Tooned in to their aural fixations

Sound editors and designers start from nothing to create animated soundtracks

Every day, sound designers and editors add a touch of reality to the fantasy of film making. While getting just the right sound for a slamming door or a ringing phone can be tricky, building a complete and distinctive soundscape from scratch is a much greater test.

That’s the challenge sound designers and editors on animated features face.

Consider supervising sound editor Sean Garnhart’s work on “Robots.”

“There are a million things happening at once on the screen,” he reports. “During the action scenes, I was averaging five seconds of screen time per eight-hour day. You can’t go into a library and pull out ‘Sounds of Robot City,’ you have to make everything.”

At times that means bending everyday sounds with a bit of ingenuity.

“The wonderful thing about the world of Wallace and Gromit is that (Wallace) is an inventor and all of his gadgets require quirky sounds, which was a joy for us to work on,” says James Mather, supervising sound editor on “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”

“The cellar in my house is called ‘The Laboratory’ and we spent weeks taking various household items like vacuum cleaners and washing machines apart and rebuilding them in a way that they made different sounds. A lot of that was used in the film.”

Then again, there are times where basic technology helps.

“There are definitely a couple of more tools that I use on a heavy sound picture than I would on a ‘door-close’ movie,” Garnhart says. “I couldn’t have made the soundtrack for ‘Robots’ without Pitch ‘n’ Time (a Pro Tools plug-in). It enabled me to take pipe groans and pitch them three octaves down to make them sound horrendously scary, or pitch them eight octaves up and make them sound like a mouse walking by.”

Sometimes a film needs a blend of the two, as in the first time “Corpse Bride” hero Victor Van Dort transitioned between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

“He goes through this swirl where there are crows flying around and wind,” explains

Steve Boeddeker, the pic’s sound designer. “So we did layers of stretched, reversed and tweaked-out vocals mixed in with tons of crows, mixed in with wind. It ended with this sound that I made that’s a weird kind of mysterious descending gurgle.”

For sound editors, that’s the trick of animation: finding the balance between the real and the whimsical.

On “Chicken Little,” says supervising sound editor Robert L. Sephton, “There are a lot of areas where bada-bing, bada-boom comedy played a factor, but there were also areas where the director and producer really wanted to give it a kind of an eerie, just-not-quite-sure-if-it’s-gonna-be super-scary-or-not feel. I got to play both sides of it.”

“Madagascar” tipped more toward the outlandish.

“Well, if you accept that animals can talk,” supervising sound editor Richard L. Anderson says with a laugh. “That I’ll concede.”

At the same time, Anderson had to build the sounds of New York City hustle and bustle as well as the native sounds of the island of Madagascar.

And that challenge is greater in animation than in live action, Anderson says, “because everything is more sterile in the sense that the actors are in recording studios and it’s like voiceover work. So everything is very quiet and clean as opposed to live action, where in many cases you’re out in the real world and there are freeways, waterfalls, airplanes.”

That makes the art of foley much more important for these audio-post pros.

“With animation, you’ve got to get the foley in because it builds 60% of the track,” Mather says. “The character movements and footsteps, the doors and even the smallest sound detail needs to be put in because, you want to create a world that you absolutely believe. Then you can offset it with quirky little things that bring humor into it.”

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