EDITORS GUILD MAGAZINE
Mark Mangini, left, and Randy Thom at the reception preceding
"The Sound Behind the Image: Now Hear This!" presentation. Photo by Matt Petit/(C)AMPAS
Web Exclusive: August 2008
NOW HEAR THIS!
Animated Sounds at the Academy
By Garrett Gilchrist
From Mickey Mouse's laugh to the adventures of The Incredibles and Wall-E, sound has always been a vital component of animation. On Friday, August 8th, the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills presented "The Sound Behind the Image II: Now Hear This!", an evening honoring the art of animation sound design. "People who work in animation and people who work in sound are kindred spirits," said Skywalker Sound's Randy Thom. "Partly because neither group of people gets as much respect as they should. Some misinformed people in the live action community think that's where the real storytelling happens." But any list of the most successful and best loved films of all time would be a lot shorter if animated films were left off entirely.
Hosting the evening was sound designer and 3-time Oscar nominee Mark Mangini. The lobby was filled with original soundmaking props created by master Disney sound designer Jimmy MacDonald. "Music was always important to films," said Mangini. "Jimmy MacDonald made sound effects important to films."
In the earliest days of animation, sound had to be performed live by an orchestra on a soundstage. It wasn't edited in later - sound cues were written on a piece of sheet music and performers had to hit their cues at the right time. For an admitted "sound geek" like Mangini, it brings a smile to think of Walt Disney himself performing the sounds that brought Steamboat Willie (1928) to life as the first sync sound cartoon. "This was the era of performance," said Mangini. The sounds you hear in the early sound cartoons were made by whatever devices could be brought onto a soundstage, which means they were usually made by musical instruments. Drummers tended to be most adept at sound creation, carrying with them a collection of odd percussive instruments - clackers, grinders, wind whistles. While working on the Silly Symphonies in 1934, MacDonald came in to work for Disney, and he stayed for 48 years, even taking over the voice of Mickey Mouse from Walt in 1946. MacDonald was a tinkerer and an inventor, who could get amazing sounds from the most unlikely objects.
Joe Herrington, master sound designer at Disney for 28 years, demonstrated a collection of MacDonald's props. The audience gasped in delight as strange devices made from cans, tubing, metal, wood, leather and wire suddenly croaked like frogs and buzzed like flies, creating the bizarre but familiar sounds they'd heard so many times as children, sounds that have become part of our lives. A bundle of bamboo became the sound of Bambi's fire. A wallet created the squeaky shoes of the dwarves in Snow White. A BB placed in a balloon gave an oh-so-familiar whizzing winding down sound. How do you create the sound of a million marching ants? How do you make the mainspring of a clock talk in a human voice? Or a talking train? Jimmy did it. MacDonald died in 1982, and Herrington fought to save his remarkable props. Dressed a bit like a western entertainer, Herrington retains some of the unpretentious, folksy charm that Disney and MacDonald had in spades - an easygoing nature which made their animated worlds so inviting.
As sound editing became an important part of animation, we moved from the age of performance to the age of interpretation, as clever sound editors used sound recordings found in the libraries of major studios and twisted them to serve their own purposes. The sound of a mechanical "inertia starter" became the sound of the Tazmanian Devil. Supervising sound editor David E. Stone now took the stage, an Oscar winner for Bram Stoker's Dracula.
"The coyote is dragged over the desert and you hear car horns. He's dragged backwards over the cactus and we hear a kookaburra, the Australian bird. Why?" Stone began to laugh. "Why? He hits three boulders in a row in just a few frames and what we're hearing is the rapid drumming on cowbells. There's no explaining this non sequitur, this theater of the absurd use of sound effects, except to say it's Treg Brown." We were watching a clip from Chuck Jones' Roadrunner cartoon Zoom and Bored from 1957. Sound editor Brown was just as much of a character in his own right as the Warner Brothers characters he brought to life. When you listen to his work carefully, it can often seem more unhinged and manic than the already frenzied visuals, full of bizarre and hilarious choices on what sound to use when. This was sound design as comedy, and it gave the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons much of their flavor. To underline this point, Stone and Mangini decided to remove Brown's sounds from the Roadrunner scene, and replace them with their own. They created a "modern" take on the scene, using the sort of "realistic" sounds that a live action sound editor would use if designing the sound for this scene. They even used recordings of a real Roadrunner. They achieved their goal of making the sound design here as dull and lifeless as that of a clunky Hollywood action film. Even with Carl Stalling's great music still intact, suddenly the scene lacked all the energy and vitality that Brown's unusual sound choices had given it. It's interesting to note that nearly all of today's animated films are sound designed this way, to sound "realistic." The sort of sound design that Brown and MacDonald did so well is essentially a lost art.
Pictured, from left, Foley artist John Roesch, Foley artist Alyson
Moore, Disney Imagineering media designer Joe Herrington, Foley
mixer Mary Jo Lang, sound effects editor Mark Mangini, sound editor
David Stone, sound editor Randy Thom and Tad Marburg, chairman
of Public Programs and Education for the Academy Science and Technology
Council. Photo by Matt Petit, (c)AMPAS
Stone and Mangini, to make a point in the opposite direction, also prepared a version of the scene done entirely with Hanna-Barbera sound effects. Brown was able to draw from the live action library of Warner Bros., and the sounds he used tended to be rich and full in quality, then used for wacky purposes. The effects library of Hanna Barbera was specifically prepared to sound cartoony - and although the sound effects were effective on television, when combined with the full animation of Chuck Jones the sounds simply sounded limited and cheap ... like the best of Hanna Barbera's TV cartoons. Stone and Mangini had both worked at Hanna Barbera doing sound, and knew that library well.
As a final tribute to Brown, a clip was played from a rarely seen Chuck Jones short called Now Hear This!, nominated for an Oscar in 1962. Treg Brown's sound design was the focus of this short, as the sound effects got all the laughs playing over unusually experimental animation.
The era of interpretation has now given way to the era of storytelling, where sound design must be more realistic, and follow the action in a similar manner to live action films. With today's technology, the possibilities for sound design can shake a theater and bring an audience to tears. It was in the late 80s when a new generation of Disney animators brought feature animation a new degree of mass popularity, and sound design went along with them. Mangini was able now to talk about his own experiences. "I was very excited to be asked to interview for Beauty and the Beast. In many ways this was sort of my shot at the big time, to get into the big leagues. A chance to redefine the animation sound genre, and sort of leap into the history books with Jimmy and Treg ... at least, that's what I thought." The audience laughed. "There was one central design challenge in the film, and that was, what were we going to do with the Beast's voice?"
The beast was voiced by Robby Benson. "Robby, a great actor, fantastic performances, has an alto voice. The beast should be bestial, a basso profundo. It just didn't work." As expected, the first question at his interview was about the beast, and Mangini let his opinion be known. "I didn't like it at all. It was the wrong timbre. [I said] we should throw it all out and start from scratch. This didn't go over very well, because as I would find out later, it was the personal choice of Jeffrey Katzenberg. Needless to say I did not do well in the interview. You need to like the Beast if you're going to work on the movie of the same name."
Foley artist John Roesch demonstrates a sound-making device at
the reception preceding the "The Sound Behind the Image:
Now Hear This!" presentation at the Academy of Motion Picture
Arts and Sciences. Photo by Matt Petit, (c)AMPAS
Mangini would learn to like the Beast. "I came up with a three-pronged approach." The first prong? "Bring Robby back for rerecording, but now we would coach him to beast it up, meaning we would pick key lines throughout the film where he needed to be more beastly, and he would in fact perform more in that fashion ... he would sort of growl into a line, deliver his line, and then sort of outro the line with a growl. We would then add actual real animal sounds, processed and manipulated to sound more like a creature, like the Beast. We would attach them to the beginnings and ends of lines to make it feel like a more seamless blend." Mangini played a selection of these sounds, called "John Pospisil's Beast Sweeteners." "We would layer animal sounds underneath Robby's voice, and we would even separate and sneak in little pieces of lion and tiger growls and dog things inbetween words and syllables - it was real surgery." The final step? "We brought it to Terry Porter, the magnificent rerecording mixer at the Disney Studios - he pitch shifted the voice, took it down a certain range to put it deeper in that sort of deep basso level. And he would equalize it and add low frequency to just make it sound sort of larger than life, as big as he looked onscreen." Porter applied a real art to his work. "He did not pick a static pitch shift for the voice. He varied this pitch shifting depending on the mood of the beast."
Foley artist John Roesch then took the stage. He has worked on 300 films over 25 years, and worked with his team of Mary Jo Lang and Alyson Moore for 10 of those years. John had brought a batch of gadgets that would make Jimmy MacDonald proud. For bones breaking and heads being chopped off, he had celery. Rather than use coconuts for horse's hooves, he used two modified plumber's helpers. Fairy bells were there to bring Tinkerbell to life. A guitar-like "boing box" designed for Roger Rabbit made all manner of cartoony sounds. Said Roesch, "Jimi Hendrix, eat your heart out." As a scene from Beauty and the Beast played onscreen, the team made hinges squeak, blew train whistles, and brought the wondrous steampunk inventions of Belle's father to life, live for an appreciative audience. Perhaps the era of performance isn't dead after all.
"The word 'cartoon' is pretty much a pejorative term these days," said sound designer Randy Thom, two-time Academy Award winner and fourteen-time nominee. "One of the first things that I'm told by the director is 'it should not sound toony.' It should not sound like a cartoon. It should sound essentially real ... It's what you might call exaggerated realism. It's pretty rare that we use custom made sound gadgets like the ones Joe showed us earlier that were invented by Jimmy MacDonald. Though some of us are intensely interested in developing new gadgets that are somewhat similar that will make a new whole set of sounds. And we also, contrary to popular belief, do very little electronic sound synthesis." Thom can imagine a day in two or three decades when any sound can be synthesized, including human voices. But whereas today, any visual can be synthesized in CGI, very little money, time or effort has been put into the synthesis of electronic sound ... a science that is still in its infancy. "We haven't needed to. Sound is such a malleable thing. You can take an existing sound and twist it in so many different ways. You can go out and record an elephant trumpeting and combine it with a few other sounds and turn that into a T-Rex vocalization ... whereas you can not go out and video a crocodile and somehow manipulate that image to turn it into a T. Rex." Thom used recorded sound samples of a giant industrial metal shearing machine, fed into a MIDI keyboard, to create a musical rhythm to the "larger than life train" of The Polar Express (2004).
Today's digital tools allow young mixers to equalize and alter sounds any way they like. However, Thom finds that "The longer you work as a mixer, the less you tend to process sounds. And also the longer you work as a mixer, the more ruthless you become about discarding sounds. As Don [Hahn] put it so eloquently, mixing is not just about combining sounds together; it's about deciding what sounds to focus on." Disney producer Hahn was shown in an onscreen interview with Mangini, stating how the job of a sound designer is to decide which sounds are important and should be emphasized, and which shouldn't be in the mix at all. If a mix is turned in that has a sound for every action, it becomes a noisy mess. "That's not sound design," said Hahn. The task, says Thom in discussing his work on The Incredibles (2004), is to "gracefully change that focus so that the audience feels like they're hearing everything they need to hear." Today the soundtrack to an animated film is less a comedian than a major dramatic player, stunning the audience with its depth and realism. The story always comes first.
"So we certainly use different sets of technology now than Jimmy did. And the storytelling styles have certainly changed. But the essence of doing sound for animated films is still about finding sounds that are fun, or scary, mysterious, sometimes just reassuringly real," says Thom. "The world of sound that we create in an animated film is a little bit like a character, and our job is to attempt to give that character a voice."
Garrett Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer specializing in animation. He can be reached at orangecow.org.