Sunday, January 07, 2007

Lip Synch Tip

You might not know it from reading this blog, but I was a working animator for decades and am teaching the nuts and bolts of animation right now.

This is something that I figured out while trying to explain lip synch. I don't believe that it's in any of the instruction books. If it is, I wish somebody would let me know, as I'd like to know if I figured this out on my own or unconsciously stole it from somewhere.

Since I'm now making PowerPoint presentations available to my students, I suspect that the files will circulate far and wide as animation notes are likely to do. So I'm staking my claim to this here, assuming that I haven't ripped it off myself.

We exhale when we talk. Generally, vowel sounds are an unrestricted flow of air from our mouths and consonants are a restricted flow of air. The shape of our lips is crucial to getting a vowel to sound right, but it's not nearly as crucial when sounding out a consonant.

If you say "steam room," you'll note that both words end in an 'm' sound, but that your lips are in different positions for each 'm.' You'll also note that your lips don't just move up and down, they also move away and towards the centerline of your face. That's one tip for making your mouth action feel less mechanical.

However, the thing I figured out works out to be a general rule. Say "raid, rod, rude." All three words end with a 'd' sound, but your mouth is in a different position each time. It turns out that the mouth shape of a consonant is determined by the mouth shape of the preceding vowel.


Benjamin De Schrijver said...


Anonymous said...

Good tip!

A lot of general rules, like "time your mouth shapes 2 frames in advance of the sound", are not actually true 100% of the time... this one is no exception, but it's true enough of the time that it's worth keeping as a mnemonic.

The actual principle behind it is called coarticulation. As you've observed, each speech sound requires certain mouth parts to do certain things, and doesn't care what the other mouth parts are doing. The "d" sound only cares about the tongue and vocal cords. Your brain, being very good at planning out actions for minimum effort, is free to put the lips wherever they need to be to sound out the entire word. So, during a "d" sound, the lips can take the shape of the vowel before or after it. Compare "dew" and "deal".

I have not read about coarticulation in any book about animation. This is why animators should read books about other fields, like linguistics and speech pathology! ;-)

Anonymous said...

On a related note, I'm always fascinated by the way one's vocal quality is determined to some degree by the individual structure and shape of the jaw and mouth. Being a caricaturist and having dabbled in doing a few vocal impressions, I can positively state that this is huge factor.

For example, if you study Buddy Hackett's face when he's talking, you can see how that distinctive voice of his is formed by the peculiar way his mouth leans to one side and forces the words out between pursed lips, with the lower lip jutting out prominently. To attempt a vocal impression of Buddy, you pretty much have to screw up your mouth to one side in the exact same way. Similarly, British actor Terry-Thomas, whose voice is also highly distinctive, speaks like that because of the way the corners of his mouth are pulled tightly to the sides. Both of these actors, of course, were also employed to voice Disney characters and it is obvious from the resulting animation that the Disney animators had studied their vocal contortions well to get the appropriate look. I believe this is very important to keep in mind when designing characters for animation, as it gives your character far more credibility when it looks like their mouth/jaw structure is capable of producing the voice emanating from it. (In fact, it doesn't stop there either: when trying to make that Buddy Hackett voice, one finds that their eyes pop open wide quite like his do. I believe there is also a strong relationship between vocal quality and facial expressions, particularly as to how it affects what the eyes do too.)

By the way, Mark, this is something I will be covering in my class in preparation for our students to go on to do your lip synch assignments with both human and animal characters.

Anonymous said...

Thanks , Mark. Very helpful. I've never read it described that way before.

This illustrates one of the reasons limited animation (whether cel or Flash) with "stock" mouths never really looks convincing, except maybe for the simplest sort of stylized animation ; mouth shapes are very particular to the dialogue and the way the actor speaks the dialogue. (as Pete Emslie points out above using the examples of Buddy Hackett and Terry Thomas.) And of course the character design should also dictate how the lip sync will be handled and the body language that contributes to convincing sync.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, Mark. I haven't seen that particular point floated elsewhere, so perhaps it really can be termed the Mayerson Dictate before too long.

I'm always happy to work in studios where individual animators are encouraged to break down the sound on their own shots. If they do it with any level of care they'll hopefully recognize the wide range of variables you have pointed out. Teach on!