Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s nocturnal block of animation, including
Aqua Teen Hunger Force; Harvey
Birdman, Attorney at Law; Venture
Bros.; Sealab 2021; Robot
Chicken and others, has achieved cult status with a talking
milkshake, a winged attorney and some Hanna-Barbera retreads – and a
whole lot of audio attitude.
For instance, at Atlanta’s Soapbox Studios, Michael Kohler does sound
for Harvey Birdman and three new shows,
12-Ounce Mouse, Perfect Hair
Forever and Stroker & Hoop.
Birdman‘s theme is a surprisingly
sophisticated-sounding jazzy track with a slightly sinister
Sinatra-esque vocal that sounds like it was cut with a live combo. The
track is actually a library cut sped up to twice-normal speed and sung
on a lark by Eric Richter, one of the show’s creator/writers. The
working relationship between producer, writers, animators and audio is
not unlike that of an ensemble comedy troupe, like Saturday
Night Live in its early days. "We laugh a lot making the
shows," he says.
Birdman pays homage to 1960s and 1970s television
sound. A standard scene-transition effect is a two-syllable nonsense
phrase ("Look-AH!") atop an Adam West-era Batman
horn-section sting from a library. Kohler says he trolls the shows
frame by frame, looking for opportunities to match sound effects to the
show’s ironic gag humor. "It’s 75 percent homemade Foley," he says,
gesturing to a live studio room filled with an assortment of items
ranging from dead branches to his motorcycle. "In film, Foley is there
to support what’s being acted out on screen. In animation, Foley is
about creating sound in unexpected ways that exaggerate the action."
Meanwhile, there’s an unhinged, seat-of-your pants quality to the whole
Adult Swim enterprise. "I’m still not really sure who Master Shake is,"
says Roy Clements, referring to the narcissistic dairy delight from
Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a show he’s done sound for
since its inception four seasons ago. "[Voice talent Dana Snuyder's]
voice was discovered by the ex-girlfriend of one of the producers. They
follow him around everywhere. I get tracks from all over the country. I
have no idea what he does. It’s part of the charm."
Not Your Average Toons
A cartoon where a talking milkshake plays a lead role isn’t your
ordinary kiddie show. An article in Fast Company
magazine explained the economics of Adult Swim well: because the shows
are produced inexpensively, the creators are allowed to take more
risks. If a single show bombs, well, the investment to get it on the
air in the first place was negligible anyway.
Most of the shows are products of Williams Street Productions, a
collection of young media-culture subversives based in a decrepit
warehouse in downtown Atlanta, to whom Turner’s Cartoon Network has
given creative carte blanche. Clements started with one of Adult Swim’s
anchor shows, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which
debuted in 1994. It resurrected a’60s cartoon hero as a befuddled
talk-show host verbally sparring with interstellar monsters and human
guests like William Shatner appearing on video monitors. Working
initially at Crawford Post in Atlanta and later in-house at Turner
Studios, Clements assembles the various voice elements that usually
arrive via AIFF files from an FTP site as Pro Tools sessions. Clements
and other Adult Swim audio gurus used to work on Avids, but switched
several years ago to Apple’s Final Cut Pro because many of the shows
are animated with Macromedia Flash, and Clements says Final Cut offers
a more Flash-friendly workflow. "It cut out the OMF stage," he says.
"We used to do a conventional auto-conform and replace the sound
elements from an EDL. Now, the elements come in from all over. As a
result, the sonics are often inconsistent- but that’s easy to fix with
Pro Tools and EQ."
On Sealab 2021, which features the voices of former
CHiPs star Erik Estrada and
Newsday columnist Ellis Hennican and which Clements
mixes, he is generally presented with an array of mono sound effects
which he makes stereo using a TC Electronic TC-5000 processor. The
constant gurgling audio backdrop acts as ad hoc
sound design and is created using little more than a needle-drop
selection and a digital reverb. That’s typical of Adult Swim’s
anti-Hollywood, slacker-esque approach to post, in which kitschy cool
beats high science any day of the week. (Clements is no slacker,
though. "We have sound design, but it’s not like Georgia is a union
state," he says. "One guy tends to do most of the audio on the shows.")
Sometimes sound design is a bit more complicated. " Space
Ghost’s producer wanted a spacey drone in the background, but
one that never repeated itself," says Clements. "We took three
different libraryÃ¢Â€Â˜space’ sounds and loaded them into a Synclavier, one
key each, and modulated them at constantly varying [rates] for 15
minutes. It sounds like a constant drone, but if you go to edit it
you’d notice that it’s not a loop."
Space Ghost‘s approach to sound effects further
reflects Adult Swim’s approach. Instead of layering an explosive effect
over the rest of the tracks, Clements says he edits "a hole" in the
entire track on Pro Tools and drops the effect in when needed. A two-
to three-second fade-up brings the tail of the effect back to a 0 VU
level, where Clements consistently likes to keep the show’s volume,
with ambient sounds set at- 1 VU and dialog slightly hotter than that.
Editing for Comedy
On Adult Swim, sound editing can determine what’s funny. On
Birdman, Kohler often extends pregnant pauses to
draw out the laughs. "Sometimes it’s cutting a sentence off in mid-word
or some other interruption," he explains. "All of the voices are
recorded individually [such as Stephen Colbert's voicing of the Reducto
character], one at a time, not like The Simpsons‘
live ensemble approach. So you don’t really know if something’s
actually funny until you put the pieces all together."
Tailoring sound design to a Flash-based character’s personality
produces a particular result, with stark, exaggerated sounds. "Reducto
is obviously a very paranoid and self-conscious individual obsessed
with making things very small, so I wanted to accent that every way
possible with his noises," Kohler says. "Every time he moves or spins
with his gun drawn, there is a small squeak sound from a library
accenting how fast he moves, a very-sharp-tap footstep sound that I’ve
compressed, truncated and pitched to give the impression of very
quick-moving, small, hard-sole shoes. Lastly, I wanted to emphasize the
fact that his weapon was not just a gun, but gear that he wears, and I
wanted it to sound somewhat cheap. So I found a small plastic
bubble-blowing toy that had the right density to it, and a small
screwdriver that I shake, hit, or just move it with to create a junky
toy-like rattle every time he motions."
Kohler’s workflow is conventional. Audio elements come in as.WAV or
AIFF files, generally on 16-bit/48-kHz CDs or the occasional DVD, which
he’ll work on to create prebuilds from a working script on a Pro Tools
HD3 system and then send to animation, which returns the audio as OMF
files accompanied by a DigiBeta with the picture. "By then, the audio
is a bit degraded, so I realign the audio using the OMF and start
putting it back together using the original audio sources," he says.
Fans of the show will notice regular visits from Hanna-Barbera
characters like Magilla Gorilla and Dr. Quest. Their vocalizations are
mimicked, not sampled, says Kohler. When there is legal vetting of
sound, it usually comes as a result of theme music that parodies real
shows. "I did the opening theme to the Dabba Don, a take off on
The Sopranos," he says. "I recreated their opening
theme and legal sent it back two or three times before they were
satisfied it wasn’t a problem."
Sounds Like Chicken
Robot Chicken sets a new standard for stop-action
animation. Audio mixer Scott Hinkley, who shares duties with Jerry
Gilbert, says the hardest part of his job is "staying on top of what’s
coming next. We had one segment- a monkey sticking a plastic fork into
an electrical outlet – that clocked in one-and-a-half seconds long. They
write so many comic beats into 11 minutes that part of my job is to
create some kind of space between the segments." Not least of all
Hinkley’s concerns is letting viewers know that a segment has ended and
isn’t just Act One of a longer skit. A clip of radio static sound is
inserted between segments as a subliminal cue. "That carries over from
the opening mad-doctor motif," he says.
Most of Robot Chicken‘s audio comes from sound
libraries; Foley is a luxury. But that lends itself nicely to the vibe,
says Hinkley. "We wanted the sounds to be over-the-top cinematically,
but also be small and silly and poke fun at themselves," he says. "For
instance, we’ll scale back the explosions so they have a distant, comic
effect. It’s also funny to hear the celebrity voices"- which have
included Macauley Culkin, Hollywood Insider host Pat
O’Brien, Conan O’Brien and Ashton Kutcher – "being so completely
different than you’re used to hearing them."
According to Hinkley, the show is cut and then mixed on a dub stage
like traditional television, with a fiber-based workflow. "I mix using
a fiber network of drives, which the editors communicate with through a
[central] server," he explains. "I connect directly via Ethernet to
edit stations in order to pull fixes and additions throughout the mix.
When the show is mixed, I run a print master and M&E [tracks] and
put it on a CD. It couldn’t be much easier on me."
If the mix tends to be simple, Chicken‘s burlesque
has its own peculiarities. "I use pretty standard mixing techniques for
the dialog and music, but the effects require a more complicated mixing
approach," Hinkley says. "Many of the gags depend on sound- vomit,
punching, robots, tanks- and the gags are so close together, that
making room for each effect can be tricky. The extreme changes in
location- a playground, a volcano, outer-space, and so on- add even
more time." But that’s part of the show’s magic. "It’s not supposed to
feel real," he says. "It’s thrown together, very lo-fi. In a sense, the
whole thing is sound design."
That, Roy Clements agrees, is the underlying sensibility pervading
Adult Swim. "We use pitch-change and odd sounds, and we’ll play the
sounds like instruments," he says. "It’s like being in a band."
Clements likes the low-budget environs, since they give him a chance to
be involved with the audio from top to bottom, rather than at just one
level of specialty. "There’s a lot of consistency," he says. "For
instance, I’m mixing as I go along. In Hollywood, there’ll be one guy
doing nothing but mixing." Working in Pro Tools, he’ll have standard
signal paths set up, using three or four plug-ins, including two- and
four-band EQs, as well as compressors and de-essers. "The two-band EQ
is for imaging," he explains. "As characters walk away on screen,
there’s not only a reduction in volume but a change in pitch," a
variation on the Doppler effect. "So I use a low-pass filter to reduce
the frequency on the steps as they walk away."
It’s the little things that make the show work- even budget
post-modernism requires thoughtful audio. "You have to know where and
how long to make the pauses," says Kohler. "Irony’s not easy, but then,
this isn’t Saturday morning, either."