‘Cubiculum’–helping an animation film come to life

Here is the side project I wrote about a few months ago. It is an animation film created and brought to life by my dear friend Dimitar Petrov. He needed someone to help him with the sound – so I was honoured to work with him on this film.

This is the version that was screened as part of their University’s degree show:

The project started very early on, with an idea Dimitar was very passionate about – making a short animation film about a factory worker who finds out there is another life outside the factory. Every weekend, we would spend one, two hours on Skype (he is studying and living in London) with all sorts of details – what the factory would look and feel like, what the main hero would be, where there would be a conflict, how to best communicate the story, discussing storyboards…

Collaborating on a film project on Skype

Thankfully, it was clear right from the start which role each of us had in the project – Dimitar would be dealing with everything we see, and I would work on everything we hear. We were working with ‘animatics’ – animation drafts where you only mark the basic set or change in scenes and timing. Here is an early animatic we used:

This was made in February. Since then, a lot has changed – but the main story and the style of the film remained pretty much the same. Fast forward to April: still not there, but see the progress and the almost finished scenes and backgrounds:

Working from distance meant that we couldn’t share source files – so he had to export a version of the animatic for me to work on, I would import it in Premiere and start bringing sounds in. Then when I felt what I had was sufficient, I would export the sound to a WAV file for him to import in After Effects and export the animatic with a soundscape – for a tutor to see or for a group screening of where their projects are going.

Sometimes, when we weren’t sure about a scene or particular frame, we would use screen sharing on Skype – instead of trying to export a video or sending me single frames out of context, he would show me his AE project and ask for feedback. Also, when discussing a particular moment in an animatic where I wasn’t sure what sounds I could use, I would share my screen playing the animatic instead of telling him ‘And now go to 1:35 and see what I mean’.

The best thing about collaborating via Skype was the week before hand in, when we were constantly in contact, writing a quick note in Skype chat about the scene each of us is working on, asking quick questions or exchanging a joke – while each of us was working on their separate roles. I wish we had done it earlier – having ‘animation working hours’ where each of us knew the other was also working on the project. Collaboration from distance was tough enough (especially for me), but when you know the other person is working on the same thing exactly in this moment, it helps you motivate yourself, keep the spirit high and go on working.

Sound design workflow

Initially, when we were first discussing the film, I had the brave idea to record by myself all the sounds we would need. And for 2/3 of the time, this is what I was trying to do. Early on, we had discussed the film scene by scene planning the different ‘layers’ of sound, the dynamics (bringing sounds from the background to the focus point and then back, panning from left to right – even though I ended up with a mono film, changing tempo etc.), and how to create them. For example, I found out I could move my house keys in a certain way and the sound they made resembled chains. I also recorded myself walking around, running, breathing etc. – based on specific scenes and trying to recreate the dynamics there.

In terms of recording, I was using a rifle microphone and the Marantz recorders available to us at Uni (also, of course, headphones). I had a list of sounds I wanted to record, and when recording, I made a separate file for each type of sounds I had. I kept notes (on a piece of paper, right after recording each file) of what each file contained, how long it was and what quality problems there might be (eg. unwanted sounds I had to cut out in post). This proved very helpful, because when I needed a specific sound, it was easier to go through my notes and just focus on one or two files to preview.

When I had finished recording, I would open the sound files in Audition. First, I dealt with unwanted noise and mastering – I was using filters, cutting out specific frequencies, and amplifying others – so I get a clear sound. Then I would mark and copy to new files all the sections of the file that I felt I could use.

File management

In such a big project, where you create everything from scratch and end up with hundreds of files, organisation is crucial. I can’t even start to describe what Dimitar’s project looked like (even though he did show me his folder structure) – but imagine that almost each frame in this film has dozens of different versions – so I think I should better focus on my system.

All the source files were kept in a separate folder based on date of recording. This meant that I had two or three MZ0001 files, but each of them was in a separate folder. Then I would open each file I thought I would need, apply noise filters and mastering in Audition and Save As a new file – including things like ‘type of sound’-‘quality’-‘mastered’ in the filename. After that, from the new file, I would cut specific sections and create new files of standalone sounds – and their filenames started with 01 or the number of the source file they came from. This was very important when later looking for similar sounds, trying to export a better version or editing the source file again – you know it’s ‘steps’, but which source file did it come from? With this numbering system, I knew. I also kept the markers in the source files, so when opened in Audition, I knew which sections I had exported to smaller files. The single sound files included in their filenames: [file-number]-[type-of-sound]-[quality-of-sound]-[length]-[loopable-or-not].

In Premiere, I kept everything in the same project, using multiple sequences for the various versions of the animatic (also, creating sequences for loopable sounds or layered sound mixes and bringing these sequences to the main timeline). In terms of source files and bins, I had a Video / animatics folder, and Sound / Music folder where I had subfolders (only in Premiere’s bins) with things like ‘sounds of walking’ in one bin, ‘metal loopable’ in another, etc. I kept all the sound files in a single ‘short sounds’ folder but when adding them to bins, I would put them in the relevant ‘type of sound’ folder.

Bringing other people’s sounds in the project and making sure we credit them properly

The biggest progress I made with the soundscape was when I realised it wasn’t practical for me to record, edit and mix everything myself – and I didn’t need to. Before that, I was struggling with using my sounds – because, to be honest, I don’t have enough experience to ‘nail’ everything in the first time. So I was having a nightmare time sticking to my own sounds – but the worst part was, the project was also suffering from it. Thankfully, I had a big realisation: ‘I’m not that good yet in recording, but that’s OK. At least I can edit sound’. So I turned to the Freesound.org project. Since ‘Cubiculum’ is a non-commercial, student film, we can use all the sounds there for free – and we only need to credit the authors. So I dove into the abundance of sounds there – it had almost everything I needed, gave me lots of ideas, and most importantly – bringing sounds from the Freesound.org project gave ‘Cubiculum’ the sound treatment it deserves.

Even though I can write so much more about this project, I will stop here. Dimitar is already working on his next idea – for his graduation film – and he has invited me to work with him again. This time, the project would be bigger, and I will probably not only deal with sound design, but also a bit of project management / producing.

I need to, however, mention something I’m sure Dimitar wants me to mention here: Whatever you do, by all means try to avoid piano music in a student film. And heartbeats. Please avoid them… These two very rarely work (if that’s the only sound, it usually doesn’t), it sounds cheap and often unprofessional – and usually doesn’t really help the story. If you do work with sound, use sound (or music) to help tell the story – not simply as ‘the music that plays while the film is running’.


One thought on “‘Cubiculum’–helping an animation film come to life

  1. Pingback: ‘Cubiculum’–Shaking hands with my fear of failure. A lesson of how not to work on my friend’s project | Rumena Zlatkova. I live to create.

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