WRITTEN BY JEFF SHIFFMAN, CO-OWNER OF BOOM BOX POST

A few months back, Asbjoern Andersen contacted me asking if I'd be interested in writing a guest post about animation sound for his fantastic A Sound Effect blog. The following post was written over many weeks and a bunch of train rides (I like to write on the train, it makes me feel intrepid and vagabond-like). It's been such a blast to read/see/hear all the amazing comments from the sound community and to see it reprinted by Designing Sound and Pro Tools Expert

I decided to reprint the post here with a bonus section I had originally cut from the piece (as if it wasn't long enough already). I hope you enjoy this personal story about my first experiment in the world of creative sound design.

Bonus Material:

HISTORY LESSON: A PRO TOOLS LOVE STORY

As an undergrad at the Indiana University School of Music, I elbowed my way into a graduate course in electronic music composition. While there, I marveled at the wide cross section between music and sound design. So many projects leaned heavily toward the experimental, with real world recordings being manipulated to create music. I had plenty of experience working with samplers and synthesizers but it was there that I was first introduced to Pro Tools. The ability to work almost effortlessly with sound effects brought an entirely new kind of tool into the music I was writing. I recorded myself walking around the halls of the music school practice facility. From door to door, every room had a different music major practicing diligently on their instrument. Violin melded into trumpet. Trumpet into operatic solo. I brought these recordings into Pro Tools and started to manipulate them, layering reversed bells with software synthesizers and other musical elements. I abruptly cut off sounds. I looped. I delayed. I bit crushed. The final project plays more like the mix of some Darren Aronofsky project left on the cutting room floor than a musical composition (Requiem for a Dream was an influence at the time). I can't recall what kind of grade or comments I received, but I can pinpoint that as the time I realized sound editorial truly has no boundaries. That was the moment I fell in love with sound design.

Full blog post, originally Posted April 23, 2015:

As a medium for sound design, you can’t beat animation. I’ve created countless robots and aliens. Built a career on animals practicing martial arts, transforming jet packs, spaceships and futuristic racers. I’ve traveled to the far end of the Galaxy and destroyed the known universe more than once (it turns out, there are a LOT of ways to go about destroying the world). Not to knock live action in any way. In fact, I have been lucky enough to work on many live action films that were design-heavy; particularly in need of that extra special sound treatment.

Still, when you add it all up a career in animation sound design is going to be interesting to say the least. The chance to bring this medium to life entirely from scratch is a thrill for me and I feel very lucky to have fallen into what I consider to be the most fun part of the entertainment business. It’s my pleasure to share some of my world with you.

WORKFLOW: A STEP BY STEP COMPANION

Our animation workflow is very streamlined. I sit down with the producers and we talk about what they are looking for in that specific episode. Special shoutout here to the iPad app CutNotes. With MIDI sync to my Pro Tools session, this app allows me to quickly take timecode specific notes in real time as I sit with clients. I’m playing back picture, interacting and typing notes (on my latest obsession, the Clamcase Pro) all in one seamless workflow. If you haven’t tried CutNotes, grab it now. You will not be disappointed. I then paste the notes into folders which are shared with all team members via our cloud based Google Drive system.

I always try to build an editorial schedule that allows for time to experiment; to be inventive. Ideally, on any new series we will start off with a lot of recording and slowly build our show library. This front-loaded work pays dividends. The less we rely on existing library materials, the more original a show will sound over the course of time. That means anything that can be signature, will be. From sweetened real world weapons to lasers and spaceships, it’s all original. We will also record loads of props for editorial. Anything small and tedious gets recorded to picture the first time. We then library it and have it on hand for future editorial.

After principal editorial, I have the chance to assemble all of our team’s work. This final stage gives me one last chance to check in. I’ll make sure any client notes from the spotting session are properly addressed and take the time to digest the episode as a whole. This is also a great time to set some general levels so the client playback is as balanced as possible.

At this stage I’ll preview the work with the clients, addressing any notes. Then dialog and music are added in and the show is predub mixed. The predub usually overlaps any final picture adjustments which conveniently gives me time to make any necessary updates or adjustments as new picture rolls in.

The last step is the mix. A mixer spends all morning fine tuning and the clients show up for the latter part of the day. By the end of the day we have another episode in the can. I love this workflow because each stage presents a new challenge. Work never gets stagnant. By the time you finish each episode, it feels like a mountain has been climbed and that feeling of accomplishment gets you excited for the next one (which will likely start the very next day).

COLLABORATION: YOU’RE ONLY AS STRONG AS YOUR TEAM

Animation can be a very work intensive medium. I would not be able to accomplish the level of work at the pace needed for most animation schedules without a team I can count on. I’ve got a handful of fantastic editors that I work with here at Boom Box Post. We are a team. It’s that spirit of collaboration that has made us successful. I don’t see sound design as a rock star medium (although my mom would beg to differ). When a client remarks on a particularly cool sound created by one of my team members, I let the client know who was behind it. Then I pass the positive feedback along to that editor. It’s not revolutionary. The feedback encourages more creative work and in the end we are all proud of our shared effort.

Speaking of sharing, while working on a series edited at Boom Box Post, we encourage our editors to be open with anything created for that show. Creating, organizing and ultimately sharing any new material custom made for that series amongst the editors of that series is expected. This spirit of sharing allows for us to exponentially build our library and encourages everyone to be creating new material every single day. I’m as excited to hear the new library additions from my editors as I am creating material myself.

As for sourcing these sounds, we tend to go about it in one of three ways. Our first source (and my personal favorite) is synthesis. If the sound requires it, I jump at the chance to build something from scratch.

Of course another great option is to record new material. There is no need (nor usually any time) to be crazy about recording techniques.
Grab a mic and a portable recorder and get something down. Some of my absolute favorite recordings are total guerrilla efforts.

For an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I needed to create a monster made of organic material (leaves, twigs, dirt, etc). I decided to record in our spare room on a Sony mini recorder. The morning of this particular recording I must have been distracted because I remembered as I headed for my car that I wanted to try and get some new material for this monster. I ended up running around my yard tearing away at the landscaping. My wife, initially puzzled, remembered I had mentioned the idea and ran outside behind me with our daughter, joining in on the materials gathering. “Will this work?” She kept shouting from across the yard holding branches, dead flowers and sticks above her head. Needless to say, my 18 month old daughter was both confused and amused. These are the moments I love. This is why our job is so fun.

Back at the office, I tore that brush up! The room I recorded in looked like it was hit by a hurricane when I was through and the sounds were incredible. For years I would squint trying to manipulate the few brush and leaf sounds I had in my library and now I have an amazing kit of brand new original sounds. As a third option, anything beyond the scope of recording and synthesizing can be filled in with high quality library recordings.

It’s been such a pleasure to support independent creators of sound effects libraries. Almost everything we build ends up in layers. It’s very rare that a single sound effect works well on its own and building a moment by layering different effects gives us another chance to make something new.

TOOLS: DREAMING OF HARDWARE, WORKING WITH SOFTWARE

As a lover of both sound design and 80’s Pop music, it’s only natural that I would be a bit crazy for synths. I dream of a room filled with all the best Vintage gear, in top shape, ready to turn on and record at a moment’s inspiration. The sad truth however is those synths can be a lot of work. Vintage can be quirky. Older gear can have all kinds of outputs and getting them to play nice with my Pro Tools setup would take away time better spent on the creative process. I still dream of that room, and may even find the time to build it some day, but in the meantime I have a secret weapon.

The iPad has been an indispensable tool for me. There are people out there significantly more obsessed with synthesizers than I who are meticulously modeling them for the iPad. The best part is these apps are insanely affordable. Most of these apps are under $10. I don’t care how much of a gear head you are, there’s no argument against the value you get for the money. Not to mention, the majority of what I make ends up ported into Pro Tools for some more manipulation, so the nuances of true Analog aren’t necessarily going to shine through in the end. If you are a sound designer and you want instant inspiration, pick up Sunrizer or Magellan. The presets are a great start but these synths have such a level of control to them, anything is possible. My new favorite tool is Samplr.

The concept is such a no-brainer when you think about it. Samplers are fantastic sound design tools but once you drop touch control into the mix, you are suddenly able to ‘play’ your sounds in an entirely different way. The multitouch in conjunction with the ability to record your movements in loops opens up possibilities you can’t even think up when simply triggering from a MIDI keyboard. I’m learning about new apps every day and it’s all I can do to avoid buying and trying every one of them (which, at this price point, isn’t unreasonable). Find your new tool within the iPad and go invent something we have never heard before. This technology is allowing us to be explorers and I’m so excited to see where it leads us.

IN PRACTICE: SHOWING SOME LOVE FOR HYPER REALITY

On an episode of Kick Buttowski, the two main characters are racing to get a lawn mowed. The sequence is staged like a NASCAR race. The lawn mowers needed to transform from the real world to the hyper real, taking on the quality of high performance race cars. The camera swoops under the mower, through the blades and into the internal combustion engine. We glide over the gas tank and see the spark ignite the fuel, jetting us out the exhaust and starting the race. Imagining and executing this a sequence like this is so much fun. The humor is there simply with the setup, but we take it further in supporting this David Fincher-style camera movement. I started by designing whooshes to sweep us around with the camera.

With those in place, it’s already clear we are entering a new dimension. Then it was all about choosing sounds to sweeten each new section of the mower as we fly by them. This is where sound design starts to feel like composing. There’s a rhythm established here by the video editor, which we are then tasked to support and embellish.

When all was said and done, this was a sequence that didn’t need music. It’s one of those rare occasions on the mix stage where the producer decides to just let the sound design guide us through and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a secret thrill out of these moments. These sequences can be a lot of work and it’s ultimately a toss up as to whether score or sound design will win out in the mix. It comes down to what’s better for the show as a whole, and I’ve become better over the years at letting go. It’s important to recognize what serves the greater good. That day however, we scored one for the sound team!

EMBELLISHING DIALOGUE: SUPPORTING CHARACTER WITH EFFECTS

On most series, dialogue simply arrives and gets worked in on mix day. However, I’ve worked on many series where dialogue is sweetened. There are many potential pitfalls when treating your dialogue in any way. For starters, dialogue is king and the last thing you want is for your sweetening to make it unintelligible. That’s a real concern. That said, sweetening dialogue with a light touch can add a whole new dimension to your work. In Ben 10: Omniverse, we sweetened almost all of Ben’s ‘Aliens.’ This allowed us to work some extra personality into each character, accentuating the fantastic performances given by the cast.

One of my favorites was Shocksquatch, a yeti-like character with a Canadian accent. Shocksquatch had electrical powers and a pretty deep voice. I ran all of his vocals through a gate that triggered steadys of electrical crackling. Every time he spoke, the gate opened up and the electricity balanced in under the performance, giving the illusion that his voice box had electrical activity inside of it. For an added dimension, I also ran all of his dialogue through LoAir to push the lower frequencies in the performance and help boost his overall size. Other characters on the show were pitched, doubled, fed through convolution reverbs and vocoded (sometimes all of the above!). This boiled down to a lot of extra work but paid dividends in terms of building character and fleshing out the alien world.

Another approach we often take is to layer real animal sounds under the dialogue (growls, roars, breaths, etc). I first started experimenting with this process while working on Thundercats. Lion-O would roar and we would lay lion roars in, time compressing to match the actor’s performance length. The goal was to blend the two as seamlessly as possible. Tygra was sweetened with tiger roars and growls, Panthro a panther, etc. Cheetara… well we used cougar sounds for Cheetara. At the time, we couldn’t find any good cheetah sounds! Still, you get the idea.

We extrapolated this process as the Thundercats met more species on their journeys. Lizard and frog vocals were especially fun to play around with. Elephants, various birds, even fish men, nothing was off limits. By the time the first season of that show had completed, we had experience using this process with just about every animal species. Where appropriate, I now use this kind of sweetening on all my shows.

COMEDY IN ANIMATION: SOUND DESIGN AS A SUPPORTING ROLE

If you’re working in animation, odds are you’ll be called upon to work on some comedic properties at some point in your career. I’ve had the pleasure of working on many animated comedies as well as action-comedies, that lovable hybrid that tends to really hit the sweet spot with audiences. The point is, you’ll want to be sure you have the chops to handle humor when it comes across your desk. I’ll be honest and say that being funny certainly helps. Humor is very subjective and one of those things that would be extremely hard to teach.

An understanding of comedic timing is extremely important. I’ve seen first-hand how moving a sound effect only a few frames can change a moment from flat to outright hilarious. If you find your comedy chops are lacking, the best advice I can give is to immerse yourself in lots of funny stuff. Find what makes you laugh, both broad and subtle, and dissect what’s funny about it. See how a pause between a reaction or line of dialog can be used for your benefit and work with it. Remember that farts, although overused, tend to be funny to just about everyone (for real, just go with it).

One warning however, don’t create jokes where there are none. This is a really common pitfall with newer editors. They are working on a funny show and trying their best to cram in as much humor as possible. Sound design will always be a supporting cast member in comedies. Trust that the writers understand the balance of humor needed in the show and simply use sound to support or plus the existing comedy.

THE SECRET TRUTH: COMPOUNDING INTEREST

There are many tips and tricks, lots of knowledge I’ve picked up along the way through trial and error, some of which I’ve tried to share here with you today. However, staying true to the title of this post, I want to leave you with one last thought. The secret truth is, the key to great animation sound design is great clients.

I don’t want to sound like I’m pandering. It’s certainly easy to praise the folks who bring you the work. That’s not what this is about. When I look back at my career thus far, I have to trace all of my success to the people that not only showed up at my door, but challenged me week after week to surprise them. To knock them over with laughter or to bug their eyes out with some whacked out synthesized creation they’ve never heard before. It sounds simple, but complacency is the enemy of any creative work, and animation is a medium that doesn’t have room for ‘good enough.’ At least not for the people I’ve worked with, and for that I am eternally grateful. My number one piece of advice is to cultivate a client base that looks forward to stepping into your office and being wowed every single time. They’ll keep you honest.

It wouldn’t be fair for me to simply leave you with that. Having a stable of talented animation clients doesn’t come from luck or magic. It’s about the work. To cultivate your own great client base, do great work. Every single time. It doesn’t matter if there’s little to no money. When you’re starting out, pick the projects that inspire you and knock them out of the park.

Talented creatives will go on to do great things. They will remember you as the passionate sound designer who would not compromise their work and they will bring you along. There’s an old adage in production: “You’ve got good, cheap and fast, pick 2.” That adage is crap. There should be no room in your career for just cheap and fast. If you’re sacrificing the good, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Want a long career working on really fun stuff with people that are excited to see how you can add your stamp to their projects? Work your tail off. Do great work.

IN CONCLUSION: ADDING IT ALL UP

It has taken many years and countless projects to get to a place where I’m able to focus on creativity without sweating the constraints of time or budget. With experience comes efficiency coupled with the confidence to spend time trying new things. These tips on workflow and suggestions for creative tools are a great jumping off point, but can only take you so far. Take my advice and surround yourself with talented people who will push you to new creative heights. Challenge yourself to break out of your usual bag of tricks and try new tools that may not even be intended for sound design just to see what comes out. There is no right or wrong in the world of animation sound design. In the end, if it sounds good coming out of the speakers you’re on the right track. Animation grows from pure imagination. Build on that. Above all, be proud of the work you put out there on every single job.

And if all else fails, put a fart sound in there.


Cover image by Charles Forerunner, courtesy of unsplash 

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