My Life as a Cartoon Sound Effects King

Jun 3 2011 David Titmus
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Offline Training Supervisor Brendan McLaughlin details his very specialized captioning talent. Who knew?

by Brendan McLaughlin, Offline training supervisor

I would hazard a guess that there are very few school students who aspire to one day decide what sound effects to use when captioning cartoons. However, that’s a big part of my job at VITAC. It wasn’t a duty I necessarily lobbied for. I’m pretty sure my bosses took a good look at me one day and said, “Yeah, he’d be good at cartoons.” But now that I’m sort of the Cartoon King of Offline, I relish the title.

It all started years ago, when we were captioning “The Three Stooges.” I had finished prepping my first file for the series, and when I saw the final file that my boss had reviewed, I was amazed to see all kinds of sound effects added – things like [ CRACK! ], [ BOINK! ], and [ WHIP! ] – that were used to convey the “silly” noises that were added in post-production. I realized then that those noises certainly added to the humor and enjoyment of the show, so we should be sharing those with the caption viewers.

That series warped me pretty good for a while. I’m reasonably certain I’m one of only a handful of people on the planet who have attended a meeting where a topic of discussion was which sound effect best conveys the noise made when a man rubs a cheese grater on another man’s head. But I soon came to love this unique art form, and since I became a full-time trainer, one of my jobs is to teach others how to interpret these funny and wonderful cartoon sounds.

Trying to determine the specific sound effect to use is one of the most challenging aspects of captioning cartoons, but it’s also really fun. I encourage my trainees to use their imaginations. In one cartoon, a large fruit ripened very quickly, and the trainee used [ BLUMP! ] for the accompanying sound. Genius. I sure didn’t have anything better in my bag o’ tricks. Another employee captioned the sound of a character being clobbered with a lamppost as [ CLONG! ], which I loved so much that I added it to our growing list of Cartoon Sound Effects. Oh, yes – we have a list.

This kind of training, as you can imagine, leads to me fielding some interesting questions. In one roll-up cartoon, a character was bored and drew a face on his foot, started talking to the foot face, and then he imitated the foot face talking back to him in a high-pitched voice. The trainee who was prepping the file wanted to know if the foot face should get change-of-speaker carets. It suddenly occurred to me that she thought I was the person in the department who was most qualified to answer that question – which, strangely enough, I was – and I thought to myself, “Wow. I really have a weird job.”

But it’s great fun. I only hope that when people are watching our cartoon captions at home, they chuckle when they see things like [ FOOSH! ], [ WARBLE! ] or [ BONK! ].

The Cartoon King has now left the building. [ SLAM! ]