Toon audio designers are drawn to nature

'Toy Story 2,' D'Works' 'El Dorado' prioritize sound

A landmark year for the way animated features looked, 1999 was also memorable for the way pics such as “Iron Giant,” “Princess Mononoke” and “Toy Story 2” sounded.

“I haven’t worked on animated film in which the characters felt so much like they were alive,” says Gary Rydstrom, sound designer for “Toy Story 2.” “There are moments in the film where there’s such beauty and simplicity, and the whole project comes alive in a very magical way.”

Rydstrom, a seven-time Oscar winner who has worked on films such as “Jurassic Park,” “Titanic” and “Saving Private Ryan,” says conjuring up the audio in an animated world is certainly more challenging than doing work on a live-action picture. “You start with a blank page, so you can go a little more crazy. So you have more freedom to play,” he adds, “but there’s more pressure to use those possibilities in the most creative way.”

Since “Toy Story 2” takes viewers back to the world of Woody, Buzz Lightyear and other familiar childhood playthings, and places these small characters in the big, noisy world outside their home, Rydstrom had two different levels of sound projects with which to work.

“The movie begins with a wonderful sequence where Buzz is fighting his enemy Zorg, which is part James Bond, part ‘Star Wars,’ ” notes Rydstrom. “John Lasseter knew we were going to have a lot of fun with it, so he sent it to us in a gift-wrapped package.”

Rydstrom and company often had to amplify the noise of a real toy, a Slinky, for example, with louder sounds such as the squeak of garage springs to create the larger-than-life audio required for the movie.

One of the audio expert’s favorite sequences is the one in which toy collector Big Al’s stomach vibrates with a very loud growl. “We actually had to use the rumbles from a geyser in Yellowstone and mix it with the sounds of barking seals to get the desired belching effect.”

The sound gang also had a lot of fun working on Bull’s Eye, Woody’s beloved equine sidekick from his previous life, who also provided the sound gang with creative ideas. “He was like Harpo Marx, in many ways, so we could express his character traits through the noises that he makes, like his breathing or the clomping of his hooves,” Rydstrom says.

Keeping it real

DreamWorks’ early spring release, “The Road to El Dorado,” may be an animated musical comedy set in a mythical city, but when sound designer Greg King started putting together the soundtrack, the goal was to keep it real.

“Because there are no talking animals or anything of that nature, it’s got a more realistic foundation,” explains King. “My whole initial concept was just to complement what the animators themselves were doing, which is taking reality and then exaggerating it. I wanted to do the same thing with the sound. Keep it reality based, but also complement what they’ve done, enlarge it, and make it be funny without being cartoony-ish.”

Featuring the voices of Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, Armand Assante, Edward James Olmos and Rosie Perez,”The Road to El Dorado” follows two 16th century Spanish con men who follow a map to the famed City of Gold and are proclaimed gods upon arrival. “It’s a comedy adventure like the old Hope and Crosby Road movies,” says King. Think “The Man Who Would Be King,” set in Mexico during the Spanish conquest, as a comedy.

King and re-recording mixer Andy Nelson have worked together on many projects, including this year’s big Oscar contender, “The Insider.” They point out that animation is a special challenge. “You start with an empty canvas, and you fill it,” explains Nelson. “With a live action, your canvas is half-full when you get it.”

Without the prerecorded dialogue or ambient sounds of a live-action film, King starts with nothing but notes from the director, producer and composer, plus his own imagination. “I lock myself in a dark room and get sleep deprivation and try to come up with cool ideas,” he laughs.

Those cool ideas always start with some organic sound, though, because natural sounds are more evocative. “These are sounds we’re familiar with. It has some sort of emotional response.” He finds a natural sound, be it an animal’s cry or a gunshot, and manipulates it. “Everything I do I approach from an emotional level, whether I want the audience to react happily, or be in a dark mood or be sad.”

King and Nelson’s team includes only four others. They can work with such a small crew because of improved technology — and the very long hours they’re willing to put in. They feel they get a more cohesive result with a smaller team.

“The way I view my job is that you either throw yourself in and offer a little bit more or you just check in and out every day,” says Nelson. “And I’m not the latter, I’m the former. And I’ll poke my nose in and get involved in things.

Much of Nelson’s job is “carving a path” through the “mountain of material” that arrives in the mixing room, but he stays clear about his job by always coming back to first principles.

“Watch the screen,” he says simply. “The screen will tell you, will give you all the answers. It’s all about the story. And if it’s not about the story, then you have an uphill battle ahead of you.”

— Randy Matin contributed to this story.

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