Written by Tess Fournier
Sound Effects Editor, Boom Box Post
As sound editors and designers, it’s always fun to talk about the techniques and tools we use to create out-of-this-world effects. At Boom Box, we’re often teaching each other new plug-ins to broaden our “sonic toolbox” and take our work to new heights. All of these tools and tricks-of-the-trade are necessary for us to do our job, but it’s important to remember that our job is that of a storyteller. Everything we create (however we choose to create it) must support, and perhaps elevate the storyline. In my personal experience, I have found that the quality of my work shines when I allow the story to guide my decisions specifically when editing “toony” effects, backgrounds, and design.
Earlier in my editing career, I let my anxieties get the best of my storytelling abilities. I was new to editing for animation and was having a hard time grasping when and how often to use “toony” effects. In fear of leaving any moment untouched, I littered my editorial with poinks, zips, and the like to accent even the slightest of facial expression. This caused for a very distracting soundscape, and as one would guess, many of those “toony” effects never made it to the final mix. With advice from my supervisor and careful review of final mixes, I studied the moments that deserved accent, as well as the moments that should be left quiet. I made the quite unsurprising discovery that the story should dictate these accents. Cartoon characters make silly expressions almost constantly, but when one of these expressions is in reaction to a plot point - or an eye zips to look at an object important to the story, or if an expression is used to point out a joke - these are the moments that deserve our attention, and therefore, deserve sound. Alternatively, omitting “toony” effects from expressions less important to the story helps to drive home the idea that the moments paired with sound are important.
Backgrounds are pivotal when trying to tell a story aurally. Good backgrounds should not only support the location on screen, but also help enhance the emotion of the plot. I recently edited an episode for television in which a character walks around at night. For this show, we have long established the background of this nighttime neighborhood, but in this particular episode the character in question was very frightened as he walk around in the dark. To help support this character’s fear and to help the audience share that emotion, I opted to trade my usual background (of which the primary focus is calm crickets and light wind) for a scarier one. I built a new BG of a heftier wind with leaf rustling, more aggressive crickets and cicadas, and a low, eerie drone. Additionally, I peppered in some spooky ambient owl calls. While the atmosphere was not visually different from the typical nighttime neighborhood, the aural BGs needed to be more frightening than usual in order to better tell the story.
Supporting the story through design work is, in my opinion, the most fun and perhaps gives the highest payout. When tackling a new design piece, it’s often hard to know where to start. It’s at this point when I usually look to the story for inspiration. Consider what you are building, the characters who will interact with it, the setting in which your design will live, and it’s prevalence within the story. Then, try to combine those elements into something unique and interesting. For instance, if you’re presented with the task of building a spaceship engine for a crew of extraterrestrial cows (something that is 100% plausible in our line of work), consider manipulating a cowbell, or a bovine bellow to incorporate into your design. However, keep context in mind; if those are some seriously scary cow aliens, you may want to think twice about building them a mooing spaceship. Perhaps we discover later in the story that the spaceship is faulty somehow; you could incorporate a junky rattle to indicate something may be amiss. Whatever you choose, make sure the primary function of your designs are to support the plot. It will not only benefit the story, but your designs themselves will have more depth.
It is our job as sound editors to tell an aural story alongside the visual one, and overall, if we are considerate of plot, our editorial will better suit our content, the story will be more poignant, and the piece as a whole will be much stronger.