Pros create aural world from scratch

Images gain resonance through effective use of sound

Creating sound for a toon film is a lot like the writing process, say Hollywood’s top audio men: Filling in that silent celluloid page requires imagination, discipline and some true grit.

“Animation starts as a radio play,” says “Shrek” co-supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman. “It’s built from the sound up.”

“With animation, you’re not locked into what it sounded like on the set. You have complete freedom. It’s a little daunting,” says “Monsters, Inc.” sound designer Gary Rydstrom, a four-time sound Oscar winner, most recently for “Saving Private Ryan.”

Daunting or not, the rewards of a sound job well done are crystal clear.

“Once you’ve invented (the sound), you have total control over what people hear,” says “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” supervising sound designer Randy Thom, who mantled a sound Academy Award in 1983 for his work on “The Right Stuff.”

Rydstrom, who snagged a sound editing nom this year with Michael Silvers for “Monsters, Inc.,” says creating the atmospheric sound for the Disney/Pixar comedy megahit required striking a balance between the typically over-the-top sounds associated with animation and the eerie audio common to ghost films. He and his team had the added challenge of sounding out the “Monsters, Inc.” factory.

“The world is monsters, but it seems more like a U.S. industrial town, like 1950s Pittsburgh,” he says.

Though the film’s sound designers were concentrating on the big picture, Rydstrom says no on-screen activity was too small to ignore. “Subliminal screams (are the backbone of) the world in ‘Monsters, Inc.’ When a car passes by, you’ll hear a Dopplered scream. We felt even a door creak should be done to support the mood and the characters. We wanted the sound to be funny and warm as well as dramatic and scary at any given moment.”

The sound designers for DreamWorks’ “Shrek” were also charged with fusing the lighthearted and the serious.

“When you’re dealing with children’s films, it’s easy to go overboard,” says the 3-D-animated hit’s rerecording mixer Andy Nelson, an Oscar recipient for his sound work on “Saving Private Ryan.” “You have to find a happy marriage where it will lift you out of your seat.”

When Nelson first glimpsed the celluloid “Shrek,” his initial reaction was to make something more powerful with the voice and give it a traditional larger-than-life feel. “But it didn’t work,” laments Nelson, a 20th Century Fox re-recording department executive. “Shrek didn’t need any audio support. Mike Myers did a great job.”

Stateman says the toughest “Shrek” challenge was syncing the 3-D animated lips with the voices. Unlike traditional toon films, “Shrek” characters featured mouths that mimicked human ones.

“Working at this level, you are only limited by your imagination,” says Stateman, adding that he worked on the picture for three years.

While the kid-oriented “Shrek” and “Monsters, Inc.” were grounded in cheerfulness, not every 2001 animated film had a blithe spirit. Sony’s “Final Fantasy” was as bleak as a battlefield. And the sound of that sci-fi-actioner had little to do with the fantastical. Even the most seasoned film buff, experiencing it with closed eyes, will swear the all-computer-generated videogame-based film is a live-action endeavor.

“(Creating the perfect sound) is more difficult when the sound is real,” explains Thom. “If you are working on a stylized, over-the-top animated film, you have more latitude when creating the sound. But with photo-real films, we can’t accept much hanky panky with the sound.”

Creating realism

Working with Japanese directors Hironobu Sakaguchi and Moto Sakakibara presented some minor speed bumps for the audio team. “Occasionally, we had to hire an interpreter to convey ideas,” says Thom.

But the most challenging aspect of the job wasn’t communicating across continents, but vocalizing the phantoms, says the seasoned sound man.

“We had to come up with the voices for all kinds of phantoms and we needed some to sound like angry dinosaurs,” he says. Rather than just do the standard dino roars, Thom and his staff tapped deeper into their collective creativity.

“We wanted to put across the same amount of realism in the sound that the animators did (with the visuals). The mean phantom voices were composed of several elements, (including) my own voice. I go into a darkroom where nobody can hear me, and I growl and scream and breathe weirdly for hours at a time. Typically about 1% of that material is good. The best of it gets combined with elements like excited horse vocals, pig squeals and mountain lion snarls. Those sounds are usually played backwards, altered in pitch, cut up into pieces and reassembled to make them more exotic and hide their true identities.”

Sometimes creating sound for animated films doesn’t require bays of million-dollar equipment staffed by teams of experts. “Waking Life” director Richard Linklater’s “Slacker”-esque animated comedy-drama from Fox Searchlight is proof.

“One of the animated characters is a paper-eating chimp,” says the film’s sound designer Tom Hammond (“Before Sunrise”). “So for that sound, (Linklater) ate a piece of paper. We had to do things quickly.”

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