just have to know how to be a good dialogue mixer and clean it up, keep it even and take really lousy sounding dialogue and make it sound good," he says. "Whereas on the cartoons you always have a good track, even if it's recorded at a bad place, because it's in a studio and it's clean. You get to put your own ambiances in and make your own little places. In live action you bounce into the air of wherever they are, so you have to make it sound like wherever they are. With animation I find you can make it anywhere, even where the animation isn't, and play like you're doing a radio show in a sense. Animation is a little more difficult because you have to do everything with nothing."
More than dialogue, animation offers a challenge for the Pomann team in the effects department - even though the average age for shows like Pinky Dinky Doo and JoJo's Circus is four to five years old. "That doesn't mean the effects are easy to do," he explains. "We don't try to use the same effects over and over again. We try to be a little more organic with it and not to have it get too much in the way."
After years of being a DSP Poststation house, Pomann Sound moved over to Digidesign Pro Tools last year. The hardware and software has helped them with the calls for 5.1 mixes on the DVD releases of the shows. "We are doing 5.1 on the DVDs, because it's in the contract and it says it on the labels," he says. "They need it done, but they don't want to pay much for it."
Mainframe recently produced a sequel to its Scary Godmother TV special for DVD release.
TREAT IT LIKE LIVE ACTION
Bobby Mackston, who works as the supervising sound editor, music editor and re-recording mixer on King of the Hill, is involved with the show from table-reads to re-recording. It is, he says, "one of the most fun shows I've had the pleasure to work on. It's a real smooth operation and there aren't a lot of challenges."
Mackston treats King of the Hill like a live action show. "It's very similar to The Simpsons, on which he worked as supervising sound editor and dialogue editor for 16 years, but The Simpsons is a little more into the cartoony effects. King of the Hill tries to stay very live action-ish in their approach. There are no boinks or whooshes or that kind of stuff. It's treated as if it's live action."
Promoting a rockstar
In fact, both shows also share a dialogue-first approach. "Well, yeah, any time writers are in charge of a show, dialogue is going to be important," he says. "That's truer on The Simpsons than King of the Hill, because on The Simpsons they try to pull a sound out as soon as possible because it might interfere with someone's word." He ensures that the dialogue comes through by being careful with sounds. "The thing you try to do is not hit them over the head with it or be so heavy that it's intrusive."
All of the dialogue for King is recorded at Fox and put into Pro Tools. "Then those sessions are brought over to the production office and the takes are put together with the show runners," he explains. "They get a track together that they send off for animation, then that track is refined along the way and there are rewrites and stuff." The dialogue is cleaned up via Sonic's NoNoise, he adds. "Anytime you have eight microphones open you're bound to get a build-up of noise, so we do some NoNoise processing to make the track as clean as we can. All the tracks are separate, so we're able to get them as clean as possible before preparing them for the mix."
All of the Pro Tools sessions are put into one super session and Mackston does a day of pre-mixing, which is sent to the clients for review before the team hits the mix stage. "It's all mixed on Pro Tools," he reports. "We never go outside of Pro Tools. It makes more sense to us, and the stage that we bring it to is set up for it. Any changes that we have to do are sent over as session changes and we don't have to drag units in the traditional sense." Where he has to be careful is when he uses a plug-in in his room that hasn't been installed on the mix stage. "That's the only downfall to the process -them not being totally compatible with what we have when we're working on it. We'll render the effects when we run into instances like that, so we don't have to rely on the plug-in that they don't have, it will already be printed." After mixing at Todd-AO for the past three years, Mackston reports the team has gone back to Sony Pictures Post Production Facilities (www.sonypicturespost.com/) in LA.
THE TWO-SECOND RULE
Bob Newlan, supervising sound editor for both Family Guy and American Dad at Technicolor Sound Services (www.technicolor.com/) in Los Angeles, adheres to what he calls the "Two-Second Rule" for animation. "In two seconds they tend to complete all the action in a shot," he explains. "If a character is running up to a car, opening up a car door, getting into the car, closing the car door, starting the car, backing out the driveway and driving away, it all happens in two seconds and it has to sound complete and natural enough that it doesn't call attention to itself. "That's probably one of the biggest problems that our effects editors have, condensing something so that it's just what it is and nothing more, and being able to do that is a learned talent," he continues. The Technicolor crew solves that challenge by being careful in the effects they choose to use, Newlan explains. "You've got to get a car acceleration that immediately peaks. We tend to pull out things and condense it down so you have the essence of the car start, and that's all that you need. If you see it happen visually, you make that leap that it's happened all in that time, and when you see it, it all looks very natural."
Bobby Mackston works as supervising sound editor, music editor and re-recording mixer on Fox's King of the Hill. His tools include Pro Tools and Sonic's NoNoise.
Above and beyond that, when Newlan works on Family Guy he gets the opportunity to mimic the sound of films that the writers pay homage to or parody. "Most of the time we don't have access to what effects were used in the originals," he says. "So, I end up renting a lot of films and looking at the particular scene they are doing and then I try to divine what the essence of the sound effects were for that. That way, we could put those into something that can be dubbed in a day and not blow our budgets. The movie parodies are really helped out by composers Walter Murphy and Ron Jones, who alternate composing Family Guy and American Dad.
As an example, Newlan recalls a Family Guy episode where the classic film North by Northwest was referenced. "We were able to get the score to that film and re-recorded it with a new orchestra," he reports. "I rented North by Northwest and watched the crop duster scene. Where their crop duster scene last several minutes, ours lasted 10 seconds. For me it's a personal stake in matching stuff like that, because Seth [MacFarlane, the show's creator] is making these obscure cultural references. North by Northwest is not really a movie that's popular among his audience, but I feel that I have an obligation to make it as accurate as possible in terms of the sound of the airplane."
The tracks for both shows are cut on Pro Tools. Dialogue, Newlan reports, is recorded in a booth that's been set up in the show's production offices. "Those are delivered to me as OMFs and Pro Tools sessions. The dialogue is pretty much like ADR [recorded] entirely in one place, so it matches really well. The sound effects are pulled from our libraries here with some field recording."
Family Guy is an interesting experience for Newlan since the show was resurrected by DVD sales and given a new broadcast life. That was made easier, he says, by the archiving work that lead effects editor Andrew Ellerd did after the show was initially canceled. "I was encouraging him to do that because I was thinking that they were probably going to do a Family Guy movie. But we did the new stuff without missing a beat. The first spotting session for the new Family Guy was back in January, and it was essentially as if nobody skipped a beat."
While working on dialogue tracks for such projects such as Scary Godmother, a direct-to-DVD sequel to the television special of the same name, or a direct-to-DVD Mattel project, Max Steel, for Mainframe Entertainment (www.mainframe.ca/), audio supervisor Marcel Duperreault will get as many actors as possible into the pre-record room at Dick and Roger's (www.dickandrogers.com/) facility in Vancouver, BC. "We're slamming faders up and down and you can hear the excitement in the dialogue," he says of his reasoning. "A lot of other animation companies may do one character at a time and beat the daylights out of him. We try not to do that, but it does happen where you have to pick up people, and sometimes it can be lifeless."
Pristine audio tracks, he adds, are one of the main differences between live action and animation. "In live action, if you've got ADR from one studio and you pick up lines from another studio, you're trying to match it and make it sound like it's not from another planet," he says. "We don't have to deal with that, but other than that a door close is a door close and the mixing is pretty much the same. The levels to create the emotions are the same in animation as it is in live action."
That said, Mainframe's director of post and technical operations, Greg Story, points out that "animation is boundary-less, so whatever the imagination wants to put on screen, Marcel has to create sound effects for. That can be a challenge."
Duperreault agrees, "These guys will animate a planet imploding that turns into some kind of monster. You don't know what they are going to come up with and you wonder, 'What is that supposed to sound like?' The artists are drawing all these chaotic pictures and it could go on for 22 minutes. We've had shows where it's been nonstop, so the task at hand is huge, and they go, 'Well, uh, I want it to sound like The Incredibles.' I'm thinking, 'Hey, man, this is a 22-minute show and you don't have the budget.' The expectations are high."
As an example he points to a Hot Wheels DVD project he worked on for Mattel. "The characters drive their cars into these other realms and we have to come up with all these sounds when they travel from one dimension to the next," he says. Getting it right, he reports, is a matter of "doing what we think is right. We try to hire the best people we can, so we'll go through and do what we think is right and then the producers and directors will come in and screen the sound effects before the mix and say, 'Hey, that's pretty good. What if you did this? What if you did that?' They're not sure of what they want to hear, and if they do have an idea we'll run with it. Everyone is pretty flexible."
Sounds are created via Akai samplers. "With the samplers there are a lot of things you can do that you just can't do in Pro Tools or with the plug-ins in our [AMS Neve] AudioFiles," Duperreault says. "With the plug-ins you can only do so much with sound - you can pitch it, you can delay it, but there's not a lot you can do with it." In addition to the samplers, Duperreault mixes on an AMS Neve DFC II.
In addition to the music scores that he works on for Sponge Bob Squarepants, Brad Carow, owner of music composing, film editing and sound editing studio Bloogie Entertainment (818-917-2290), performs track-reading responsibilities on The Grim Adventures of Bill & Mandy and Ben 10, both shows that air on the Cartoon Network. Ben 10 is an animated superhero series that will debut this fall. "Once a script is made, they record the dialogue and then I get the dialogue with a storyboard," he explains. "I take the information written on the storyboard by the director and use it to format the dialogue. If there's a :46 segment where it's all action and no dialogue I have to make sure that there's a gap in the dialogue that corresponds to that. So, I take the dialogue and cut it to the format of the show and then go back to the very beginning and listen very slowly and, frame-by-frame, write down the phonetic sounds I was hearing," he continues. "That's how they make the lips move. There aren't a whole lot of us that do that and there are a lot of people that didn't even know that it existed. Even producers that I've worked with didn't know what [a track reader] was," he laughs.
It can be an arduous task, as he goes through 2,000 feet of film to get the job done. Yet, Ben 10 was made a bit easier because he went digital. "Traditionally it's been done using 35mm single stripe, but for this series I decided to go all digital," he explains. "So, I'm track reading this series on Pro Tools with the DV toolkit, and I'm allowed to see feet and frames on the reader, so that will match up to the feet and frame counter on the exposure sheet."
Carow uses Pro Tools for his track reading as well as composing assignments. He also uses MOTU Digital Performer while composing and TASCAM Giga Studio for samples. "One thing I like when I'm composing music is to hire horn players instead of synthesizing instruments. It just sounds several notches over the stuff that I hear," he explains. "My writing style is influenced by guys like Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott, and it's really hard to get that feeling across if everything is synthesized."
While his composing experience is limited to animation projects, Carow says, "I know about composing for live action enough to know that the difference primarily with animation is many projects are wall to wall music. I was talking to some other composers recently and they said animation composers should be paid by the note. We get a six-minute cartoon and there could be five-and-a-half minutes of music in there. In six minutes of live action, there are little segues between scenes and little segues into and out of commercials, but other than that it's pretty sparse."