sound in animation
The earliest filmmakers had an immediate problem to overcome – how do you convey a story with no sound? Sound had been a vital part of all plays, operas, orchestrations and even dances. Multiple methods were tried, resulting in many early silent films resembling animation in their attempts to exaggerate emotions and ideas to get their point across. Live musicians were also often hired to play in the theater where the film was being played, and title cards were sometimes used to produce basic conversation.
Fortunately, the problem was soon solved and the use of sound and sound effects was fine tuned, resulting in the use of music and sound effects to convey emotion far more effectively than any visual could represent. Some animators even took it to new levels, animating entire episodes around a single piece of music. My favorite is Warner Brother’s use of “Hungarian Rhapsody,” played on the piano by Bugs Bunny. Walt Disney’s Fantasia is another excellent example of ‘illustrating’ music. The visuals actually help you to recognize and remember the music far better than audio alone.
While voices and narration in a film is needed, in animation, frequently music is the only vital sound. One of my favorite animated examples of this is “The Snowman“, a child’s wintertime tale that is told without anyone speaking during the story, save an accompanying song in the middle. The animation itself is quite unusual, more like a series of shifting images than full out frame by frame drawings. While I complained about this pausing effect in anime, it actually works here, because you feel you’re looking at a child’s picture book. The action and music is dramatic and relatively dreamlike, and so you can float along with the simple storyline. You never have any doubt or confusion about what’s going on. Narration would have taken away from this movie, and the lack of it just adds to the dream quality.
Another story where actions speak louder than words can be found in Pixar’s Wall-E, which follows a little clean-up robot on a future abandoned Earth. Though there is some talking in it, the story for the most part has the double burden of getting a silent robot to convey emotion, humanity and sense in its actions, and handles this quite well without any narration.
Animation has the ability to tell a narration free story that is more effective than the early silent live action films. While the exaggeration needed to get some ideas across looks odd with people, it works well in animation.
One advantage of NOT using language in a film is its ability to reach a wider audience. The Snowman could be viewed and understood just as easily in China as in the United States or France without any alterations to the film. Many of the animated films submitted to international competitions are minimally vocal for exactly this reason. Check out Mesai’s Alarm Clock for a fun example. We’ve all had that battle, there’s no need for explanation, in any language! Another is The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which won an Oscar earlier this year. No words, no need. The music provides the appropriate emotion.