The Bullet Animation – Sound

Up to this point I had been toying with graphics and animating things and sketches and learning about vector graphics – and I’d completely neglected the audio! Well, not completely. Mostly.

The issue, as I saw it, is that I had to finish the animation before I could add the sound. I could hardly hope to figure out the timing without something against which to time. Anyway, by the time I got to the first major iteration, I thought I’d better spend some time on sound.

Music, Sound, Voice

I broke up the tasks of sound into three main categories: The background music, ambient sounds and voice-over. I chose to go without a voice-over for reasons previously mentioned, but I think I’d like to give it a try in the next animation. I can imagine it would present its own challenges and I’d like to explore them one day.

For now, this post will concentrate on the ambient sound, the next will be on music.

My first task was to think about what scenes needed what sounds. Going back through my animation files, I watched the silent progress and imagined what might lend itself to the matter. I made a wee list:

  1. The hissing of the furnace
  2. The rattling of the conveyor belt
  3. The kak-klunking of the machinery
  4. Heavy breathing of the Assassin
  5. The bang of the Bullet

Armed with my dodgy microphone, I tried my hand at making noises with my mouth. I discovered a couple of things. Firstly, my microphone ain’t no good. I thought it was broken at first. No, not broken, just really crappy. The resulting sound was barely above a whisper. Upping the gain only upped the noise and clipped the sound. I couldn’t make too much noise: I’ve got a young ‘un who is usually asleep by the time I’m doing anything. On top of that, everything came through with a hum that I later tracked down to being the fan of the computer.

Secondly, while my vocal impersonations of the garbage truck on a Friday are enough to impress small children, Michael Winslow I ain’t. Even when I did manage to get a sample of something loud enough to be workable, it sounded pretty lame. The rattling conveyor sounded like an old man about to lose his lunch, the kak-klunking sounded like nutshells being rubbed together.

Take two

Microphone = Inadequate. Location = Terrible. Source = Abysmal. To address these issues, I looked at the palm of my hand. My phone! Not only can it take telephone calls, it has a recorder built into it. On the weekend, I buzzed about outside, in the garden, in the garage, trying to find sources for sounds. The roller door. A hammer. The hose. The air conditioning unit. The lawn mower. The can opener. There were clunks and rattles and hisses and sighs all over the place.

By the time I came back inside and thawed my nose (it’s Winter time), I had a phone full of sounds, ready for use. Only, they weren’t. First, I needed to download and convert them into something usable.

Audacity

A long, long time ago, Dad splashed out on a Sound Blaster Pro. Tucked into the whopping ISA expansion slot on the motherboard, it allowed, for the first time, not only playback of awesome sounds and music, but also recording of awesome sounds. As a family we huddled around the box to record funny messages for windows startup, add reverb and warp the pitch until we sounded like chipmunks.

When I tried the recorder the other day, I was sorely disappointed. Yes, I could record, but that was about it. Where had all the fun gone? Why couldn’t I fade in or out? What about the echo and hiss-reduction and all of that. We had it back in the 90’s, right?

AudacityWell, all of that is still there. A quick search on the net brought me to Audacity (http://audacityteam.org/). Simply download and enjoy. The interface was a bit daunting to look at, granted, but stick with it. Go ahead, import a sound file, boom, there’s the waveform, ready to be fiddled with. First port of call for me was to trim out the bits of the samples that I didn’t want. Highlight the section and delete it, simple as that. And if you need to insert a block of silence, sure, select menu > generate and make as much sweet silence as you need. I had to do that a fair bit: I had a two year-old shadow following me around, nattering all the while.

You can cut and and copy and paste, or select a region and make it repeat x number of times. Importantly, you can fade in or out, cross-fade between left and right channels, or apply some really cool filters to knock out high hisses or low hums. I must admit, I lost myself for quite some time as I mucked about with different filters, seeing what each one did.

One of the really cool features of Audacity is the ability to have multiple, parallel tracks. They end up working a lot like layers in the graphics programs, so you can tweak one track independently of another, speeding it up, slowing it down, adjusting the volume, whatever you like. And you can play it back, just like that, to hear how it goes.

In the end, banging a lump of wood on the roller door provided a decent ka-thunk, ka-thunk, and the air-conditioner gave up a bunch of interesting sounds, whirrings and groans and squeaks and hisses. One thing I couldn’t find in my garage wonderland of noises was the distinct sound of a rifle shot.

Essential to the animation, I simply could not recreate a convincing bang that was distinctly a gunshot. Short of rocking around to a rifle range, I poked about online to find free online noises. I listened to the report of a few different models and settled on the Springfield M1A rifle: It has that heavy crack that I was after, along with a lasting, gaseous hiss.

Pushing this all together, I must say that I’m not entirely happy with what I ended up with. If there’s anything I’d go back and do again, it’d be the sound, simply because its just not punchy and distinct enough. In fact, I’d probably seek help from a sound engineer in this department. Anyway, enough prattling about that, next time I’ll prattle on about the music.

The Bullet Animation – Paths, Text and Gradients

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that I started off this whole animation project with defining a bunch of scenes I wanted to render, converted some sketches into vectors and I figured out how to make stuff move.

By putting in a background and having layers for your characters, you could very easily knock up a South Park looking animation, or even a smooth transitioning storyboard, depending on what you’re after. If you’re after motion of parts of your characters, eyes, for example, or mouths, you’ll need to get into some of the finer points.

Animating Paths

The scenes for The Bullet did not call for a lot of motion, contrary to what the subject matter might suggest. As I was getting through it, though, I figured I wanted a bit more realism with my characters, the Worker and the Assassin especially. The eyes of the Worker were quite important since, if the Bullet went under his gaze and his eyes did not move, it would destroy Anim1the notion that the Bullet was being scrutinised.

Having already labeled the layers that held the eyes, it was easy enough to identify them. Had I known about canvases (http://wiki.synfig.org/wiki/Canvas) before I started this, I would have used this to make the eyes group on an independent time frame. Not to worry, got there in the end and the concept is still the same.

I started the eyes pointing off to right (viewing the previous bullet), swiveled them back sharply and had them smoothly roll in time with the viewpoint of the Bullet before snapping back again, ready to inspect the next bullet. I toyed with TCB and the Constant waypoints, but neither gave the impression of what might constitute real eye motion, while Linear seemed far too unnatural. Clamp turned out to be the best first for the task, although I think the flyback should have been a little faster. If I were to do it again, I’d consider some jerkiness and random motions of the eye. When a person is looking at something closely, the eye will make many microscopic adjustments as it scans the intricate details of the subject. Lesson learnt.

Anim2The worker was going to be smoking a cigarette originally, but, as one might imagine, cigarettes and gunpowder don’t mix. In the end, I pulled the stick out of his mouth. It didn’t belong and it detracted from the enormous, distorted eyeballs.

Speaking of eyeballs, the Assassin, coming in at the end of the rifle run, needed to have a bit more life to him. I wound up giving him a goatee beard, shaggier hair and sinister eyes.

His mouth starts off flat, almost grumpy, but it turns to a smile as he approaches. How? Select the mouth layer and simply move the mouth to where you want it to be at a certain time, and let the animation engine do the rest. Curling up the edges of the mouth, I found, was not a very effective way to bring life to a character. It was just too subtle and was lost in the motion of the whole head as it zoomed and rotated.

Anim4Upping the extent of the smile didn’t cut it. Exaggerating the mouth motion looked too, well, exaggerated. And, besides, the smile was for the Assassin, no one else, and needed to be almost imperceptible. Instead, I got him to blink.

Blinking involves the covering of an eyeball with the eyelid. Again, since I had labeled my layer previously, it was only a matter of finding it on the right hand layer panel, clicking the little red man to begin animating, grabbing the waypoints and closing them together, then opening them up again.

Anim5Now, a normal, natural blink is very fast indeed. A Step / Constant waypoint certainly looked like a blink, but, at only a single frame, the animation was just too flashy. Instead, I used a Clamp to animate in and out, but over only a few frame. The result is that the eyelid closes rapidly, but not so rapidly that it’s lost on the viewer.

If anything, it’s slow enough to give the Assassin the air of being cool, calm and calculating, which is exactly what I was after.

Gradients

Without the use of thick lines to define my characters’ features, or any form of cross-hatching or shading, I had to rely on the slabs of colour of the regions. Not terrible. Not great. You don’t get a lot of depth out of it. Or mood. Or ambiance. This is where gradients can help.

Taking the worker scene, it looked far to bright and airy, not at all like the confused, claustrophobic world into which the Bullet was born. To bring the focus back onto the worker, and provide a narrowness of view, I used a radial gradient over the top of the worker group, running from transparent to a dark red on the edges.

Anim3The radius of this layer, like pretty much everything else, can be animated. This way, the field of view grows and shrinks as the Bullet travels along, obscuring the image. I did apply a fish-eye, or sphere distortion, which added to the confusion, but I pulled it: It was just becoming too confused.

To aid the idea that the Worker was near a furnace or a boiler, I applied a linear gradient, which I labeled ‘Heat Flare’ across his face to give it a rosy hue. I did something similar in the next scene, the Metamorphosis, to have the Bullet move from a hot red area to a cooler grey one, animating the endpoints and colours of the gradient as the scene progressed.

Text

Lastly, I had to decide between voice-overs or text. I have a microphone on my webcam, and another that I can plug in the back of the box. Neither, I discovered, were suitable for recording clean, crisp voice. In fact, I think I’ll have to get onto the whole sound portion of this clip in another post. In any case, I decided upon text to display contextual snippets.

To do this, simply add in a Text Layer. Type in the text as the ‘value’ and, Presto! You have words. I imagine one might want to animate words in or out, or type one letter at a time, but I went for a simple fade in / fade out option.

Changing the font is a tricky matter, though. You need to know the name of the font that you’re after. I opened up Open Office and scrolled through the fonts I was after, but the Windows Font Viewer will do the job. Put the name, verbatim, into the font family field and that’ll do the trick.

Because fonts behave like vectors, they’ll scale and rotate very nicely without all the pixelation.

Can you add a gradient to your text? Of course! Can you use your text to define the alpha channel of an underlying layer? Definitely (and how cool would that look?). The only real issue I found with text is that the rendering gets a bit jumpy if you try to animate the size. Maybe non-integer values aren’t suitable for the rendering engine, but I’d only be guessing. Everything else is fair game.

But an animation isn’t all just visual. In my next updates I’ll go over the music and sound.