Duma

Mar 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

SOUNDS OF AN AFRICAN ADVENTURE

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Times change, tastes change. Today's movie-going children seem to want slam-bang action, computer-generated wizardry and plenty of crude humor, preferably involving bodily functions. But there was a time, not so long ago, when kids loved heart-warming live action films with animals in them — Born Free, Flipper, Ring of Bright Water, Homeward Bound, The Black Stallion, Fly Away Home; the list goes on. “Unfortunately, that's a pretty dead genre these days,” comments Carroll Ballard, who directed two of those films — The Black Stallion and Fly Away Home — and whose latest is also in that oeuvre.

photo: Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Duma is based on the true story of a South African boy's perilous travels through farmland, savannah, desert and jungle to return a young cheetah to its native wilds. It was shot entirely in Africa, with a nonprofessional actor in the lead role and no celebrities giving cute voices to the animals, a lá the zany Racing Stripes, which was filmed around the same time in South Africa and came out a few weeks ahead of Duma. In Ballard's lovely film, the animals are animals, the people are people, and their two worlds often clash in interesting, sometimes uncomfortable ways.

Ballard's films — and he's only made a handful during the past quarter-century — are always visually poetic and expressive using nonverbal methods. “Most of my films don't rely that heavily on dialog,” he says, “so there's an awful lot in my films that is carried by what's up on the screen and by the soundtrack.”

Duma is no exception: The details of the “story” are conveyed as much in the rustling trees, rushing rivers, moaning winds and the cries, grunts and growls of wild creatures, as in conventional dialog. “It ended up being a very big [sound] effects job,” Ballard notes, sounding almost surprised. “It took a lot of work to get the feeling of all those places and of the animals right.”

Supervising sound editor Doug Murray, left, and sound designer Ann Kroeber, holding a pair of Schoeps CMC5s with cardioid capsules, get friendly with a cheetah of Leopards Etcetera, owned by Rob Dicely, center.
photo: Barbara Dicely

Ballard is acutely aware of the importance of audio in film, and early on in his career stumbled across one of the most creative effects editor/mixers in the business, Alan Splet. Before working with Ballard on The Black Stallion in 1979, Splet was best known for devising the bizarre soundscapes that form such an integral part of David Lynch's 1977 film Eraserhead. The Black Stallion earned Splet a special Sound Effects Editing award at the 1980 Oscars, and he was later nominated as part of the sound team on Never Cry Wolf. Splet also worked on Ballard's underrated sailing film, Wind, as well as on Lynch's best films: The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet. “Alan was a fantastic guy,” Ballard says. “He had these incredible ears — he really connected to the world through sound and he was great for me to work with because I could communicate with him so easily.”

Splet died of cancer in 1995, but his incredible archive of effects recordings was passed down to his wife, Ann Kroeber, who had been an integral part of his recording life since they met while working on The Black Stallion, where she was an effects recordist. Kroeber quickly established herself as a masterful sound editor, as well, and received raves for a series of recordings she made with FRAP (Flat Response Audio Pickup) contact mics.

“I went around for a year-and-a-half all over Berkeley [Calif.] and recorded these industrial sounds,” she says. “I'd go to a steel mill, a bakery, in various labs at the university, collecting these amazing sounds, and we ended up using quite a lot of that for Dune and lots of other movies.” A few years ago, The Hollywood Edge sound effects library even put out three CDs of their effects work called Sounds of a Different Realm: Two are dominated by Splet's Lynchian sound palette, the third is Kroeber's Common Sounds Heard In Uncommon Ways.

The final mix took place at the Saul Zaentz Film Center, with David Parker, left, on effects. Mark Berger, right, on music and dialog, and Foley mixer Roberto Muñoz in the center.
photo: Michael Coleman

After Splet's death, Kroeber worked on Fly Away Home (1996), and since then, she's recorded and/or provided sounds for the recent Star Wars trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The English Patient, Gladiator, The Horse Whisperer, Hidalgo — “a lot of front-line fancy movies,” she says with a laugh. When the post job for Duma came to the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley last year, Doug Murray (who also worked on Fly Away Home) was hired as supervising sound editor and Kroeber was brought on as the film's sound designer. The circle is unbroken.

Murray and Kroeber had their work cut out for them. Nearly all of the animal sounds and the different natural settings and ambiences had to be re-created in post. “The production sound was sketchy at best,” comments Murray. “It was sort of a nightmare because Carroll was directing the boy, who was a non-actor — but he did a brilliant job — during the take. Carroll would say, ‘Okay, now say your line,’ or ‘Turn to the left.’ Meanwhile, the cheetah was continually being directed by the animal handlers. In every shot where the cheetah appears, they're yelling at the cheetah and they have this weird buzzer that would make the cheetah get up and walk or whatever.”

“It was total chaos,” Ballard says, chuckling, “but that's the way it is with animal movies.” (To complicate matters, the lead cheetah, Duma, was played by several different animals.)

While Ballard and picture editor Tom Christopher were cutting the film on an Avid up at the director's house in Northern California's wine country, Murray was delivering preliminary sound sketches, much of it compiled from libraries. Ballard “has very strong ideas about what he likes,” Murray says. “He's not terribly specific about it, but he knows what he wants, and when he hears it, he knows. He's very attentive to sonic detail.”


photo: Courtesy of Warner Brothers

It was after this early stage that Kroeber came onboard: “Ann did the voice of the cheetah because she is very attentive to the nuances of animal voices,” Murray says. “She was able to give it a great deal of attention, and she also added a lot of character and detail to the backgrounds, which had been rolled in hurriedly like wallpaper in the beginning.”

Now, if you've never heard a cheetah, you might be surprised by the broad range of vocalizations that form their “vocabulary.” In addition to their distinctive meows, growls, purrs (they are, reportedly, the only big cat that purrs) and grumbles, they also emit noises that sound like bird whistles and chirps. With little “production” cheetah to draw from, Kroeber and Murray had to find a new source: A Northern California reserve with the unlikely name Leopards Etcetera had three of the graceful creatures.

“The guy who was running the cheetah preserve had had some photographers come before, and, evidently, the cheetahs had been pretty aggressive with them, so he was very, very worried about having us, with our fuzzy microphones, coming anywhere near them,” Kroeber says. “The thing is, if you're a photographer, you can use a long lens, but we really needed to get closer to them to get the sounds we needed.

Re-recording mixer Mark Berger, left, with director Carroll Ballard. Berger has long been a proponent of “appropriate” level in films.
photo: Michael Coleman

“At first, this cheetah was 15 feet away and it was on a leash and you couldn't get anything [soundwise]. But I kept slowly moving in and talking to the cheetah and looking him in the eye and telling him, ‘It's okay. It's all right,’ and I kept talking to it until I was right behind [the handler] and I got these wonderful recordings. Then, there was another one that came all the way across this big cage — the guy had said, ‘You can't go up to the cage. They'll attack you.’ He didn't want them banging against to cage and sticking their paws through. So I went over by myself, and I said, ‘Hey, come over here. I want to show you something.’ And the cheetah came over and sat down right in front of me and started purring. I got some great stuff. By the end of the day, we were petting them.

“Basically, we were trying to get as many colors of vocals as we could. Not only do you need to get the cheetah to sound natural, you have to get it to be a character in the movie, so it grumbles when you need that and it responds to the dad dying, and so on. It has personality, but you don't want it to be contrived. It was pretty delicate work to take little pieces of the cheetah vocals and piece them together in Pro Tools and keep the spirit of a real cheetah.”

Kroeber's recording rig comprised a DAT, a Schoeps cardioid pair and a French-made EAA preamp. Her editing setup at the Zaentz Center included a Pro Tools rig, her beloved refurbished Studer recorder (to handle material on tape), a Waves L2 Ultramaximizer processor and Mackie speakers.

Kroeber, foreground, and Ballard listen to playback at the Saul Zaentz Film Center
photo: Michael Coleman

“I used my library for a lot of the creatures,” she adds. “I had recorded some lions and Alan had recorded cougars and jaguars, and I cheated a little for Duma: There's one scene that's a conglomeration of about five different cats to give it a more surreal quality when he becomes wild.”

Meanwhile, Murray worked up the sounds for various vehicles in the film and pieced together the sound elements for the complex river scene, where our heroes are menaced by some rather nasty crocs. Some of the river material was from Kroeber's sound library, “and we also used a lot of stuff from [famed nature recordist] Bernie Krause,” Kroeber says. “He provided some beautiful Africa material for different parts of the film. Also, Sound Ideas [effects library] had an underwater CD set that we used some of.”

The final mix took place on the Alan Splet Theater at the Zaentz Film Center, with Mark Berger handling the dialog and music (the score is by John Debney and George Acogny, but also includes African and other sources) and David Parker mixing the effects. Murray notes, “The Otari console has 72 inputs, and we had two Pro Tools Mix Plus systems playing through two Control|24s — one for effects premixes and one for the music stems — so we had 128 tracks being premixed before going into the console. It was kind of a hybrid between a Pro Tools mix and a more traditional console approach to expand the capacity of the stage.”

Ballard gave the sound crew limited direction throughout the process, but there's no question that he had a huge impact on the overall sonic aesthetic. “Carroll has an incredible sound sense,” Kroeber says. “He's always challenging you to come up with something more original and more evocative.”

The start of Duma's journey began in the sidecar.
The family with Duma on his first day home.
Rob Dicely, owner of Leopards Etcetera, holds kitty while sound designer Ann Kroeber mikes his vocals with a pair of Schoeps CMC5s.
Doug Murray gets mid-field cheetah vocals and Leopards Etcetera.
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Supervising sound editor Doug Murray (front), effects mixer David Parker and music and dialog mixer Doug Parker at the Saul Zaentz Film Center.






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