Sound Designer / Re-recording Mixer Ben Governale on the Wildly Creative Soundscape of ‘The Cyanide & Happiness Show’

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ch_ben_headerUnlimited access to ad-free comedy — that’s what NBCUniversal is offering with Seeso, their subscription-based streaming service available online and via Roku or Amazon Fire TV. You can watch late night reruns of Jimmy Fallon, classic SNL episodes, or Monty Python films. But more importantly, you can watch original series, like The Cyanide & Happiness Show, an animated comedy that’s equal parts clever and crude. A comedy series where even the end credits provide comedic jewels (of the family variety, isn’t that right Mr. Effects supervisor Jon Murphy?).

Cyanide’s stick-figure style characters first appeared in rough shorts on the Explosm YouTube channel. Kickstarter funding fueled the creation of the fully-produced ten-minute episodes for Season One, which also aired on YouTube. Now, if you want to watch the further refined Season Too, you’ll have to get Seeso. But The Cyanide & Happiness Show is worth it! Long-time series sound designer and re-recording mixer Ben Governale shares the gory details of crafting Cyanide’s sound at Cymatic Studios.

S&P: How did you get involved with the show?

Ben Governale (BG): My first run-in with Cyanide & Happiness was on one of the shorts in 2007. I was living in Lyman, Wyoming with the one and only Kris Wilson [one of the series creators], and I did a bit of voice acting as a mental patient for a short called “Burn Victim.” But it wasn’t until after the initial Kickstarter to produce Season One that I really joined the team. In 2013, I was trying to make strides in the audio and film industry in Fort Collins, Colorado, by taking on entirely too much free work.  Kris was also living in Fort Collins at the time. He took notice and went out on a limb to suggest me to the guys [series co-creators/co-writers Rob DenBleyker and Dave McElfatrick]. Before I knew it, I was doing an application of sorts. My initiation into the secret fraternity of sonically useful dudes began shortly after the Kickstarter. My hazing started with the task of redoing the sound design for the famous short, “Beer Run.” It was the ultimate test — a brutal but rewarding trial. After that, I was contacted by Cyanide‘s awesome business development manager, Derek Miller. I was given a bid, and the rest is recent history.

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S&P: What’s your workflow on a typical episode?

BG: I’ll usually split the workflow a little differently for every episode, depending on how tight the schedule is, but there is a general order of importance. The episodes are usually animated in pieces and then assembled later in production. Once a section is printed for sound, my friend and assistant, Samm Barrett, will lay down a rough Foley pass, and he helps me gather or record samples that will become useful in the final sound design and editing stage. From there, I always deal with dialogue, which in my opinion is the most important piece of the puzzle. After aligning, cleaning, and editing the dialogue I will EQ all the different characters to match in tone. We collaborate with voice actors from all over the country who have been recorded on various different platforms, so the frequency response may vary from character to character. Then I’ll do a rough mix without the meter, and go back and fine tune according to ITU [International Telecommunications Union] requirements.

Once the dialogue is leveled, I like to layer in the music track, which is done by the very talented composer Steve Lehmann. On special occasions, I’ll handle music myself. After that, I’ll do an ambience and footsteps pass. I call everything up to this point the ‘backbone.’ Once those are knocked out, the fun begins. This is where all the sound effects editing, fine tuning, and intense or unusual sound design takes place, as well as the majority of effects sends automation. I’ll finish up the sound design with production elements, drones, or anything that may compliment the music track. Then comes a final mix which is followed by rendering a demo for the director of that episode. He makes notes and I will do as many passes as necessary to get final approval. Then it’s onto the mastering stage. Once all the sections of an episode are approved, I will go back and render separate dialogue, SFX, ambience, and music tracks to use in my final assembly. My final assembly is where everything is brought together and a final master is printed.

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S&P: It seems like there are no limits with this show, but everything has limits. What’s one thing you’re NOT allowed to do, sound-wise, on this show?

BG: As far as the shorts go, I can’t think of anything that’s not fair game. But the series episodes are a little different. The only limits I can think of concerning the episodes are those set by the ITU – 1770/3 [loudness standard], and are mostly geared towards dialogue volume standards. As far as the sound design, there is always some form of notes I get back from the director, but no one thing in particular comes to mind.

S&P: The Cyanide & Happiness Show reminds me of StickDeath.com, but then the stick figures talk and it’s even better! What is your inspiration for this show? What do you want to achieve with the sound?

BG: A big inspiration of mine concerning sound design would definitely be the series Futurama. The sound designer/editor Travis Powers is extremely thorough and creative in his approach.  When I watch episodes nowadays, I can barely focus on the story because I’m listening to all the sound design. What I’ve been trying to achieve with the sound design of The Cyanide & Happiness Show is a little different than most cartoons. I want the sound design to have more of a film quality and realism to it that a lot of the cartoons I grew up with didn’t have, presumably because most of those cartoons are written for a much younger audience.

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S&P: Season Too is now available on Seeso. Let’s talk about those episodes. What’s the most ridiculous sound you had to come up with, and how did you create it?

BG: In [S2] Episode 4, “Too Much Time,” which is a Terminator parody, the “Tolerator,” who is an overly tolerant version of the Terminator, goes back in time to “tolerate” a bouncer. The Tolerator finds he is the one being intolerant of the bar’s rules, and that creates a time rift, causing the Tolerator to glitch-out into a truly massive “Tolerator Blob.” Haha!

Designing this was a beast and I had upwards of 70 tracks with a lot of different elements. The meat of it was done with heavily layered samples of Arnold [Schwarzenegger] grunt impersonations that quickly double and become more glitched, stretched, and processed until Arnold [the Tolerator] engulfs all of space and time. Along with the Arnold vocal Foley, there are a slew of flashes, explosions, Foley of the city being destroyed, heavily processed builds and rises, heartbeats, pitched screams, horror sounds, and sci-fi and electrical noises. This was easily the most fun I’ve had with sound design for this season. It was extremely challenging and rewarding.

One thing I truly love about working with cartoons, and in particular with The Cyanide & Happiness Show, are the scenarios for which I get to design sound. They are usually extremely fantastic and out of the usual budget of independent films. So it’s an amazing opportunity for Samm and I to sharpen our skills beyond the usually Foley and dialogue repair.

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S&P: What’s the most disturbing thing you had to design sound for in Season Too? How did you create that?

BG: In [S2] “Episode Too,” during a promotional video for Humperdink University Porno College, a student learns to apply a condom to two bananas at the same time using only his mouth. The bananas proceed to flap around uncontrollably after he is done, and the whole sequence of sounds turned out to be pretty entertaining. As far as how they were created, I credit Samm for the creative sounds he chose to layer, which made editing extremely interesting.  These sounds consisted of plastic bag movements, whooshes, balloon squeaks, wet horror slops, spitting, flesh slaps, and some samples of animals eating. It was lots of fun.

S&P: What’s the one sound you played back the most on Season Too because you just couldn’t stop laughing? Any details you can share on that sound?

BG: In [S2] Episode 9, “Too Many Superheroes,” a character named MegaMom (voiced by the talented Wildrose Hamilton) gets a surge of adrenaline when she throws her baby into danger, causing her to “Hulk out.” The act is usually accompanied by MegaMom saying, “My BAAAAABY!” The way in which Wildrose voiced this particular line starts out as a normal concerned mom voice and quickly turns into a guttural death metal scream. Pitching and processing this line into a massive booming and terrifying wall of sound made for an absolutely hilarious experience. I am extremely lucky to work with such a hilarious cast and crew, and special thanks to NBC’s Seeso for giving us the creative freedom and opportunity to continue to do so.

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S&P: Any favorite audio tool for this show? Can you give specific examples of how you used it?  

BG: I really enjoyed working with Ableton’s different Warping algorithms. One example comes to mind from Episode 10, “Too Much History.” I needed to create an extremely uncomfortable rise sound for a horror scene, and Ableton’s Warp Mode came to the rescue. The scene consisted of two characters: Jack, voiced by Kris Wilson, and the Ghost of History’s Future, voiced by Justin Aarestad, who shows Jack his future dead rotting body. The scene builds in suspense until Jack wakes from the dream.

One of the main sounds used for the suspenseful rise was a swarm of bees that was pitched way up and then heavily processed to give it a truly horrifying sound. Using Ableton’s Texture algorithm, I reduced the grain size and increased the flux, which led to a sound that I still can’t believe came from a swarm of bees. I’m sure all of these scenarios may sound out of the ordinary for a regular sound design gig, but it’s just another day with the Cyanide crew. I can’t express how much I love this job!

-S&P-

Learn more about The Cynanide & Happiness Showhttp://explosm.net/show/
Images courtesy of Cymatic Studios

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