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Teach Yourself Animation - Sound - Book Review

Learning to create animation on your own is very doable. This post, one of a series focusing on the tools of the trade, looks at the basics of creating a sound track for your film.

Title page of Designing Sound for Animation by Robin Beauchamp (Focal Press.)

When’s the last time you watched a silent animation? Maybe in an art gallery where the focus of the work is entirely on the visuals and temporal changes, but rarely at a festival or on TV. So how do you go about learning how to create the perfect soundtrack for your film? Books! 

I’m a fan of books because they’re easy to cart around (the e-book and soft cover ones anyway) and there’s a lot of information packed in there. A good author cuts to the quick and gives you the essence in a concise and efficient way. And if the author is a teacher, even better!

“Designing Sound for Animation” (Focal Press, paper and ebook) was written by a teacher. But Robin Beauchamp is not just a teacher, he’s also a practicing sound designer who specializes in animation. How is designing sound for animation different from, say, designing sound for a live action short? First of all, animation has no sound recorded on set along with the picture, so there’s nothing to begin from; second is that animation is at its strongest when, rather than trying to duplicate the aesthetic of live action, it shapes the visuals to a metaphor – in other words, it’s using the visuals to make a pithy statement about something that the visuals represent. For example, dogs fighting can represent humans warring. Birds cooing can represent humans loving. Animation is full of such metaphors, and the job of the sound designer is to flesh them out and make them clear to the viewer.

Robin Beauchamp’s book teaches you just that. It begins with a thorough introduction to digital sound. Don’t skip over the intro even if you think you already know the material. I did, and then went back and found many precious tidbits of valuable information buried in the pages. It’s not a long book (192 pages) and the layout makes it easy to navigate and absorb the information. There are lots of illustrations on the science of acoustics, designing spotting logs, etc.. He describes and illustrates how to organize the sound design process and where and how it fits in to the overall production of the film. 

This is one of the few books that talk about music and how to cut it to picture. Beauchamp also lists a number of resources where you can audition and purchase music cues. Ditto sound effects - he lists online libraries that sell sounds, what kind of sounds to get, what to stay away from, and finally how to record your own SFX. There’s a whole chapter on arts law which provides a good introduction to copyright law. This is important because you never know when the film you make will go wide, and you don’t want to fall in love with a soundtrack that’s not under license to you.

Bonus are two detailed case studies along with a DVD that illustrate the process of producing sound for animation. We follow along as the job is assigned and the soundtrack goes into production. The design and creation of dialog, music and SFX stems is diarized and the audio and video for each stage presented on the DVD. This provides a valuable set of examples to model your own process on. In addition, there’s an excellent bibliography at the end with titles of other good books on the subject should you wish to pursue your studies further.

This book and DVD combo is a highly recommended package for the following areas of study: Animation, Sound Design, and Film Studies at the high school, college, and university levels. And it’s a must buy for libraries that collect texts on these subjects.