Sound adds character to creatures

Voices, rhythms brought dragons and horses to life

In both the hit animated fantasy “How to Train Your Dragon” and the realistic live action drama “Secretariat,” sound designers were tasked with creating multidimensional main characters who do not speak.

In “Dragon,” the Skywalker Sound design team led by Randy Thom and Al Nelson had a wild menagerie of different dragons for whom they provided vocalizations. “Their emotions varied enormously from time to time and moment to moment,” Thom says, “and certain dragons needed to sound comical in addition to sounding vicious.”

“This one’s belch-y,” Nelson adds, “this one chortles, this one snickers and sneers. We needed a vast palette of sound sources” to give each its own personality.

An army of sound editors went far afield to record vocalizations from elephants, horses, dogs, cats, pigs, cougars, tigers, sheep, pelicans, wolves, owls, crows, koalas “and a Randy Thom, too,” Nelson notes.

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Nelson also added some of his own mouth noises in combination with creatively layered animal sounds and such unusual elements as “liquidy, slurpy stuff, violin scratches, scrape-y Styrofoam, and rubber balloon squeaks,” to bring the animated creatures to life.

For “Secretariat,” too, sound supervisors Kami Asgar and Sean McCormack (“Apocalypto,” “Zombieland”) wanted the individual personalities and temperaments of the different horses to shine through, no easy task for such similar-looking animals.

“We worked especially hard on Secretariat and Sham, making sure each had his own rhythm, his own breaths, his own sounds and even distinct hooves,” McCormack says. “And though they were about the same size, we made Secretariat feel a little bigger.”

Adds Asgar: “When Secretariat’s not feeling well, you can tell something is wrong because the breathing is a little off, and there are changes in his rhythms. There are subtleties to his character.”

McCormack and Asgar collected hours of hoof and vocal recordings of horses at private farms and stables, edited them and then sweetened them with Foley movements and human vocalizations and breaths.

“It’s about half realistic stuff that we recorded and half performed, married together,” Asgar says.

“But all the snorts and whinnies and snickers are real horses, not us” McCormack laughs.

The different movement and vocalization categories were kept on separate stems until the final mix at Todd AO for maximum flexibility. Then, parts were raised and lowered based on a scene’s dramatic needs and the competing score.

“The horses are often the percussion in the score,” Asgar notes.

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