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July 2014
Issue: July 1, 2009

AUDIO FOR ANIMATION

By: Marc Loftus
Audio for animated work is perhaps the most challenging for post sound professionals, as they are tasked with creating a complete soundtrack from scratch. Since there is no production sound, as in a live-action project, pros have to record dialogue — often in groups for TV series — as well as create the entire sound effects spectrum, which in this genre is often "other worldly."
Those we spoke with this month reveal some techniques for keeping things moving, as well as the different challenges television programs face as opposed to feature films.

TV AND FILM

LA Studios (www.lastudios.com) in Hollywood specializes in dialogue recording for animated features and episodic series. The studio has worked on DreamWorks' Shrek franchise, as well as on Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and Monsters Vs. Aliens. Disney is also a major client, and the facility has worked on animated series that include Kim Possible, Lilo & Stitch, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, The Replacements and more recently, Phineas and Ferb. Lucasfilm's 3D animated Clone Wars has recorded dialogue there. And the PBS episodic Word Girl is also recorded there.
Chris Cirino is an engineer/mixer at LA Studios and regularly works on many of the animated features and episodics that come through its doors. When Post caught up with him, he had just finished work on "secret" animated feature that will be released next year. He's been with The LA Studios (which also includes Margarita Mix/Santa Monica and Margarita Mix/Hollywood) for almost 19 years. Much of the last eight years has been spent at LA Studios, but he does work at Margarita Mix in Hollywood from time to time.
LA Studios has seven rooms — including two large stages — all based around Digidesign's Pro Tools workstation. Studio A is a large stage that Cirino says is usually reserved for work on theatrical releases. Dialogue recording sessions for theatrical releases involve recording talent individually, but a large room is required for all of the support people that are often in attendance. Some may be shooting footage for electronic press kits, he notes, or B-roll, "So, the bigger the room, the better."
Recording sessions for series more often involve ensembles, where everyone is in the studio at the same time, each with their own mic.
Cirino usually works in LA Studio's second biggest room — Studio E — located on the second floor of the facility. The studio is a little more isolated, offering more privacy and conveniences such as its own kitchenette.
The ensemble recording session may include anywhere from two or three to 10 cast members. "It's a lot of open microphones in one room," he notes. "They are all individually mic'd and are all recorded to separate Pro Tools tracks. Generally you can get pretty good separation. And the actors are very good about not stepping on each other. Even if they are on a separate track there might be some bleed, but they are generally very good about leaving room for each other."
Cirino says he'll look at the scene in advance and only open up as many mics as needed. "In most cases, I'll have an idea of who is going to be in a particular scene and generally have the person who is speaking 10dB hotter than the rest. And I'll have to ride the fader in addition to riding the pre-amp because these things are so dynamic, especially the Saturday morning cartoons as opposed to theatrical because they are trying to get everything in, in a shorter space of time."
For theatrical dialogue recording sessions, the Neumann U 87 is the standard. They'll also have a redundant microphone — another U 87 — fed to a separate track. It will be positioned two to three inches behind the main one and slightly off to the side. "It's all as a backup in case the actor suddenly explodes," he explains.
Episodic sessions are a bit different. "We use a [Microtech] Gefell for the episodic ones, just because they are slightly more directional and you can have a whole bunch of mics open and don't get as much room noise."
An episodic program will run either 11 or 22 minutes per episode. "The 11-minute episodes can be anywhere between 100 and 200 lines," Cirino notes, "where as the 22-minute [episodes] are roughly double or 350 lines total. It depends on the show."
Cirino describes the signal chain as follows: The Neumann or Microtech mic runs to a Millennia HV-3D preamp, then to a Sony DMX-R100 console, and then to Pro Tools.
"The Millennia HV-3D is great — it's so transparent and colorless that you can really get a lot of nuances in the voice," he notes. "Basically, I try to do as little processing as necessary to get a nice clean sound and a decent level. I like to use the dynamics in the digital domain of the console, especially on the ensemble records. You have six to eight mics open and six to eight preamps that you're dealing with, [along with] six faders and tracks in Pro Tools, and you need to have some way to manage your levels and the clarity of the recording. Having the dynamics in there before it gets into Pro Tools [helps].
"The idea is to get as clean a signal as possible, at a good level, without clipping, because once it gets to that point there's nothing you can do. You have to do another take and it's something you don't like to do."

A PILOT, NICK JR. & MORE

Hyperbolic Audio (www.hyperbolicaudio.com) in Manhattan has been operating as an audio post house since 2008, growing out of vocal tracking studio Shut Up and Talk, which continues its work in-house. The facility has since been busy, providing audio post services for numerous animated series, including Nick Jr.'s Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go! But its most recent work was for an animated pilot based on the book Enchanted Thyme, for Enchanted Thyme Entertainment LLC.
At press time, Hyperbolic had just finished posting a five-and-a-half-minute video to be used to sell the show. "We are handling everything," says studio co-owner Julian Rebolledo of the Enchanted Thyme pilot. "The only thing that wasn't handled by us, I think, were some music choices. The dialogue was recorded here by Jeannine Guenther. [Casting director] Andy Roth requested her and wanted to work with her."
The studio used Skype to connect with director/storyboard supervisor Mark Simon of A&S Animation, who was in Florida.
"The actors loved that because they could come here and see each other, and that was sort of a new way of working," says Rebolledo. "Mark was doing everything via Skype because he wanted to see the actors and what they were doing physically."
Enchanted Thyme was posted relatively quickly. Rebolledo says a day was spent recording dialogue for multiple voice talents, and another day was spent cleaning up and editing that dialogue.
"I'd say it took a little over a week," he notes of the pilot. "It wasn't a full day every day. We just finished it last night. We didn't get the animation complete — we would get a minute and a half, work on it and send it to Mark and Andy for review, and they'd send it back with notes and then we'd get another piece. I think the deadline was so tight that the animation company was giving us what they had finished as soon as they finished so we could do something."
The studio worked with QuickTime  videos for reference, playing back off of Pro Tools systems. All of the VO booths have access to picture.
Sound effects for the pilot came from various libraries. "We do Foley stuff sometimes, but the budgets for pilots usually aren't that generous," Rebolledo explains. "This hasn't been bought yet, so this was almost all library [effects]. We might have done some looping to fill out crowd scenes and things like that. The only thing we weren't involved on was the music Andy gave us."
Hyperbolic handles more than just audio for animated projects. Being in New York, they like to tap the agency and commercial market. The studio also works on industrials, corporate projects, films and music recording.
But there is no denying who is the studio's biggest client: Nick Jr. is in at least two days a week, and that's fine with Rebolledo.
"They are a very good client," he says of Nick Jr. "Right now we are doing ADR for Dora and mostly laybacks. We are doing a lot of audio relays for Diego, which they are wrapping up."
If Viacom sells the next season for the series, Rebolledo anticipates a busy October, filled with recording sessions. "It will be crazy busy, but it's what we are all praying for."
Both Rebolledo and partner Sean Elias-Reyes are genuine fans of animated content, he says. "I grew up with it and loved it, and hoped to work in it, and here we are."
In the early '90s, Rebolledo worked for MTV, which regularly aired a number of quirky animated shorts. He even worked as voice talent for MTV's animated Daria series.
"It's great," he says of the genre. "If we were going to be a strictly-animation studio, I don't think anyone in this studio would complain."

IN THE TRENCHES

Alex Mine (www.goldencoinproductions.com) describes himself as an "in-the-trenches" sound editor, who has worked on numerous animated series since graduating from The Harris Institute for the Arts in Toronto back in 2000. It was there that he met Scott McCrorie, a teacher who also runs Toronto's Super Sonics Productions (www.supersonicsprod.com). Mine's persistence got him a staff position at Super Sonics, which lasted for a few years, and gave him an opportunity to work on animated programs such as 6Teen, Girl Stuff Boy Stuff, Carl Squared, Johnny Test, Planet Sketch, World of Quest and Atomic Betty.
Today he operates his own home studio, which is kept busy with animated projects undergoing audio post through Super Sonics. "I worked for them a couple of years and they are basically my main client as a freelancer," he notes. "When I do shows for them, they trained me, so I do it exactly how they want it done."
Mine has a "basic" Mac-based Pro Tools LE set up with the DV Toolkit, which provides timecode and OMF import/export capabilities. Audio runs through Apogee converters and Genelec speaker.
"I try to keep costs down and that makes the business work," Mine explains. "I'm always trying to find a way to minimize the costs and make it work but keep it top quality."
Mine says 2009 has been slower than normal, but when things are busy, animated programs are great to be involved in because a show's season typically includes 13 or 26 episodes. "[It's] a great business in that sense because you have some stability and have an idea going forward with what you have to work with."
Most of his work entails dialogue and Foley editing. "Foley editing for animation is a little bit different than your traditional Foley," he explains. "In animation, a lot more of what would typically be Foley is covered by effects. So Foley in animation is basically largely footsteps and anything that falls in that category. A lot of it is done with sample libraries. You record all sorts of different footsteps and build your own sampler instrument and it's done via a sampler and a keyboard."
Animated work leaves Mine room to have fun when handling Foley. In one episode of Girl Stuff Boy Stuff, characters were playing the videogame Dance Dance Revolution, and since he didn't have the game in his studio, he had to come up with the sounds of feet dancing on an interactive mat.
"If you are a Foley editor you are coming up with your sounds. When you've done it for a few years you build up banks of sound that are usable, so I have a very large library I can use, but sometimes — like with Dance Dance Revolution — you have to come up with sounds and program the instrument and do it that way.
"I really enjoy audio for animation because you can be creative in ways that you can't in traditional post. The worlds don't exist in reality, so pretty much anything goes."

PROMOS & SPOTS


Shawn Conrad set up his audio post studio in Mableton, GA, just outside of Atlanta, about five years ago. He spent years working in the New York market, including five at Soundtracks, where he was an audio post engineer, operating a Solid State Logic ScreenSound system. Today, his nicely-appointed home studio — dubbed Ear FX (www. EarFX.com) — is based around a Pro Tools LE set-up with the DV Toolkit 2, an Mbox 2 Pro and plug-ins that include DigiTranslator, Waves Native Power Pack 6, VocAlign and TL Space. 
Conrad worked on Pokemon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episodes while in New York. Since moving to Atlanta, he's posted full episodes of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim series Squidbillies (think red-neck octopi with trucker hats and firearms). At press time, he was involved in an animated, four-spot campaign for information solutions provider Equifax, via Atlanta agency BKV (Benett Kuhn Varner).
"What I do here are mostly promos and spots," Conrad notes. "The Equifax spot that I'm working on right now is really nice. It's pencil drawn and animated, and it's a brand-new idea that Equifax is doing. It's a full sound design project. I'm adding in the footsteps, the traffic, the birds — everything that's going on."
The package will include two two-minute spots and :60 cut-downs of each. Conrad recorded the voiceover at Magic Lantern in Atlanta. He was working on the sound design the day Post spoke with him, and already had original music and QuickTime videos from the client for reference. "I am doing the final mix of the job," he notes, "so, once it leaves me, it's on air."
Conrad prefers a Neumann U 87 or AKG 414 for capturing voiceover sessions. He draws sound effects from a collection of over 120,000 elements that includes releases from Hollywood Edge, Hanna-Barbera and CitiTrax, along with his own "personal stash."
"These are sound effects that I've saved over the years," he says. "To make sure that my work is somewhat unique, I like to layer my sound effects." His final designs include elements that have been reversed, pitch shifted and doubled.
For the Equifax project, Conrad will spend one day creating the sound design for one of the 120-second spots and one of the :60s. He'll layback the complete audio track to a QuickTime file and send the client a link for viewing. A second day will be booked for making tweaks and for the final stereo mix.
Conrad mixes spots and promos within Pro Tools. For longform projects, he has a Frontier Alpha Track DAW controller, which provides a tactile surface with one fader and transport controls.
Genelec 8020 monitors are used for monitoring, and the speakers are tucked into the walls, keeping with Ear FX's clean and uncluttered look.
"I didn't want it to look like an old-school studio," says Conrad of his suite's high-end, living room design. "The client is in front of me. They don't need to look over my shoulder. My goal was to not make it look like you were going to a friend's house or some guy's basement. The design really looks like a nice, plush living room space and I wanted to do that because most of my work is sound for television commercials. People watch television commercials in the comfort of their home and I wanted to build a studio that way, where you get a real sense and feel of what these commercials are going to sound like when they are broadcast at home to the viewer."