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SLAPBACK: (noun) the echo of a sound as it bounces between parallel reflective walls.

The Soundtrack is an Animator's Best Friend

When it comes to sound design for picture, nothing is more challenging or involving than working on a world conceived totally in another's mind. Animators, as a sociological group, are some of the most creative, weird, anti-social, irreverent and funny people I get to work with. Did I forget omnipotent, as in controllers of everything in the(ir) universe?

This is as it should be. How else could a mere mortal bring to life creatures whose hands have four fingers, yet appear totally natural? In their visions the laws of nature are suspended, gravity is on vacation and the unlikely, if not the absurd, is on overtime.

There is, obviously, no sync sound in this world. This aural landscape will be created exclusively in the studio. Actors will contribute their aural essence, musicians will play on the emotions, sound effects will define spaces and places.

To meld seamlessly into the Animation subject of this issue of Film/Tape, I called animation directors I have worked with over the years to get their perspective on sound for animation.

In 1992 I worked with Jim Mattison on"Crazy Daisy Ed" segments for MTV's experimental series Liquid Television. Jim wrote the scripts, did voices, wrote and played the music, and animated. More recently we worked together on a video for the toy Zoob, on which Jim again had a hand in every aspect of the production. After a five year stint as an independent, he is back at Colossal full time.

Jim says: "In a lot of ways I think the sound is even more important than picture...I get a lot more richness out of the sound can have a super well animated picture, but if the voice performance is not great, or the recording is poor, it won't work. A still image with a great track will be more effective." For defining a space Jim goes with effects first, music if needed. More often than not he'll create the music himself. "I do music that's really kind of gritty, kind of earthy....but I think it provides much more flavor than a keyboard with 2000 sounds that make anyone sound like an orchestra."

The Senior Animation Director at Colossal is George Evelyn, who directed the riotous "Dr. Zum" segments on Liquid Television. His recent work is mostly high end commercials, including ads for Coke, and Old Navy.

George: "I subscribe to the dictum that the soundtrack is half the experience, specifically in the kind of animation which we tend to do where the track drives the visual. On his current project he is working back and forth with composer Michael Boyd on a Coke spot which harks back to the Fleisher Bros. style of "Steamboat Willie" and "Betty Boop", black and white thirties era toons. They are creating a Cab Calloway style soundtrack with lyrics to extol the virtues of America's most popular soft drink. Having established a double beat every 12 frames and the right groove for the animated dancing, animation and music can evolve concurrently with no worries about sync later"

Gerorge: "What's made our job interesting in recent years is that the public has such a heightened awareness and savvy about animation in general, we can reference the 50's, or we can reference the 30's like we're doing for Coke - last Christmas we did a Blockbuster ad which referenced Japanimation."

I worked with Dave Thomas on his directorial debut for Wild Brain last year. The piece, "A Dog Cartoon", had probably two lines of dialog during its six plus minutes of animation. Started as an in-house piece for animators to stretch out on, and intended mainly for festival screenings, "A Dog Cartoon" is being developed as a series under the title "Puccini’s Yard"

Dave Thomas: "Animation is kind of limited in terms of what it can convey as compared to a live action actor - so you depend pretty heavily on your sound effects to get some things across. Where the visuals can excite the eye, the sound and music is where I think a lot of your emotion comes from. A lot of people undervalue it. The more limited the animation is in terms of movement, the more it depends on the soundtrack and the use of color for emotional impact."

Dave doesn't like "cartoony" sound effects. He likes things realistic, but used in a non-literal way. He doesn't want the penny whistle or slide trombone effect for the long fall, he wants the dive bomber or the jet whoosh. Documentary sounds, but over-the-top in relation to picture.

Wild Brain animation director Dave Marshall looks for the sound to provide emotion through the music bed and the character voices. In the voices he looks for individuality, and a broad range of emotional and tonal depth. This is the element of the sound track that will reach beyond 2 dimensions and connect with the viewer. As an illustration of how much music can effect image, he described putting the score from the action-adventure film, "The Mission", to the images of the Wild Brain animated feature "FernGully II". This gentle, idyllic children's story took on a whole new level of intensity. That was the intention - the clip was for a show reel montage.

Wild Brain animation director John Hays also emphasizes the importance of the voice talent, stressing the quality of the acting performance captured during voice record sessions. "Good acting is most of it when it comes to capturing the character, if the voice doesn't seem like it fits, sometimes that's a plus, that's funny, but it's really hard to put your finger on what gets good acting from a voice talent."

John continues: "For myself I like effects that provide a sense of off-screen reality...It doesn't have to be just what you see happening - it could be dogs barking, birds, sirens... I give more weight to sound effects for the sense of the place, whereas the music would be to provide subtle emotional cues that would somehow be a counter-point to the action or else be something that really reinforces it." The visuals have a natural rhythm within, and the cutting of the images has a rhythm, ideally the music will pull that out."

I couldn't make these calls to animation directors without consulting my old friend Art Clokey, the creator of Gumby. We worked together on 65 half hour shows between 1987 and 1988, and again on the Gumby feature in 1994. Art, the Dean of Bay Area stop-motion work, grew up watching animation in the silent era. In those days, even if you were lucky to see the piece with live musical accompaniment, there were never any sound effects. His first job was in 1952. He sent a stop motion demo of a glass, some ice cubes, and some bottles of Coke to the soft drink giant. The demo was absolutely silent. He was busy for the next three years creating commercials for Coke, then for Budweiser.

Art is not only the creator of Gumby and writer for the clayboy, he is also the voice of his loyal sidekick, Pokey, and Gumby's father, Gumbo. I can hear Art's response to my question, "What did sound bring to animation?" coming out of Pokey's mouth: "Sound adds vibrations to the body- to the person listening and watching. You know the Mozart Effect? - sound and music effect the whole body, the psyche. You have a whole new dimension added to film with sound. We got started without sound, now we have the best of both worlds."

Film/Tape World Magazine, May 1999