Monday, May 21, 2007

Scratchin ‘n’ Scorin

In animation there’s such a thing as a “scratch track.” So named because it often has the aural clarity of fingers scratching on a chalkboard. What it is, simply put, is temp music, temp sound effects, and temp voice. Those three components of cinematic sound are sometimes necessary to edit to, so even before you hire your voice actors, foley artists, or music composers, you need something there as you edit your story reel. Often this scratch track contains copyrighted or otherwise ripped-off material, and it is important to remember your sources so that later you can do a clean sweep, replacing all those temp sounds with original material. Not trivial.

I’ll be pitching my boards to the whole studio next week so my scratch track has to convey the essence of each scene. Half the theatrical experience is audio – in fact, sound has even more of an effect on audience perception than visuals – so don’t make the mistake of making sound your afterthought. Too often in animation the sound isn’t up to par with the visuals (Pixar notwithstanding). Some major animation studios don’t even have an in-house audio department. Like, most of them. Carl Stalling is spinning in his orchestra pit. It’s a shame, because as we caress the lump of clay that is the story reel into the sculpture that is the finished film, we allow queues from character animation, staging and lighting to influence our editing decisions. If the sound is similarly labored upon we would find it to be just as influential in these decisions. Perhaps more pointedly so, because the art of film editing has its roots in musical composition, a form that has been around for thousands of years. All of the film techniques of montage, juxtaposition, timing and syncopation have their forebears in sound compositions, and as audience members, we are trained to accept, anticipate and appreciate edits mostly through a intuition imparted upon us through music.

The soundtrack is of particular importance to a story reel (or animatic), which is a storyboard played back in time with a scratch track. Important because, since the animation isn’t done yet, much of the action is described through sound effects while the storyboard frames are held. These temp sounds will also provide the audio landmarks for animators to time their action to. I’m currently having fun doing a little sound design for my reel. I have been reading a pretty good book on the subject, “Sound Design” by David Sonnenschein, and he lays down the rule “less is more.” That is, the audience only perceives up to two sounds at a time, so any more than that is clutter. That’s great advice, but I’m a clutter junky, so I can’t resist mocking up my soundtrack with layers of audio goulash. I’ve found you can get away with it provided you follow the same figure-and-ground rules you learned in art school. There needs to be a background: usually an environment (I have lots of pastoral landscape backdrops, so lots of wind and twiddling birds), and atop this there needs to be some “hero sounds,” at least enough to describe each central action on the screen, but even some that are “set dressing,” i.e. not story related but there compositionally to break up the monotony of the backdrop. I find it especially fascinating that everything I learned as an illustrator and a painter can also be applied when designing sound. Seems awfully coincidental at first, but on closer examination, the two are related (audio and video). In fact, they are the same thing: wavelengths. Our ears detect wavelengths at the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum, and our eyes pick up wavelengths in a higher range. So sound and visuals together provide the unified cinematic experience of, well, cinesthesia, because they are both ripples in the same pond.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Of Rollovers and Raglan

Well, it’s been a week since my last rambling installment. I managed to peter away the entire week updating the website. It looks kinda groovy now, but I can’t help but think of the ten thousand things on hold while that’s going on. So now I turn my attention back to the story reel, which is overdue for an update, and you’ll see the website fall into neglect. This guerrilla filmmaking stuff is like spinning plates.

So my attempt is to document the entire process for posterity. Maybe some of it will be interesting, you never know. This week I added a section on what goes into making a CG short film - - complete with charts and graphs. Geek out on that, won’t ya? Other goodies: there’s a links page, book recommendations, and the Sinistore (don’t wait for your next trade show! Get some SiniSwag today!) Anyway, it’s at cafe press: . Sinister Raglan Hoodie, anyone? Impress your friends!

Here’s the thought of the day:

When we look back on all that we’ve done, won’t it all look kind of ... Photoshopped?

And the book recommendation of the day (couldn’t make the list on the SiniSite because it’s not about animation ... and we can’t have that, can we?):

33 1/3 vol 17: Zoso (actually four symbols .. anybody got that font?) by Erik Davis.

Actually anything in the 33 1/3 series is pretty stylin. Amazon it.

Enough! I’ve got work to do, and so do you!

Til whenever,



Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Hero's Journey

“wrap around” to the beginning of the next. (That sentence was continued from my last blog entry, used to signify the essentially cyclic nature of reality.) But enuff with the metaphysical gris-gris. Here’s the scoop on my new short film, The Ballad of Sinister.

I decided to go the road more traveled on this one, milking the old hero’s journey paradigm for all its worth. Sinister is a cloaked freak out to prove himself in a landscape of pain and terror. Ay, aren’t we all? With or without the cloak? The jury’s still out on if it’s a hood and cloak he wears or if his strange accoutrements are parts of his deformity, what with his ambiguous character design. You can check out how our protagonist looks, and see other previsualization art, at the vanity site for the project, Don’t mind the broken links when you get there: it’s a work in progress. In fact, I just threw it up a couple days ago. But my intention is to get the framework there, so that, as production ramps up, I can update it with new and even more exciting content, thus building anticipation toward the release date.
Ah, release dates. Let’s talk about that for a minute. Anything I promise in terms of a release date is bound to be wishful thinking at this point. Here’s a very preliminary summary of the task ahead:
50+ unique characters
22 unique sets
28 sequences
122 shots
---and these numbers only stand to grow as production unfolds. So you see, it is an ambitious project, for a short. At a runtime of fifteen minutes, it is rather long for a short as well, but considering it is an “epic,” fifteen minutes is amazingly fast to tell a complex four-act story. I’ve been told to shorten it, by everybody (including myself), but there are two problems there: 1) it’s an epic. Epics are concerned with changes over long periods of time. Hard to give a sense of time passing and give justice to a subtle evolution in three minutes or less. 2) I’m bored with short shorts. In my spare time, I paint. And I can’t be bothered with small paintings either. I need to paint big paintings (5 ft at least). If it’s small, it doesn’t seem to justify the effort. So here’s my ironic justification for such a long short: even a short short would be tedious and difficult to make, so if you’re going to go that far, why not go one step beyond and create an epic? At least you’ll have something substantial to show when you’re done.