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How cartoon sounds are made for movies and TV shows

A splitscreen image.  On the left, a foley artist uses bones on a conch shell to create the sound of the Spongebob Squarepants character Mr. Krabs walking (right)
  • Compared to sound for live action, sound for animated movies and TV shows is less bound by realism.
  • Foley artists also start from scratch on animated projects, with no production sound to match.
  • See how Sanaa Kelley and Monique Reymond draw on these possibilities in their work.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.


Narrator: Does this sound familiar to you? That's Mr. Krabs walking in "SpongeBob."

Mr. Krabs: Can't you just pretend to listen for once in your life?

 Narrator: And notice how quickly he's moving.

Monique Reymond: It's like, it's almost like a dance, you know.

 Narrator: That's typical of cartoon characters, whose exaggerated movements and behavior call for equally exaggerated sound. For Foley artists like Monique or Sanaa, this is one of the fun challenges of creating sound for animation. And unlike live-action movies, it starts... ...with nothing.

Sanaa Kelley: For live-action you have production sound like what they recorded. So you could kind of like, be like, "oh, this is what it sounds like." But in animation, it's all up to you. It's like your world to create whatever you want.

Narrator:  Take Gir in "Invader Zim," a little robot who's shaped like this.

Sanaa: He looks hollow. So for his body, I use this. And then for his legs, they look like little cable legs. And these are his little feet. And I always had the kettle next to it so the metal kind of resonate and you could kind of hear his body.

Narrator: Appa, the giant, mythical beast in "Avatar: The Last Airbender," needed a bigger, rounder sound.

Sanaa: Because he's so big, I had to try different things for him. First, I tried like a couple cushions to do like massive... We tried big tree trunks and hit them. We couldn't really get how big and fluffy he is as well.

What I did, I got a plunger, I got some paper napkins, filled it up so it kind of took the hollowness out of it, and got multiple pieces of duct tape. When I played it, it sounded good.

And I tried one that was empty. You could hear the difference.

Narrator: The duct tape muted the sound, taking away any harshness. So Appa sounds not only big, but also fluffy and round like the cuddly creature he appears as onscreen.

Katara: Seem to know everything.

Sokka: Haha very funny.

Narrator: Even if the characters are based on actual real life animals, the sounds still get wackier in animation. Like the sea creatures of "SpongeBob."

Monique: Krabs has a couple things happening. Think about the crab as a shell. So steps... like the sound of the crab movement...

Narrator: Doesn't exactly sound like a real crab, does it? That's because real crabs don't move like this.

This mile-a-minute pace isn't unique to "SpongeBob." Characters in animation generally move faster and more percussively than they do in live action. Keeping up for Foley artists can get exhausting.

Sanaa: That was good.

Narrator: To emphasize the force behind all these swift jerky movements, accent sounds take on special importance, especially for fight scenes. Like the fast punches Monique did for this scene from the Kung Fu Panda TV show.

Po:  Heavenly club blossom.

Narrator: Or this popping sound.

Sanaa: Anytime we have a chance to add sound to a scene, we do, like when they're fighting. Anytime, when you see those little white lines that go like that, I'll add a whoosh to it. I like using bamboo sticks. You could use antennas or anything that does this kind of sound.

Narrator: Sanaa would also accent the characters' fight moves with what's called a "shing."

Sanaa: I use like a shovel. So there's like a deeper kind of shing. Also you gotta be careful how to hold the shovel. Like you could mute it. You could make it more ringy. I've used a machete and a shovel. And then I've used this thing, it's not sharp at all, with this.

Ooh la la. That was beautiful.

Narrator:These, as with most Foley sounds, are often combined with sound effects added digitally by sound designers.

Sanaa: So they could get mine manipulated or have theirs. Foley and effects together. Just really fill it up and make it sound great.

Narrator: This combination of Foley and digital effects is key, especially because there isn't any production sound to begin with. It's up to the Foley artist to fill this empty playground with sounds, each created individually and often layered together. On "SpongeBob," for example, the Foley artists would do something called a water pass.

Monique: We would take a big Tupperware tub and fill it up until it was about this much from the top. And we would do a movement. Instead of cloth we would move water. So we did all of the props dry because if we made any of the props sound wet it would be redundant with the water.

Narrator: But Foley artists aren't afraid to get wet or go over the top, especially when creating sounds for slapstick humor and animated comedy. Sanaa used an extra wet shammy to amplify the mud splats in "Rugrats." and capture the spirit of the messy babies.

She also used a shammy for the kids' eating sounds, which again had to be exaggerated to match the exaggerated visuals.

Sanaa: So whenever we had Rugrats eating, again animation make it bigger than life, you know, over the top. So for that slurping,

Stu: Gee they must be really hungry.

Sanaa: I'm gonna do an element of shammy, and I'm gonna do a bowl, like drinking out of a bowl.

Stu: Gee they must be really hungry.

Narrator: All kinds of mouth sounds tend to get heightened in animation, like Appa with his gooey tongue lick.

Sanaa: We wanna get something nice and juicy and wet.

Narrator: And this scene in "Teen Titans."

Raven: Wider, I need to get both my hands in there. That's one. Wider. There we go.

Monique: Okay. She's sticking her hand in his mouth. We're gonna layer the sound of me using my mouth.

And then we're gonna layer it with something else that sounds cavernous and open, which is this glove. You know, it sounds like it's got like some depth to it. It's not like shallow.

Raven: Now. Let's see. Hmm.

Narrator: So the mouth sounds get wetter. The movements get faster. And even something as mundane as footsteps gets played up for dramatic effect. Nearly every sound gets heightened in animation, which means the creative possibilities for Foley artists are pretty much endless.

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