I could probably bore you with a few more posts just on character development, instead I want to share some important lessons learned in designing the audio assets for a serious comic. First, let’s all agree that all serious comics don’t necessarily have to have or even need voice-over audio, nor does it need music or sound effects. It’s a choice. The client requested voice-over and I chose to add music and sound effects. Here’s what I learned.
I’ve seen a few comic-style projects which had audio, whether it be an interactive learning experience, historical lesson, or awareness piece similar to this one. However, just because you add auditory sensory to a project doesn’t mean it adds value. It’s a tricky choice sometimes because with voice-over it’s typically all or nothing rather than a few screens here or a few screens there. If you’re going to add audio voice over, commit to the whole project. The same strategy should be used for adding other audio-related media such as music or sound effects. Music can add great value, but if it’s only the opening scene then your learners/readers will have forgot half way into your project.
Let’s look at these three media types independently as it pertains to a project like this. I’ll break down some of the production challenges, tips, and lessons learned on managing all these assets.
Most elearning courses I’ve developed over the years had a single narrator. Occasionally there may be one or two supporting voices in a course, but usually only small parts. There’s a certain way to write a narration script for elearning with cue points or long pauses, annotations, and or animations. When interviewing voice talent I’d discuss the script prior to recording and if there were any words they need help pronouncing correctly. None of that is new to any of you if you’ve ever hired voice talent for an elearning course.
In a serious comic with multiple characters and telling a story is quite different. The script in what was supposed to be the final production release is shown below for one of the scenes. Notice the ROW column indicating a numbering system for each character’s dialogue in that scene as 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and so on.
The design strategy of this storyboard during the storytelling and dialogue writing was to forecast a system for keeping track of audio files. Each line of dialogue would be recorded and the file saved as 1.1.wav, 1.2.wav, etc.
We have seven characters so we needed to hire seven voice actors to play the roles. In the scene depicted in the image above there are two characters, Stu and Jan. The initial plan was to have our Stu character voice talent go into the recording booth and read ALL his lines in one sitting for the entire story. Then our Jan character voice talent would have her turn. We’d do this for all seven characters. Rationale? Our actors were being paid by the hour so our plan was to put them in the studio for about two hours each to record all their lines for the story and then split out all the files accordingly during post-production.
I’m sure glad we didn’t go down that path! The more I thought about it the more I realized that was bad idea. Here’s why:
- Voices change over the course of a day. I didn’t want one character’s voice sound fresh in the morning while another character sounded tired in the afternoon. All fresh or all tired.
- This is not narration. It’s a story with characters. The voice-over talent needed to essentially be acting their roles. Without interacting with the other characters during a scene it would sound robot-ish.
- In some conversation dialogue one character’s lines may need to overlap another’s. Or they may need to be talking at the same time.
With those revelations, we decided to fiddle with the dialogue storyboard a break the scenes into sub-scenes. The image below shows a revised version of that storyboard.
First, you’ll notice this is now Scene 2 and not Scene 1. Additionally, the dialogue was drastically trimmed for design reasons related to speech bubbles and animation – that’s another blog post!
The important thing to note here is Scene 2 now has sub-scenes based on panel art and how things will animate – to be yet another blog post on production storyboards!
Once the entire project was revised similar to this, we lined up a day at a recording studio and brought in all the actors for a day. It was worth the extra expense to have them all there to be ‘in’ character and for purposes of re-record if necessary.
For example, the voice talent for Stu and Jan would go into the recording booth together each with an open mic. They would record Scene 2A as if they were in that setting in the story. Then record 2B. If you look up at the older version you’ll see 1.7 and 1.8 are the characters, Stu and RJ. In this revised storyboard it became 2C with 2.7 and 2.8 as the dialogue. Why? Because we’re introducing a different character in the scene at that point and the conversation is only between those two characters. So, our Jan voice talent left the recording booth, Stu remained, and our RJ character entered. They then recorded that sub-scene.
The revised storyboard was completely reworked to trim dialogue for better speech bubble management, better audio file management during production, and keeping each sub-scene at no more than three exchanges (you talk; I talk = 1 exchange). I wasn’t fortunate to attend the actual recording session, but I was told the entire day went like that from start to finish. And it went like clockwork!
Now I only have to manage audio files, 2A.wav, 2B.wav, 2C.wav and so on. Instead of syncing independent audio files to animation, I have one audio file I can sync animation to cue points. Plus, these audio files line up perfectly with the panel art and animation taxonomy. Audio Lesson Learned #1.
Music as an intro or splash screen can be effective to capture initial attention, but it’s all but forgotten two or three screens into a project. How do you choose background music for a serious comic? It’s almost like any media production where you have certain musical scores in various genres to depict drama, action, romance, etc. This is just a single story so we don’t have a whole lot of music but we’re planning on fading in background scores at certain key points in the story.
Unfortunately, this was an afterthought and not designed into the initial story so we are winging it as we go. I can see where a good instrumental would fit nicely given more time to set up the scene or trail it off. Audio Lesson Learned #2.
SOUND EFFECTS or SFX:
This is probably my favorite part of audio production. Sifting through photo sites looking for that just right photo can be a drag. Sifting through and listening to a sound effects library can be the same amount if not more time, but it’s more enjoyable. It’s fun hunting for that one little sound that will make all the difference. A squeaky sound a door makes when it’s opened, a car coming to a stop and that little “errrt” sound the brakes make, or a low ambiance of an urban city morning adds tremendous value in visual storytelling.
The best part is, given the time, is opening Garage Band and making your own sound effects. Audio Lesson Learned #3.
AUDIO ASSET MANAGEMENT:
Designing and developing a project like this is by far the best I’ve ever worked on and one I hope other companies want to explore. It’s not for the faint of heart and it takes a tremendous amount of planning and project management.
Part of the project management must include an asset management plan otherwise you’ll be chasing files of all sorts (.wav, .png, .jpg, .swf, etc.) all over the place. Build that plan into the front-end of the design phase. If you’re working with multiple contributors such as writers, artists, etc. you’ll want to establish an agreed upon taxonomy. As well, you’ll want to establish a good cloud-based collaborative storage service such as Dropbox for working with and sharing files.
Don’t forget a backup plan, too! Audio Lesson Learned # … nah, I already knew this lesson!