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.

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