With the topic of the month being “character”, I knew just the person to interview, Tim Borquez. Tim is a Supervising Sound Editor and Re-Recording mixer who owns Hacienda Post in Burbank, CA. To date Tim has won 11 Emmy Awards and 10 MPSE Golden Reel Awards. Tim has worked on shows such as The Ren and Stimpy Show, Spongebob Squarepants, The Batman, The Little Mermaid, Hey Arnold, Samurai Jack, Angry Beavers, Darkwing Duck, Adventure Time, and Steven Universe.
DS: Thanks for joining us today. Please tell us a little about yourself and how you got your start in the industry.
TB: While working and pursuing a career, as a “starving musician & performer” in the early ’80’s, I received the opportunity to join the team at Horta Editorial & Sound, as a runner & apprentice.
My mentor, Sam Horta, and his team were on the heels of an Emmy win for their sound work on the first season of the hit TV series, “Hill St. Blues”. This was back in the days of cutting sound on 35mm film and Sam had one room in the back, where they were building backgrounds on 24 trk 2 inch tape. It was pretty much the studio environment that I was familiar with from my musician experience. I quickly gravitated to this technology, which was known as a “pre-lay” or “PAP” system. It pretty much consisted of a smaller mixing desk (Ramsa), a 24 trk 2 inch multitrack recorder (Otari), a 3/4 inch u-matic video deck (Sony), with library audio source material coming from audio carts & 1/4 inch tape. All this was controlled by a synchronizing system that interlocked the 24 trk and videotape machines with SMPTE, that also fired the audio cart and 1/4 inch tape machines into “play”, to lay discreet tracks onto the 24 trk. It was a transitional technology used, to streamline the film-sound process of the day, before the digital age came to be.
While we were all really busy with the episodic TV work that was coming in (mostly live-action drama and movies of the week), Sam would stay a few hours each night to edit music for a couple of animated series at the time. This is where I had the awesome opportunity to be mentored by him and I hung out and learned how to edit music from an established library, on 35mm film, for animated series like: “Bill Cosby & the Cosby Kids”, “He-Man & The Masters of the Universe” and “She-Ra”. This is where I learned of Sam’s previous experience as a music editor on classics like the ’60’s “Batman”, “Green Hornet” & “Time-Tunnel” series. He always had a love for animation and shared how he got started with Walt Disney in the color department on films like “Lady & The Tramp”, eventually moving into the sound department on classics like “Zorro”. Within the first year, he was letting me edit music on “The Cosby Kids”. I then moved on to editing SFX, Foley, & Dialogue on a lot of TV shows over the next 10 years. During that time, I talked Sam into letting me cut the music on these shows on the “pre-lay” system- he said, “Go for it, pal”. Well, it worked out and soon this technology took over the industry for the next several years, while the bugs were being worked out of the digital workstation technology in the mid-late ’90’s.
Eventually Sam built his first mix room, using the tape technology. I was sort of an assistant engineer at the time, being mentored by a couple of great guys; Dave West & Sam Black. We started mixing animated shows off the bat. “Garfield & Friends” was the first. Within a couple of years, Dave West & Sam Black left the company and I was left alone to start mixing, along with my animation sound supervision duties. It was shortly after that that I began mixing and supervising animated shows like: “Ren & Stimpy”, “Rocko’s Modern Life”, “Hey Arnold”, “Disney’s Tale Spin”, “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” series.
DS: Can you tell us a little about your current position and what you currently do?
TB: In 2000, a few years after Sam Horta passed away, I started my own company, Hacienda Post, in Burbank. We’ve found our niche’ in animation sound, but do a few independent films and documentaries each year. We’re post audio for many shows and we have a fantastic award-winning team of designers and mixers, working on recent projects like “Adventure Time”, “Over The Garden Wall”, “Spongebob Squarepants”, “The Batman”, “Steven Universe”, “Robot Chicken”, “Infinity Train” and “Fancy Nancy”.
DS: The topic for the month is character. Can you tell us a little bit about using sound design to establish different characters? Or how to give different characters a unique sonic signature?
TB: Well, it truly depends on the style the director has in his vision that will dictate where you go. For me, it’s always about supporting the story first, style second and whether if it can become “too designy” for the sake of being “designy”. A characters specific design could be as subtle as the textural sound of the movement of Batman’s cape or the quirkiness of the squeak of Spongebob’s shoes. It’s what you can find to stir or enhance a scene or story that evokes emotion in the audience.
DS: You mention The Batman and Spongebob. One is more dark and serious, the other can be extremely slapstick. How do you work with the convention and the expectations created by previous shows in those styles? Where do you decide to break with convention to add your own unique aesthetics to the shows?
TB: I believe it comes down to a commitment to being “fresh” with your choices and intention. You cannot work in a vacuum, where all you hear is what’s in YOUR head, without an understanding what the director/creator is hearing in HERS or HIS. Early creative conversation about the soundscape, which includes the musical score is essential. You will discover from the creator/director if there is a sense of “homage” to convention or expectation in his vision. At that point I will always try to steer to a fresh approach, where you encounter moments of “homage”, by emulating or designing “hybrid” sounds, incorporating a conventional palette that blends the conventional or “canned” style with new layers and textures. What I really like is to use conventional sounds in different contextual moments; basically where you wouldn’t expect that sound to be used. We did this a lot in Ren & Stimpy- sounds you were familiar with, used in a different context. It takes the audience by surprise and works great, especially comedic moments.
I’ve found that throwing up and layering tons of tracks without a defined finished example to show a client can lead to tons of wasted time – which we don’t have. My favorite way to work is to find short sequences that will exhibit my interpretation of the director’s vision and build it out, mix it, incorporating a chunk of the composer’s score. Basically, create a snapshot of where we can take the design, which the director can taste and feel. Once we get a stamp of approval, we move forward and start with a first pass build of the episode.
DS: Can you talk a little bit about the sonic palettes for Spongebob? I know that you have this one real cool underwater background/ambience that was created for Spongebob.
TB: What’s cool about stylized animation is it immediately sets up an alternate universe that allows you to lose the practical and conventional. When I see a sequence or how a character has been visually designed, it viscerally inspires me to latch on to something that will make a statement, while still supporting the story. I look at it like: it’s not about being “designy” at every moment or building tons of sound everywhere to impress. It’s about finding 1 or 2 moments in a sequence that will work well with the musical score or even silence. Seeing Steve Hillenburg’s scenic design on Spongebob kind of dictated a lot off the bat. Jeff Hutchins, our sound designer/editor, and I discussed how we were going to lay out the tracks and environments. We knew bubbles were going to be a big on-going element to the style of the show- so we culled, pitched, modified dozens of different bubble sounds to incorporate into transitions, up-close moments and atmospheres. In the pilot and eventual first few episodes I began mixing, processing and mastering up sets of Underwater BG tracks to be part of a show-pak to be used for the series.
DS: Can you talk a little bit about background and foreground in storytelling? Here you have a really cool and well designed background, so you want people to notice it, but not too much. You want the focus to be on the characters and the sounds that tell the story of those characters, right?
TB: It’s about creating environments that set mood & tone. In feature films, TV drama- you don’t have as much music setting mood & tone, per se’. If you’re trying to get your audience to notice something going on in the background or in the foreground- because it’s cool, you may be pulling them out of the story, with unnecessary distraction- it’s a balancing act.
When there is no underscore, you have an opportunity to immerse the audience in the scene or environment, so as to propel the story forward. So, if you are in an area where there is no music and lots of design elements being brought forward: vehicles, weapons, location, ambiances- it becomes a playground.
DS: Do you have a different approach to establishing this sonic signature for “good guy” vs “bad guy” characters?
TB: Again- the style approach of the piece will dictate. Having a good sense of how the musical score will carry character-driven moments (Good or Evil archetypes), will set the stage for where we can support the emotional essence of a scene or story.
DS: How much do you work with the director to establish this and can you talk about that process?
TB: As much as possible. The more insight to a director’s vision for the piece, the better off you are- especially with schedule constraints always being there. You have to be efficient with your time- so the more engaged you can be with the director- the better.
DS: You mentioned Batman’s cape, can you talk about the sonic elements that tell the story of him being this tough, but kind of dark superhero? What about someone more sinister like The Joker?
TB: From the start, I wanted to deliberately go “whole hog”, with The Batman on the Foley stage, by building up really phat textures for his cape, boots, vehicles, weapons and movement. I hired the late, great Foley artist Sean Rowe to help create a Batman textural library. This stuff needed “weight” and “beef” behind it. We experimented with mic’ing and props that were going to bring all this stuff to life. Going more sinister, like for “The Joker”, is doing stuff that might be subtly “irritating” to an audience without it being obvious. Like a click texture in his footsteps or the polyester movement of his clothing; it’s almost like biting into a piece of fruit, not knowing that it’s going to be sour. It catches you by surprise and instills an irritating feeling in you that you will associate with that fruit or in this case the character from then on. It’s figuring out a way to emotionally affect your audience with sound as they move through the story and series.
DS: I know that in Adventure Time, they wanted to use more natural or real world sounds even though it takes place in this strange and other-worldly fantasy world. They didn’t want it to sound too cartoony. Can you talk about developing that sonic palette and how you found that balance of keeping it from sounding too cartoony and how did that play into the development of Jake and Finn as characters?
TB: There were so many different characters in Adventure Time, it was essential that we kept this show-pak organized in a way that could be referenced back to when we revisited a character.
Again, the Foley stage was where the “style statement” would be created for this series. With Spongebob before, we defined his personality, by using a half-inflated balloon to create the sound of his footstep squeak. So now, with Finn I wanted to create a signature sound or presence that the audience would identify with his character. This time we went subtler and focused on his backpack movement.
For Jake’s character, we chose his stretching movement to feature. This was tougher because he had a lot of funny lines and when he’d get moving around this stretchy sound needed to be able to live and not get in the way of his funny dialogue. The unique pitch and timber of the character voices, along with the textural palette used by the composer, set the stage for the soundscape of this show. Everything had its special place to sit in the aural spectrum, which made this show sound so different and special.
DS: Has your work in theater influenced your approach to sound design for film?
TB: Very much so. Storytelling is king! Supporting a director’s efforts in creating atmosphere, environment, along with highlighting specific moments that can emotionally affect an audience are what it’s all about.
DS: Switching it up a little, from a sound design perspective can you talk a little about how you make a sound have “character” as opposed to a more flat or straight forward sound? How do you make it sound like it has character as opposed to just a canned sound?
TB: I think a designer has to remember to not get “too literal” with building sound. Blending elements that have a sense of textural and sonic clarity is important. Sometimes a few tracks is more effective than dozens in achieving what you’re going for. Being confident in your understanding how something will work with music and how it is working with creating tension and release is important. I’m truly thankful to have been able to mix a lot of what I and others have cut, as well to have had the musical understanding of timbral voicing, tension and release. Designing in this context has basically helped me construct voices that compliment each other or as an added voice to a musical score or atmosphere already established as a baseline in a scene. It’s an engaging challenge with every project and keeps things really interesting.