Interpreting Picture Edits and Film Conventions through Sound

In the early years of animation, picture editors handled many of the tasks now handled by sound editors. Recently, we have rediscovered the value of this dual role through the works and writings of Walter Murch, who is both a picture editor and a sound designer;

Consequently, his work transcends the barriers created by departmentalization, providing an impartial perspective for sound to image.  Other distinguished sound designers such as Ben Burtt and Dane Davis also have extensive picture editing backgrounds.

Collectively, these sound editors demonstrate the importance of understanding the grammar of picture editing and its implications for sound design.

Picture editors make edits to develop the story, set the pacing, and maintain the audience’s attention. Because much of the basic editing for animation is determined as early as the storyboard, it is important for the sound designer to develop an understanding of picture editing prior to working on an animation.

One of the primary aspects of sound design is to determine whether sound should smooth or advertise the edit.

The most elemental unit of animation is the frame. Frames are combined in succession to produce a shot. Multiple shots are combined to form a sequence. Related sequences define a scene, and related scenes define an act. Most animated shorts consist of one act.

Following is a selected list of picture edits and film conventions that influence the sound design process.

Since the introduction of color animation, black and white has become a means of suggesting flashbacks. Flashbacks are presented from a character’s POV and are often achieved through music.

Camera moves are one means of directing the flow of the animation.

A tilt shot consists of fixed vertical movements. The animations of Warner Brothers and MGM cover tilt shots with ascending and descending musical scales, pitch bends, evolving rhythmic elements, and volume.

A pan shot consists of fixed horizontal movement; music and ambient tracks often underscore a pan shot to sustain interest in the linear movement.

A tracking shot follows the character’s movement, keeping the character in the center of the frame at all times; this type of camera movement eliminates the need to pan the sounds associated with the followed object.

A zoom shot moves front to back to create a sense of depth; the visual perception of depth is greatly enhanced by pitch and volume changes.

As we zoom in, the pitch often goes up and the volume increases. A fly-through shot creates the illusion that an object is passing through the audience; this type of shot is effectively reinforced by panning the audio to and from the rear speakers of a 5.1 monitoring system.

A close-up (CU) is designed to provide detail and to emphasize important narrative elements. Close-ups remove peripheral visuals and focus on details. Panning, volume levels, instrumentation, and ambience can either support or contrast the close-up shot.

Cuts are visual transitions created in editing in which the pictures quickly transition. Elements of the sound track can be used to smooth or advertise the cut. Cuts that involve a shift in location or timeframe present opportunities to shift the sound design.

A cutaway shot moves the audience away from the main action to experience a related action. A typical example of a cutaway is a group shot moving to an individual shot for the purpose of showing a reaction or reminding us of the individual’s presence. From a sound design perspective, the question arises as to whether the visual object needs to be emphasized or exaggerated with sound.

A visual dissolve is a gradual scene transition using overlap similar to an audio cross-fade. Dissolves are used to indicate a change in time or location. Dissolves are typically handled with audio cross-fading of linear sound elements such as music or ambience.

An iris (circular) and a wipe (pushing one shot off and pulling the next shot into place) are also used similarly for scene transition.

An establishing shot is typically the first in a sequence taken from a distance to establish the location, feel, and magnitude of the scene. This shot is used to educate and acclimate the audience. An establishing shot emphasizes the environment rather than specific details or characters; consequently, music, ambience, and offscreen sounds often used for establishing purposes.

A fade uses black to transition the audience in and out of scenes. Fades indicate closure and are timed to allow the audience to process and prepare for the next scene. Sound is often introduced during the black to transition the audience into the new scene.Sometimes music sustains over the fade-out and through the fade in for continuity.

Freeze frame is suspending the action by holding the image in place. Freeze frame is used to suspend time or punctuate an action or reaction. Slow motion is a similar temporal effect. Both are sonically reinforced by altering the speed of linear sound (such as music) or by processing the audio to achieve greater contrast.

Inserts (often a close-up) emphasize objects, actions, or reactions that were presented earlier in the master shot. An insert is used to allow the audience to view subtle details (like a written note) important to the narrative. Inserts reinforce links between objects and their associated characters or narrative purpose.

Inserts are often covered with hard effects such as a watch ticking. Inserts involving written text are sometimes covered by voiceovers. Inserts involving a reaction often call for musical hits for emphasis.

Jump cuts are designed to move the audience forward or backward in time or place. Jump cuts are frequently covered with music to smooth the cuts and create a sense of continuity. When a picture editor creates a jump cut during a cyclic event such as a walk cycle, the sound designer is forced to smooth the edit.

The master shot is a global shot for a scene. The master shot is referenced throughout a scene to provide continuity. The master shot provides a linear sense to nonlinear picture editing; therefore, linear sound such as music and ambience are often associated with the master shot.

Matched cuts join two shots for which the compositional elements match but are approached from different angles. The goal of a matched cut is continuity, and the sound design should reflect this goal.

A montage sequence consists of rapid visual edits designed to lead the viewer to a desired conclusion, often representing time lapse or compression. Montages typically use melodic underscoring or songs to smooth the edits and develop continuity.

Over-the-shoulder shots focus on the character facing the camera and are frequently followed with a close-up of the character previously facing the camera. Over-the-shoulder shots are prime candidates for non-syncopated (non-sync) dialog. In fact, non-sync dialog is often the linear element that provides continuity for the edit. In addition, over-the-shoulder shots provide an opportunity to add or alter dialog at the postproduction stage.

Parallel editing is the development of two narrative themes that are presented through editing to suggest that they are occurring simultaneously but in different locations. Parallel action can be treated with linear sound to propel the scene forward or it can also be treated with contrasting sound design such as leitmotifs to advertise the movement to and from each perspective.

In a POV shot we experience the action subjectively through the eyes of a specific character. We might also be hearing the thoughts of that character or listening through the character’s ears. POV suggests sound design specific to character development such as leitmotifs or specific prop sounds. The underscore for a POV could provide some insight into the character’s emotional state. If the POV is the camera, then we pan audio to the camera’s perspective. If we are looking through the eyes of a character, then panning should reflect their inner perspective.

A sequence shot is an extended take with no cuts. Music can help the audience maintain their interest during these extended scenes.