Behind every great animation is great sound. More specifically: composers, sound designers, and many others.
In the world of animation, sound can carry just as much, and sometimes more, weight as the image itself. The Other Half is a new series where we hope to focus on many of the amazing companies and individuals that help bring our work to life through sound.
The following is a Q&A with Wilson Brown, Partner and ECD @ Antfood.
First, can you tell us a bit about your personal background?
I feel like I’m just beginning to piece together all of the events and influences in my life that informed how I ended up where I am today. I’ve always been infatuated with the magic and mysticism of crafting organized sound, creating to instill emotion through music and sound design. At a very young age, I learned to play instruments, I was making experiments with late 80s tape decks inside budget boomboxes. Later, in middle school, I got into recording on analog four-tracks and early digital workstations. I went to public school in Philadelphia and played in the school bands and friend bands. I studied traditional theory and composition in college and subsequently, esoteric digital media art in grad school. But ultimately most of what I know about craft, I learned through curiosity, trial-and-error and a handful of amazing mentors who were willing to give me unproven chances.
What is the Antfood story and how did you all come to be?
I had a small web design company (which somehow is incredibly still live!) with two of my friends while I was in high school. And I guess I was the creative side of it. I would design the websites and do early Macromedia and Adobe stuff. But one of the things my friend and business partner did was to buy up domain names in bulk. This was in the late 90s, and the web was a beautiful, undefined space. One domain name that came up was antfood.com. I thought that was memorable and interesting, so I took it for myself and I used it as a portfolio site throughout my creative endeavors in my late teens and early twenties.
I moved to São Paulo Brazil and worked as a staff composer for a handful of large studios. Eventually, I moved to New York and built a small studio in Williamsburg in the mid-2000s, and quickly began freelancing for most big studios in the states. I linked up with my good friend from grad school, Polly Hall, who was pursuing similar endeavors, and gradually we started to get our own small jobs in Motion Graphics (thanks motionographer.com) and other creative fields that needed bespoke sound design and music. We discussed coming up with another name, but we never beat “Antfood”, and in retrospect, we’ve built a whole brand, culture, and image around that name, after the fact. There are 10 quadrillion ants on earth, and they eat an obscene amount of food.
We worked hard, for a lot of different people and slowly built a team, a reputation, our own aesthetic and process — and we grew. One of my good friends from working in Brazil, Pedro, was working with us in the states when we were discussing opening a second studio. We considered San Francisco, London and ultimately settled on São Paulo, Brazil.
So, in 2011 we opened Antfood Brazil, with another amazing partner Lou Schmidt, which has been very successful in Latin America and beyond. Earlier this year we opened another studio in Amsterdam.
We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary by getting all of the studios together for a week in Mexico. We reflected on the challenges and successes of the last 10 years, but more importantly, discussed our focus and vision to remain creative, relevant and potent as composers, sound designers, and entrepreneurs in the coming decade.
That sounds like an amazing 10 years! How many people make up the team at Antfood and how would you describe the jobs you take on?
We have 32 people on staff worldwide, which is small in the broader creative industry but is pretty large for an audio production company in 2018.
As for projects, we take on a wide range of work from tiny creative projects to large International campaigns, and experiences. We compose music, sound design, and audio services for linear media and we also concept and implement large-scale experiential projects whether that lives in-game engine on your phone or a massive physical space.
And how would you describe Antfood’s process?
While each project ultimately has a specialized form of production, one of the things that I’m most proud of — is we work collaboratively as a team. We’ve built state-of-the-art studios utilizing the best aspects of 80 years of recording technology — from vacuum tubes to neural networks. All of this exists in a physical, central locations in New York, São Paulo, and Amsterdam that our teams work out of, every day, together.
Many audio studios have shifted to a freelance model over the past 15 years, which is suitable for certain projects. At Antfood, we thrive with projects that require a collective vision, the spirit of collaboration and the perspective that comes from different voices. So we aim to build teams that bring creative value to the table and can execute these projects efficiently and robustly. One of our mantras is that a talented individual can create great work alone, but a group of talented individuals can make magic real.
There are plenty of stages that a project goes through. From an audio perspective, what are these main stages and their importance?
Some of my peers may disagree, but I think it’s best to be involved from concept and pre-production. We seek out work where sound design brings a voice that greatly enhances the art and message of the media. So we like to be involved very early on, and offer ideas and enthusiasm about what sound can do for the end goal, before it is too late to change.
Speaking more pragmatically, we often have production, creative and budget meetings very early on, that help define the scope and the goal for our role in production. When a project is awarded with a defined scope and purpose, we dive into an exploratory phase where we compose music and sketch out sound design. We pitch a wide variety of ideas in order to open up a conversation about what this thing could become. Ultimately, this dialogue leads us down a path of experimentation, revision, and refinement to get to the end result. There are projects where we start with a rough sketch and continue to fill in and chip away at a core concept until it is great. There are projects where we may present 30, 50 or 100 ideas and settle on the 99th or go back to the very first one. I think one thing that unites many of us is that we are stubborn perfectionists and we hold ourselves to an unrealistic, high standard. We try to bring that drive and ambition to our projects while keeping an open mind that sometimes the unexpected, yields amazing work.
Finally, we approach audio from a design perspective. We don’t get caught up in the lines that divide music, sound design an audio post, instead, we focus holistically on what sound can do for the idea or message. We aim to offer our collaborators solutions that embody the whole, that surprise and defy expectations. Our ideas are often shot down…
I imagine that making music and working in production are two very different things. How do you navigate between these two worlds?
This is a relevant topic in my current position. First, I’ll say that in my view making music is the work and production is bringing the work to life. I see myself first and foremost as a creative, a composer, a sound designer or even a theorist — but I need to be pragmatic and a leader, in order to actually get things done. I try to impart this idea on both the creative and production staff, and regardless of their day-to-day responsibilities, I’ll ask them to think from the other perspective. I find that we are all adequate multi-taskers, but rarely does excellent work come from being spread thin or feeling distracted, so we’ve tried to craft a system where there is time for creative and there is time for production, and being able to wed those two practices is the art of running a studio.
When taking on a new project, what excites you most?
I feel that to succeed in this world and stay sane, you need to be excited about every project you take on and be proud of it when that project wraps. Personally, I find energy in trying out new things, by pushing the boundaries of what we’ve done before and even what can be done in our discipline. That could be achieved by using a new palette of sounds or tools to create your work, but it can also be solving broader problems that audio is traditionally tasked with.
What would you say is a common misconception about audio?
I feel a common misconception is the role that it plays and the value it brings to visual work.
While sound and music often play a functional role in narrative or messaging, they excel in instilling emotion and creating connections to the human spirit and experience. We sometimes receive a call, very late in the production process, to help rescue a project that has fallen short of expectations, but whose parts are more or less set in stone. While I proudly believe that audio can make or break a project, this moment is likely too late. Audio won’t save mediocre direction, obscure lackluster copywriting, or magically make an edit that didn’t test well, passable. It can, however, inspire direction, editorial and creative decisions across the board. Therefore, In my opinion, it’s best to be involved early, to understand, influence and respond to developing creative and be a partner in creating the whole.
This all plays into the value that audio, in the right scenario, adds to a project. In our current model, music is often the least appreciated aspect of production, both in terms of budget and consideration of time, but in the grand scheme of production, it’s one of the most cost-effective ways to greatly enhance the value of work. We work in a mystical field, where we go into the studio with a blank canvas and come out of it with something that can change people’s moods, that pull on their heartstrings or disgust them. It’s visceral, it cuts deep into the human psyche and the soul. I think that recognizing how these qualities complement and differ from other aspects of production helps creative teams get the most out of audio — music, sound design, mix, voiceover & acting, etc. — and holistically make great work.
Gear is a big topic, what type of setup do you typically use?
I could write a dissertation about all of the gear in our studios, but broadly, we’ve tried to build out an infrastructure that employs the best of the modern digital age, with classic analog sonics. We have a Neve 80-series console from 1974, all kinds of tube compressors, an enormous collection of analog synths and a microphone cabinet that rivals some of the finest recording studios in the world. But we use these tools purely to capture great performances and inform our creative process. It’s great to have walls of modular synths and inspiring acoustic instruments to experiment and develop unique ideas. The reality is, all of these tools are a luxury for us to create and capture compelling ideas that we hope stands out in a media landscape that’s full of the same old shit.
Despite our fascination with classic and often archaic equipment, we are not luddites and use software and digital technology to push the envelope of our art. Everything begins in the mind, is translated to air, vibration and electrons and is ultimately organized in 1s and 0s. One of my greatest pleasures, that I am incredibly grateful for is that we have the ability to bridge the acoustic, analog and the digital worlds in a time of great upheaval between human’s relationship with technology.
For the aspiring sound design professional — Technically, on the digital side we are big fans of Ableton. A lot of projects start there, along with Max/MSP or M4L, but we almost always finish in ProTools. We’ve changed our workflow a number of times since starting out, and I know that we will continue to adapt to new software and opportunities. Whatever you use, it’s important to balance both the creative cutting edge or a workflow that speaks to you with the tried-and-true workhorses of audio production.
If you could provide some advice or insight to aspiring sound designers and composers, what would it be?
Do what needs to be done in order to survive in a challenging and saturated professional landscape, but please stay true to yourself, your voice your perspective. Strive to make work that you can look back on in and be very proud of, even if your skills and your production quality have greatly improved. I imagine this pertains all creative disciplines, but — take risks and try to do something that you’ve never done before. All of the work that I’m most proud of, and has made the biggest difference in my professional growth wasn’t generated from a single reference or a narrow client request. All of the great creative partnerships we have formed came out of us offering something that went above and beyond expectations. The reality is you often don’t get paid fairly or at all for these type of projects! But if you’re serious about pursuing a career in sound design and music composition you can only imitate for a short period of time, but you can innovate and lead for an entire career. And also learn Pro Tools.
I love to look back and say “If I were to do this today, it would sound better, I would have made a different decision, but the ideas and execution are fucking cool.“
Lastly, do you have any predictions on where the audio industry is heading?
Yes! I love to talk about my predictions, with the disclaimer that I may be 100% wrong, fixed in a narrow-minded view of the future.
Honestly, I think that the audio industry is in a great position in terms of post-production, but in a period of flux and uncertainty in terms of creative. This is not news, and surviving soul artists from the 60s, rappers from the 90s would echo the sentiment that while you bring the connection to people, you aren’t holding the chips. We haven’t seen a groundbreaking genre that drastically changed culture or a compensation model that makes it attractive for the best and brightest to pursue audio as a career. In our own little Antfood microcosm, I’d like to change that.
To give a little perspective on my narrative, in 1999 the RIAA and Napster entered a legal feud that impacted how musicians, composers, labels and publishers would be compensated for the use of their intellectual property. We haven’t reached equilibrium since, nor have we developed a new model. Looking on the brighter side, that shift is imminent.
We shifted from a world where kids would save up their allowance and spend $20 on a record or CD that changed their lives. It would define their weekend, summer, thier relationships or worldview. Now, we’re in a world where everything is a click away for free. Simultaneously, in music production, the barrier to entry to create music and sound design has lowered significantly over the past 20 years. For example, in the early 90s it cost two million dollars to set up a studio that was capable of producing mid-level quality audio productions. In the mid-2000s you could buy a MacBook, an audio interface, a microphone and some plugins and produce impressive work. I don’t disparage this advance, because we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have that technological opportunity. All of this, coupled with the internet as a means for distributing content, meant that the playing field was leveled — in both the meritocratic and destructive senses of the word.
The simplified assumption is that anyone can do it, that music is free. At face value, this is a beautiful thing. Although there are far-reaching repercussions from this shift — the game changed from simply doing it, to doing extraordinarily well, in a way that people, brands and partners appreciate because it brings meaning to lives. From a production perspective, we think that’s ultimately a good thing because it creates a greater awareness and appreciation for the process in addition to the result.
Looking forward, we operate in a world where there is more content and more access than any time in human history — by exponential factors. And clearly that curve will continue. So what’s really exciting about the exact moment that we exist in, is that we’re on the precipice of a dramatic change of how we access this volume of content.
I believe that in a substantial way, we will shift away from handheld screen-based devices, and interact with technology through voice. Audio will play a great role in these new interfaces. Simultaneously, I think culturally we will seek refuge from constant connectivity and notifications. Audio-driven experiences will offer value in day-to-day life. As more media and content are created, it creates more mental clutter. Message, culture, and approach are the defining characteristics that differentiate great work from the mundane. And as I mentioned earlier I think sound, and the artful organization of sound, which is broadly how we defined music, is the simplest, most poignant and logical way to cut through the noise.