Michael Geisler, sound effects editor and designer, discusses the elements of successful sound design and the considerations that must be taken when approaching a project.
I remember watching Road Runner cartoons when I was a kid and waiting and waiting, when the Coyote fell, for the explosion that came after the long shell scream -- that ol' Warner explosion. I always enjoyed the way the silence before the impact made it seem so much farther away, and so much more painful. It made me smile. Like the way Bugs Bunny would hit someone with a baseball bat and there was this, "WHAP!" sound that was so indignant, or when accompanied by an anvil hit, made it even more painful. This was not a lifelike use of sound. It was bigger than life, like Bill Cosby waiting for the perfect moment to tell a punchline. This was true comedy. What Do You Do? I've worked in sound editing and post-production for the last sixteen years. After moving from New York to Los Angeles in 1990, I started working mostly in animation because that's what I wanted. At the time in New York there were little to no cartoon series being done. I actually worked in New York with my hero, Peter Fernandiz, (the voice of Speed Racer) on non-animated projects, and told him about my desire to work on cartoons. Peter would say, in that Speed Racer voice of his, `Kid, you gotta go to Hollywood. That's where cartoons are made.' So I did! When I tell people I do cartoon sound effects, they usually ask me to make some. Sometimes I do make sounds by vocalizing grunts, clicks, gulps or even making monkey noises. But, I also record sounds with various whistles and percussion devices I've collected. I also use the computer to bend, twist, and shape different sounds that need to be just right for the character or action on which I'm working. A big part of my job, however, is working with a library of sound effects that I have, which is a collection of old tapes and DAT backups, as well as the digitally remastered "cartoon" CD collections that are on the market. We've all heard the classic sound FX. At Hanna-Barbera there was the "varoop," "paint fight," or "waaheep" (which sounds exactly as it is spelled). These wacky FX were all too common from The Flintstones to The Banana Splits. Warner Bros. had that "whap" and the distinctive "Rico's" and "anvil hits" that came from the WB westerns. Also the "zurup" or "zip in" was very common to the cartoons made there. There are some crashes that are always heard, like when Daffy Duck falls down some dark cellar steps. Most of the these fx have the distinctive echo of the sound stages on the Warner Bros. lot.
Sound and Editing
Sometimes, one has to draw from experience to create the best sound for a scene. I remember working on the Goof Troop series. There was a shot where a tree branch kept scraping against a window in a creepy way. I finished the reel and was going over my notes on missing FX, when I thought, `What we need is some fingernails on a chalkboard to make the scene really edgy.' Unfortunately, I didn't have the sound in the library, so I decided to record it. Luckily a sound recorder was still working, and he blocked his ears, got a level, and looked away. I scraped my fingernails against a chalkboard -- long scrapes, deep scrapes that dig in at the end, short, fast, staccato scratches. I kept going until my fingernails were shaved down to the skin. My biology teacher in high school did that every day to get our attention, and it made me notice how powerful that sound is. When editing sound for animation I find that things are funniest when one covers the specifics around exaggerated movements, or antics. For instance, when a character is about to have a "Tex Avery" (eyes popping wide out of the head) kind of eye reaction, I cover the sound of the character recoiling before the eyes pop. It is a very short bit of animation, but without covering it with sound, it seems as unfinished as not animating it. The eyes would just bug out in a horrific uncontrolled lurch that would look like several in-betweens were missing, and at the very least, would not be funny. Eyeblinks are not always a piano hit on the eyelid close, because they are usually not animated that way. Sometimes the eyelid closing and the eyelid opening are two very separate actions, and so each motion, open and close, must have different sound effects. In "Man's Best Friend," the classic Ren & Stimpy episode that introduces George Liquor, Ren smacks George with his own "Prize Bludgeoning Oar" and George's eye pops out of his head like a piece of meat. The eyelid does a wet sounding movement down over the eye until the eyelids meet and blink (splat, wet hit), and then slosh up again.
On the second season of Johnny Bravo we have to deal with Johnny zooming from place to place. Johnny blasts out of a room, and jet plane zooms away. Every scene is quiet...until he blasts through it. When he finally arrives home, he kicks (huge wood impact) the door open which always calls for a huge door backhit (the sound of the door hitting the wall after being kicked open). All of these actions happen very quickly and need to be cut very specifically so as not to get muddied. To cut something with a specific sound that still has character, after being trimmed to less than a second, takes some time. To make it funny, takes patience. Different Projects, Different Styles I've been fortunate to work on various kinds of animated projects, and they all present different challenges. On some television series one is following a style that has been designed in the feature film the show is based on. On other series projects one has to create sounds for all sorts of vehicles and props. To maintain sound continuity they have to be organized properly so several editors can use them. This is necessary for the many episodes that will have a very short turn around time from final locked picture to final mix date.
Then there are feature films which have big budgets and, usually, lots of picture changes. If I have been hired to deal with the cartoon effects on a feature I'm usually editing scenes that have already had layers of sounds cut for the same action. When working on Small Soldiers, I tried to give the Gorgonites specific cartoon action zips and funny antic sounds to keep them amusing and help them stand out during some intense six channel stereo surround battle scenes with the Commando Elite.
I usually meet with the producer or director and find out what ideas he or she have when they imagine the final sound track. Also it gives me a chance to get to know the person and see what their influences are. We also discuss what they want to accomplish with sound and music. In animation especially, sound effects play an important role in conveying action. Music helps express emotion. Now that last statement may seem obvious to a lot of people, but sometimes everyone needs to be reminded. If a character is moving quickly, slamming doors, zipping and zooming around and knocking things over, then one probably has enough sound effects to carry the action. Music could help convey speed but not hit all the hits. However if the character is sitting or walking or doing a repetitive action, there's only so much sound effects can do. That's the time for a great musical melody to convey the emotion of a scene. When working on a series we usually try to spot (preview picture for sound) with the director, composer and myself. The composer and I will keep in touch by phone if necessary to discuss things while we work. We talk about issues like what kind of instrumentation or sound effects will be used for scenes concerning magic, or fantasy, or horror. Also a lot of animation composers will cover things with "musical effects." I usually ask them to split off the "musical effects" so they can be played at a different volume from the rest of the score. A composer's fling sound may cover an object being thrown off camera very nicely, but the crash effect of the object which I've cut needs to be at a volume that compliments it, so the two sounds will balance. We do all we can to make the usual one day final mixing of the soundtrack go as smooth as possible. My work in films is of a different nature. I was hired by Supervising Sound Editor Mark Mangini, to do the cartoon effects on Space Jam. Mark and I had never worked together and he only knew of my work on the first and second season of Ren & Stimpy. I was familiar with his work as sound designer for my favorite Star Trek films and Disney features. Mark also ran the track reading room at Hanna-Barbera years ago, and even created some of the Hanna-Barbera sound effects (Mark created the "Waaheep" among others). We met and watched some of the picture and talked about the sound effects. It was a dialogue that most people wouldn't understand because we spoke in cartoon sound effect terms. But I think what convinced him that I could handle the job was when I stood up and re-enacted the movements made by Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, and with each move of my body, I called out the effect that I would use, making sure that they all came from the Warner library, and no Hanna-Barbera or Disney effects got in there. After that it was, "Okay, you get it," and we had a lot of fun.
Some of the most fun I've had is working with John R. Dilworth. John's a very talented guy and a good friend. For Dilworth's film Courage the Cowardly Dog in The Chicken From Outer Space, I received the storyboard in advance so I could start thinking about sound. The board layed out the dynamics of the sound immediately; a soft scene of an egg cracking, cut to a dog trying to break out of a chicken coop with a jackhammer. I tried to make the normal cooking and eating sounds of Muriel as real as possible. Courage's sounds were usually way over the top and the contrast of loud and soft passages made for a very dynamic soundtrack. I also cut the grunts and voices to play off of Courage's movements very specifically.
Another film I did the sound on for John had no dialogue and he wanted me to come up with it all. When he first gave it to me, I didn't get it. A love story? A bird's butt? I recorded John making some snarls and laughs I thought were funny, cut some pre-recorded library music, and used sound effects to beat the crap out of the little bird in The Dirdy Birdy. This film had nice quiet winds, funny happy music, and a bird in love that would not DIE! I've always said that with cartoon sounds, "It's not funny unless someone's suffering." I will never forget seeing The Dirdy Birdy in a theater full of laughter at the Ottawa Festival. The cat hits the bird with a golf club, and he flies into infinity -- a pause -- then a distant boom. That old coyote and explosion trick, just like I remembered it. Michael Geisler is an award winning cartoon sound effects editor/designer, for feature films ( Small Soldiers, Dante's Peak, Space Jam, Cats Don't Dance, Demolition Man), television ( Disney's Aladdin, Rocko's Modern Life, The Ren & Stimpy Show), and various short films ( Chicken from Outer Space, Smart Talk with Raisin). He is currently Supervising Sound Editor on the new Johnny Bravo series and Kampung Boy.