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How to Choose and Work with a Sound Designer on Your Animation Project

While the job title “Sound Designer” has only been around for about 50 years, the role of a Sound Designer started way before that – music and effects have been used in theatre as far back as historical records go.

Sound designers can work in different fields, and each industry has its own particularities. This article will focus solely on the role of the Sound Designer in animation projects.

What does a sound designer do?

Even though the tools and the media have changed a lot throughout the years, Sound Designer’s responsibilities are still the same: A Sound Designer is responsible for creating the sound effects and the sonic atmospheres that help set the story’s mood.

Bringing it a bit closer to our day-to-day, think of the sound effect your computer makes when you turn it on. A Sound Designer made that! And what about the sound of Godzilla’s roar or the characteristic sound emitted by R2D2 in Star Wars? Both are the works of sound designers as well.

Godzilla’s roar might have changed slightly from movie to movie, but the R2D2 sound has been basically the same since its inception. And that’s the perfect example of a unique feature that only sound design can give your work: Sonic identity. Like visual identity, it’s the idea of having characteristic sounds that people associate with your brand instantly. But, of course, this is a much bigger topic, so if you’re interested, I listed a few interesting references about sonic identity and sonic branding at the bottom of the article.

Why is sound design so relevant for animation?

Sound designers create the soundscape for an animation, adding identity to objects, characters, and actions. Since there are no natural sounds in animation, everything needs to be created from scratch, and that’s why you need a talented professional to handle the sound design of your projects.

When working with animation, sound design should be considered more than just “let’s pick or edit a stock song and add a few swooshes and pops here and there.” If you go that way, you’ll probably end up with a lifeless project that might look good but will likely lack emotion, context, and ambiance.

Not only that but “going with the basics” limits the delivery and the creativity of your story. The lack of natural sound allows for unique sonic solutions that are only capable in animation – like the surprise of an element sounding completely different from what was expected, allowing the director to play with symbology and metaphors beyond just the visuals.

What skills should you look for in a sound designer?

There are three skills that I always look for in a sound designer: Creativity, Storytelling, and Clear Communication.

Creativity

Animation sound designers need to be highly imaginative. Their work requires imagining soundscapes and environments that don’t exist, translating abstract ideas and references into sounds, and creating unique sounds to enhance the storytelling.

Also, a lot of a sound designer’s work resembles handcrafted work. They might create sounds from scratch on the computer, known as synthesis, or record real-life sounds to use, known as foley. And surprisingly, quite often, those foleys end up becoming something completely different. For example, you can make a rain sound effect by recording a piece of frying bacon or represent bones by snapping celery in half – a famous trick that has been used for decades by sound designers across multiple disciplines.

Storytelling

Sound designers work closely with the directors, so it’s important that they have a good understanding of storytelling techniques for both the sounds and the visuals. This will help them grasp the role and meaning of the character’s actions or the element’s movements, reinforcing those characteristics through sound.

Clear Communication

Sound Designers have a language of their own: attack and decay, sustain and release, pads, foley, synth, major, minor, delay, reverb, ambiance, mix, mastering, gain, automation, echo – the list goes on and on. On the other hand, a client or a creative director’s vocabulary usually focuses on feelings and personal opinions, which typically sound abstract and sometimes even weird when paired with audio elements.

  • “This sound is too heavy.”
  • “This element going through the tube feels wet.”
  • “This first sound is a bit harsh.”
  • “This swoosh feels too sharp.”
  • “I feel that this element’s appearance is missing a bit of volume.”
  • “It’s not working, and I don’t know why. The scene just feels…empty”.
  • “The sound of the character walking doesn’t feel natural.”

Conversations like these can be tricky to interpret, so both sides should always strive for clear communication. Notice how well your description of the creative direction is understood by them, and also ask if they have any reference or example of their own work to share with you. Since you’ll be both dealing with abstract explanations and examples early on in the project, you’ll already understand their translation capabilities.

What can your sound designer handle in your project?

There’s no set rule for what to expect from a sound designer. It’s always recommended that you ask what they offer as services. Most sound designers will provide you with the whole package of music and sound effects, but approaches will certainly differ.

Some may choose, edit and remix ready-made tracks. Others might work with a composer of their choice to make original music, handling only the sound effects themselves. And many of them will also be able to provide the complete package, being both the composer and the sound effects designer.

There’s no right or wrong way. At the end of the day, you should be looking for someone who can direct your project’s sound design. This person should grasp the project’s creative direction through the script, visuals, and animation, conducting the creation of a world that entices the visuals created by the animation team.

When do you include sound designers in the process?

The answer to this question is particular to each professional and each project. Still, the most important thing that I’d like anyone reading the article to understand is that sooner is always better than later.

If you already have a moodboard and a concept in mind, use it to discuss the project with the sound designer. And if you have some kind of sound design example, it’s even better.

When you don’t include the sound designer in any way before sending the final animation to them, they’ll be working as a vendor and not as a partner – and creative work always benefits from collaboration and partnership.

Since they’re the experts in sound design, you should always give them space for creation and time to reflect on the work being produced. Without counting the few interactions here and there throughout the project, the usual timeframe for developing the sound design ranges from 3 to 10 days, depending on the project’s complexity.

What should you do in your next project?

When reaching out to sound designers, don’t focus solely on the budget and their time estimates. If those details are a match for your project, don’t stop there. Instead, share a bit of the project’s creative direction with them and allow them to share their opinions on what could be done for the project. Ask if they have any references to share and try to create a space for collaboration and communication from the start.

The best sound designer partners are actually great directors. They can translate high-level concepts into sound, either by themselves or by directing others. And that’s extremely important since everyone will have a different way of describing what and how they feel about something they heard.

And last but not least, understand the power that sound can have in your story. It’s capable of creating either natural or abstract imaginary worlds for your stories to flourish. In addition, the way sound is used in an animation project also directly influences the viewers, improving their emotional and dramatic connection with the story.

Sound design and animation walk hand in hand, so don’t ever underestimate the power that this professional can have in the work you’ll be producing.


Additional Resources about Sonic Branding:

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Author avatar
Raff Marques
Co-founder & Creative Director at MOWE Studio

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