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Interview - TF Animated Soundman Jeff Shiffman
BaCon - Thursday, November 29, 2007

TFormers is happy to present an interview with Jeff Shiffman, the guy who's going to be giving the Transformers Animated series the Biff, Bang, and POW with fantatic sounds effects. Thanks to Hobbes, we get the scoop on what's being done sound-wise for the series and how they come up with the things they do.

Hobbes: To start, please tell us a bit about your background in the industry - How did you get your start? What drew you to work in sound?

Jeff Shiffman: I went to school for music and telecom production at the Indiana University School of Music. I moved out to LA to find work as a composer for film & TV. It was through a connection with my wife that I met the owner of my current company and began working in sound design. With a good background in the software I dove into the work, approaching all of my work like I was composing, but with a different palette of instruments.

Hobbes: Describe exactly what your responsibilities on Transformers Animated are.

Jeff Shiffman: Initially, I established the show, which is creating the feel of the show from a sound design standpoint. I spent a couple of weeks designing new sounds from the ground up, as well as deciding how and where to incorporate the classic sounds (which I had collected or recreated) into the show. After that, I cut sound effects for the show in its first season. Finally, as co-sound supervisor, I met weekly with the producers/directors to show them the work, make any necessary changes and prepare the show for its final sound mix.

Hobbes: We've heard the classic transforming sound in the footage Hasbro showed at San Diego Comic Con. Will this sound make it into the final show, and what were the pluses and minuses of going with the classic sound?

Jeff Shiffman: It was really important to both us and the producers that we use the classic sound whenever transforming occurs. That's how the Cybertronians work, and we weren't about to change that. Hasbro sent us the classic sound and we've used it, and variations of it, for all of the Autobots and Decepticons. It was a completely positive move... any time anyone hears the sound, they instantly know it's the Transformers sound and we take a lot of pleasure in paying homage to the original.

Hobbes: What were some of the more challenging sounds to create on Transformers Animated, and which sounds are deceptively simple?

Jeff Shiffman: It's really a matter of balance. If you look back at the original series, there's barely a single sound for each event. When Megatron transforms, all you hear is his transforming effect. A set of ears in 2007 expects so much more from sound design. We put an incredible amount of sound design into each episode simply because we can. That didn't used to be the case, but the current technology for what we do allows for so much more. When Megatron transforms in the new show, we have 20 channels of sounds layered on top of one another. Most prominent is the classic transforming sound, but there is a lot more to it. The challenge is balancing it all to sound classic to you and I, and super cool to a young kid who's used to what's on TV now, in 2007.

Hobbes: Obviously, some sounds will be repeated often throughout the season, but each episode will provide its own challenges. Please describe your process for approaching each episode. Do you start with a script? Storyboards? How do you begin to determine which sounds you'll need and how early in production are they created?

Jeff Shiffman: I see the material for the first time when each episode is delivered. We are not provided with any scripts or storyboards. If you're really lucky, you can get a rough cut before you start work on a series, just to get a heads up. But everything eventually catches up with you and it's a weekly process of getting the picture from the editor, cutting the sound, adjusting it to any changes or updates and mixing. The picture comes with only a temporary dialog track (since it's animation, there is no source sound).

My process is to watch the show through with the producers and take notes on anything new that I might notice or they might point out. Usually a producer has a pretty good idea of what things should sound like and Transformers is no exception. We are really luck though because they have given us free reign to go crazy with the sound design. We've proven early on that this was a show to get excited about and they have recognized that and really let us put or stamp on it. Each new show has elements that create a challenge for that particular episode. Slowly, we build a library of powers/weapons/movements/footsteps and incorporate them whenever we can to give the show its own sound and feel.

Hobbes: Each Transformer character requires sounds for robot mode and at least one vehicle mode; how does the presence of alternate modes factor into the creation of sounds for each character? How does this compare to the work you have done on other shows, where the characters are more "static" in appearance.

Jeff Shiffman: Having characters with different modes or powers is actually really common with the types of shows I happen to have worked on. It was fun to draw from these other experiences and use them to really make Transformers: Animated a standout show. We tried to give each character a personality that would come through in both their vehicle modes as well as their associated weapons, voice processing, transforming, and even footsteps. A good example of this would be Bumblebee. His "stinger" has a buzzing sound built into each shot. I've worked that same sound into his transformation and we've processed his voice with similar results. Being the smallest of the Autobots, we built really tin-like, small footsteps for him. Finally, in vehicle mode, we've used some smaller but powerful sportscar engines to emphasize his agility. All of this adds up to the overall character. Bumblebee has a sonic "feel" that will hopefully come through and help the audience identify with him, his size and his attitude.

Hobbes: How closely do you work with the writers and voice actors in developing the sounds for each character, and making sure those sounds match the persona of the character?

Jeff Shiffman: Since we get the show after the writing and voice recoding stage, our input comes in the way the voices are processed for the final mix. Each Autobot and Decepticon has their own unique type of processing based on the character, personality and possible references from the original show. It tends to be a trial and error process until you find the right combination of filters. Ratchet, for instance, is the older bot of the group. The producers wanted his voice to sound scratchy, almost like a record player with an old needle. Our re-recording mixer Carlos Sanches used different lo-fi filters and distortions to give him that scratchy feel. The tough part is processing the voice so it sounds cool while making sure you can still understand what is being said.

Hobbes: Does the show's music factor into your job at all? How do you make sure that the tone of both the sound effects work and the score work together?

Jeff Shiffman: Unfortunately, in order to give the composer and ourselves enough time to get each episode finished, we have to work on them at the same time. In a perfect scenario, we'd have the music as a reference to make sure it all works together flawlessly, but all post is run like this. It's the job of the mixers and producers to make sure there is a balance when doing the final sound mix of the show since that is the first time everything is heard together. Also, if any specific issues come up, there's always an open line of communication between myself and the composer, which is a big help.

Hobbes: Your imdb page says you've worked in sound for both live action and animated projects. What are the differences in working in sound between the two mediums?

Jeff Shiffman: In live action, we have the production sound to reference, meaning whatever was recorded on set. We tend to rebuild everything for the mix, but there's still a nice base there. In animation, everything stems from the imagination of the editor.

Hobbes: What are some of your favorite uses of sound as a storytelling tool from film and/or television?

Jeff Shiffman: Matching on-screen action with sound is one thing, but when things are off screen to one side or behind you that it gets challenging and fun. It's all about the sound editor's imagination of what might be going on in the space the viewer can't see. I have a lot of fun with that. Especially if we see something fly off camera. A character might continue on around our heads (in surround) or crash into something, which is always fun.. Maybe Starscream threw Optimus Prime into a glass display window, a pile of trash, a rickshaw… whatever! Fun stuff.

Hobbes: What would you recommend to people interested in entering the field of sound?

Jeff Shiffman: Learn Pro Tools inside and out. Train your ears to know what things should sound like, work on recreating them, then get fast. Learn the quick keys and start to build a sound library of your own. Have it ready in case you're suddenly put to the test. Also, It helps to know someone to get into sound design for TV/film. It's a very small community, and there's not a ton of work to go around. I'd also strongly suggest putting your own spin on everything you do. New sounds tend to catch people's ears and there will always be room for those with new and creative approaches to what we do.

Hobbes: Finally, please settle an age-old fan debate: How do you spell the Transformers transformation sound?

d) Other

Jeff Shiffman: Definitely B.

TFormers extends its thanks to Jeff for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with us.

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