Sound in Animation

4 The Rebirth of Animation

During the 1980s, the applications of sound in animation were as diverse as the many contexts in which they appeared. As college programs multiplied, there was an increase in student and independently produced work that was often quite sophisticated in terms of its sound design and animation technique. An example is the Oscar-winning film Balance (DE 1989), by Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein, which employs a restrained use of sound to depict the vastness of space.

Especially interesting during this period is the growth of animation to illustrate music. After the development of cable television network MTV during the early 1980s, the practice of music-based animation became commonplace. Among the famous uses of animation in music videos are Aha’s Take on Me (1985), Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer (1987), and Michael Jackson’s Black or White (1991). Filmmaker Michel Gondry made his name directing innovative music videos featuring animation for such artists as Björk and the Chemical Brothers. Animation was largely valued for its ability to create interesting visual effects to illustrate the content of the music.

There were significant changes in sound technology during this period. The refinement of Dolby sound processes and THX standards enhanced the viewing experience, especially in terms of high-budget blockbusters that relied on animation for the development of elaborate special effects.

The 1990s saw great growth in the animation industry, with sound continuing to play a major role. Disney’s successful sales of movie music continued into recent years, highlighted by the work of composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice in such films as Beauty and the Beast (US 1991, dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise), Aladdin (US 1992, dir. Ron Clements and John Musker), and The Lion King (US 1994, dir. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff). Further extending the scope of its music, Disney adapted some of its films for the theater—including the long-running Broadway musical The Lion King.

This era saw a significant change in voice acting for animation. Animated television series and feature films increasingly have utilized star voices, such as those of Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, and Cameron Diaz, in part to increase the box-office draw for teen and adult viewers. Today, a famous voice actor’s performance typically is used as a basis for the development of animated movements; in earlier years, performers created voices for characters, whereas it is now commonplace for characters to be designed around the star who is providing its voice. The character design of animated documentaries also is often closely linked to the individuals providing their voice tracks; for example, the Oscar-winning short Ryan (CA 2004), directed by Chris Landreth at the National Film Board of Canada, is animated around interviews with its subject, Ryan Larkin.

In contrast, a great deal of independent production is made without dialogue. Recording dialogue is expensive and time-consuming, lip-synching to dialogue adds to the labor of animating, and recording in a given language puts constraints on international distribution. Many short films find a home on the Internet or are screened in film festivals around the world; avoiding spoken words makes sense in these contexts. It is rare to see a feature film without dialogue, and yet The Triplets of Belleville (FR 2003), a French-Belgian-Canadian coproduction directed by Sylvain Chomet, showed that dialogue is not essential. In this film, characters sing the French-language song Belleville Rendez-vous several times, but the film’s story is carried with almost no spoken dialogue.

And, of course, dialogue typically is not found in non-narrative work, which continues to be a vital practice—for example, in the development of visual music, which is adapting to changing contexts. For instance, successors of this tradition can be found in the field of electronic music and especially in VJing and live cinema, which increasingly incorporate animation techniques. The development of digital sound technologies has enabled diverse experimentation for artists at all levels, encouraging even more varied sound elements in recent years.