Hi all,

I'm currently writing my dissertation on the sense of the uncanny in stop-motion, whether the medium is inherently uncanny, the ways in which it lends itself to this theme, recurring images like the eye, dolls, human-like forms & automatons, and the double.

I'm also really interested in talking about the sound of a piece - whether the sound specifically composed for an uncanny piece would have the same effect if there was a different visual medium, and whether the usual process for composing music for stop-motion is done before or after the animation.

I was wondering if anyone would be willing to have a short discussion with me about it - whether anyone has any comments, thoughts or ideas on the subject, whether it's something you've thought about before, or whether now, reading this you're suddenly thinking 'oh, yeah that makes sense'. Any thoughts about it from anyone, from animators to sound-engineers, anyone with a vague interest to experts in the field, are so welcome!

Thanks for reading and considering, I hope I'm posting this in the right place!


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I would be willing to talk to you about this. I've been a Foley artist on a few films and the occasional composer and sound editor.

There are three schools of thought with regard to scoring a film. Some prefer to use existing tracks because they can find buyout music inexpensively that is priced out per piece, or they can make use of free music beds from sites like Incompetech. Within that category, you have two choices- you can either try to fit the animation to the music with clever editing, or you can output sections of the music and load them in your framegrabber so that you can hear what is going on and plan the animation around what you're hearing on each frame.

I have found both to work, and if you are a good editor, you can force almost any piece of music to aurally fit a visual sequence. You can even combine tracks and make one fade into the other as though it was intended that way. Plotting out the animation to the soundtrack can be somewhat limiting, although it does determine your final runtime. You just want to be sure to shoot extra frames of each shot so that you have room to cut. Not doing that, results in black frames betweens shots, which you'll see in the first example below.  

When I edit sound to picture, I try to look for natural segues in the piece or visual cues that coincide with what is happening on the screen. I am not altogether sure about the other way it's done. Writing music after the animation is done seems like it would be harder, unless something similar to X sheets are written out and plotted on sheet music, denoting key moments where the music must have a  cymbal splash or swell. But when it comes to fitting pre-recorded music to picture, that's something I could speak to, from experience.

This is a film that I animated and edited existing music to in 2010.


Here is one that I actually planned the animation to, which required very rigid and pre-defined timing: 


To date, I have never recorded music to fit, as in playing it live while watching the film, although I have done that with Foley to get more of a performance (as well as edited existing free sounds to fit the animation). Most of what I've done has been a mixture of the two.

At this point, I really like to plan the animation to the music and sound effects, because if I'm not sure how many frames I need for something, it helps because I can scrub through a piece of audio in Dragon Frame  and count the frames I have until the next cue. To an extent, this is considered "Mickey Mousing", in that the picture mimicks what you're hearing, but a little bit of that isn't too noticeable, and it's a handy cheat when it comes to timing out the animation to sound effects. This is more or less the way it's done, with a track reader and X-sheets (sound/sound effects first), although the music is not neccessarily there during the animation- just key sounds for the animator to hit their marks (particularly with dialog). In some cases, the only thing that has been figured in is just the dialog, affording the animator some freedom with regard to  the timing of puppet poses and movement, as planned around it.

I'm not a composer, just a director who has worked with composers on a dozen projects.

I have usually had the music created to fit the film edit.  On the one occasion where I used existing music (by arrangement with the composer), I had to plan the shots carefully to fit the music.  It was created as a dance track, and did not do what specially composed film music does, with many changes of mood and pace to fit the drama.  It jigged on and would not be stopped, increasing the pace every so often.  When my puppet walked, I had to make him march to the beat, and if I had a change in the feel of a scene, I had to make it come when the music had a change.   I did a couple of edits on the music, to make the bit where it speeded up come sooner,  but mostly it had it's own momentum and I had to go with it.  So that imposed a pace on my film that was different to what it might have been if I had been able to afford a composer. It may have improved it!  It didn't affect the look of it - I chose the music to fit the general ambience I wanted.  This is the film I mean:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lfqTk_v5Kk

I would think that animation can do any style or genre of film, and pretty well any style of music might suit it.  But maybe, if you are creating the world anyway, and not shooting ordinary people in the ordinary world,  there is a tendency to go more towards fantasy or the surreal.  It costs just as much to reproduce 21st C suburbia as it does the land of the dead, the middle ages, or an alien planet.  And perhaps the animator already has an urge to get away from the ordinary, or why would they bother creating worlds?  

Stop motion films that come to mind that do take place in an ordinary modern setting, usually seem to introduce an other-worldly element into it (Frankenweenie, ParaNorman). 

That's interesting, NIck. How does composing to the picture work, do they use a click track? I'm curious what serves as the cue to make the music more exciting or how the composer hits right on when the scene is going to change. Once the music is created to match the visuals, is it edited for better accuracy?

Hi, your apeal interested me and i can help. I compose the music, genre - classic and CINEMA.  How ever, I am glad to work special for you project. 

The composer has a copy of the film with visible time code to work to. I am not there when he works his magic, only when he has a first draft ready for me to hear. When I do my own music for a little no-budget exercise there is a lot of editing, because I can't play 6 notes in a row without getting one of them wrong, or taking too long to work out which key to hit next, but that is because I'm not a musician and can't actually play. But the composer for my Good Riddance series just got a few other musicians together and they played along with the film, with a lot of improvising, and very little editing required I suspect.

I suppose every animator has their own way of working with music and incorporating it into their work, and it really depends on the project as well. I have done several music videos where I was commissioned to create an animation for a specific song. There, I did exposure sheets as I would for dialogue and planned out my animation to coincide with specific lyrics or moods within the music. When I work on my own films, I usually add the music after the animation is done to fit the scenes and atmosphere that I already have in the film. I have found, however, that it is sometimes helpful to collaborate with a musician or composer in the pre-production or early animation stage, as that can give a higher level of cohesion between the audio and visual elements. For example, on my 2010 short film, The Dreams of Kings, I chose some existing public domain music that I felt suited the style I was going for, but then I did an original recording while I was only animating the first scene. The singer I worked with had some really interesting ideas about the arrangement, the tempo and the mood, and his resulting performance affected the way I animated the rest of the film, so it ended up being a creative collaboration. You can see the finished film here: http://youtu.be/6CncBSEwAFQ

On a short film that I am planning now, I am already working with a composer although I have not started animating yet, and we are exchanging ideas about how we can work together to create a specific feel for certain moments described in the script.

This is in answer to Don's question, not that I know any of this from actual experience. 

I'm not a sound engineer or composer or anything of the sort, but it seems to me if I were going to compose music to fit an existing film it would make a lot of sense to watch the film a couple of times and make notes with precise timings of scenes, and scribble notations like "lilting, uptempo with a 4/4 time signature, slowing down for the last 3 seconds and ending on an ominous note"..

Do this all the way through the film, then probably play around with sketches and loose concepts while watching the scenes over and over until you start to find the right sounds/timings etc. to set the proper mood for each part. 

It doesn't seem like it would be necessary to edit the video to match the music, you can make the music fit precisely if you want to. Or I suppose the decision could be made to change the edit of the video if you want to do it that way in response to what happened in coming up with the music. Sure, why not? Let the audio and visual elements begin to merge symbiotically and suggest changes in each other if that's how you want to approach it. 

It probably helps that you almost never hear a drum kit on an orchestral track. That allows the conductor to  increase the tempo without it being as noticeable. For example, in the score for Ghostbusters, the leitmotif is slower on one track where Gozer's palace is introduced early in the film and faster when it is seen near the end. Another example is when Onionhead slimes Peter Venkman. No discernable rhythm track there, but the brass and string sections pick up the tempo right there. Had there been drums on that, you would have been able to detect the change in tempo straightaway because rhythm is used to keep time and that is the first thing people notice when a song speeds up. With an instrument, it's harder to count the beats because most instruments are not percussive. Some themes have no percussion at all on them, especially if characters are having a conversation- even piano music can make their voices difficult to understand. I learned this the hard way on my last film.

Good observations. 

Yeah, it definitely wouldn't do to have a steady drumbeat through an entire scene, the way you do for pop music. But a good drummer can speed up or slow down when needed. You won't hear that in the simpler pop music of the last couple of decades, but go back to the era of progressive rock, or some good heavy metal, and drummers do some astonishing things. 

But then the requirements of a score are totally different from rhythmic music. I could see for instance having drums on part of a scene, then maybe they fade out and later in the same scene come back in at a totally different tempo. But I suspect you're thinking about music loops made electronically - no, it's hard to see effective drum work done that way for a score - better to have a real live drummer who doesn't need to be programmed. Unless there's some keyframeable way to change tempos midstream or something? You know, to create drum sounds that can sometimes be more atmosphere than rhythm. 

I suspect we're getting way off track here, maybe the OP will pop in and steer this conversation the way she wants it to go, or at least give a bit of feedback to show she's still paying attention or something? Seems we've been abandoned here to just ramble aimlessly.. 

I agree with that, and I tend not to speed up and slow down when I'm tracking drums. But I try to make up for that with changing dynamics (loud to quiet) or some layering with different elements to keep the piece interesting or take it in a new direction.

As far as tempo changes, there is a way to do that in some music software. Whenever I use it, I go from normal time to double time (for a fast bridge or something).

When it comes to orchestral music, what keeps the time if there's no rythm section? Is that what the flailing arms of the conductor are for? A lot of them look like they're air-drumming. :P

At any rate, sorry if I derailed this topic.

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