Shark Tale: A Different Kind of Fish Story

Sep 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

SOUND DESIGNER WADE WILSON TALKS ABOUT HIS UNDERSEA CHALLENGE

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Okay, let's get the comparisons out of the way right up front. DreamWorks' new Shark Tale doesn't have much in common with Finding Nemo except that it takes place underwater. And unlike last year's hugely successful Pixar film, Shark Tale never makes it to dry land. It's also darker and edgier, with lead character Oscar — a fast-talking two-bit hustler voiced by Will Smith — being menaced by an underwater mafia and a very dangerous femme fatale. With a cast that includes Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese, Angelina Jolie, Renée Zellweger, Jack Black and Ziggy Marley, among other notables, the film has boatloads of personality to spice up what is basically a comedy adventure.

Supervising sound designer Wade Wilson in his home studio

Animated films always provide a fun and challenging canvas for sound designers. Shark Tale's supervising sound designer, Wade Wilson, has a strong background in animated features, live action films, TV and computer gaming. Originally a musician and programmer, Wilson got his start in sound doing effects on a Synclavier for three seasons of The Simpsons, and then spent four years at Soundelux in Hollywood working with supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman on everything from The Perfect Storm and Unfaithful to Shrek, where he first worked with Shark Tale director Vicky Jenson. Wilson's other work has included sound design for such diverse projects as Mystic River, Elf, Torque and the instant camp classic, Eight-Legged Freaks. “Animation is really my field of choice,” comments the Southern California native. “Even if you look at a film like The Perfect Storm, a lot of what I was designing was for CGI, which is basically animation.”

Though working as an independent for some time, Wilson says that Jenson and DreamWorks' chief of animation post, Jim Beshears, “suggested that I go over and meet the team at Technicolor-Weddington to potentially do Shark Tale, and now it looks like it will be a long-standing thing. It's been such an honor and a pleasure to work with Richard Anderson, who is the supervising sound editor on the show and helped design effects. He's an unbelievable human being and he has the energy of a 25-year-old. I grew up watching films he won Oscars for, so to be his second man and on the team is really a joy for me.”

Wilson's design suite at Technicolor-Weddington is equip-ped with a Pro Tools MIXPlus system and JBL LSR Room Mode Control speakers, his speaker of choice for the past five years. He has a nearly identical setup in his home studio and notes, “The JBLs translate so well to the stage, and with removable SCSI drives, I can take material from the sound design suite at work, come home and create new sounds, take my drive back to work, plug it in and I'm ready to go.” And though Technicolor-Weddington recently began upgrading its rooms to Pro Tools|HD, Wilson asked to wait until he finished Shark Tale to switch.

“The MIXPlus has plenty of power for me with all the plug-ins I have,” he says. “Also, I still love to use the keyboard like I used to on the Synclavier, so I started using SampleCell with my Pro Tools a few years ago. I approach sound design very musically, and therefore, I'm often creating ‘chords’ of sounds. So if there's going to be a door hit or a huge sonic moment, it's not going to be in just one frequency range; I'm probably going to play a chord with it. I'll take sounds and do some pitch-shifting on the keyboard so I can play them all at once.” Among the plug-ins Wilson employs are “a lot of the Waves Bundle stuff. There's also some plug-ins by Wave Mechanics that I really like. The Lexicon plug-ins and reverbs are favorites, especially when I get to the dub stage. I also use a lot of the TC Electronic plug-ins and Hyperprism.”

Obviously, working on sound for an animated feature is different than for live action films, as the production track — the dialog — is recorded first and then the film is animated around the dialog and storyboards. (In this case, dialog recording was done by Larry Winer, among others worldwide, mixed by Carlos Sotolongo and supervised in post by Thomas Jones.) Wilson started working on ideas for the film fairly early in the process based on conversations with the director, reading the script and, later, hearing the prerecorded tracks.

“We'll work on various artistic ideas independently, and then we'll spot the film with the director, the picture editor and a couple of the producers who are involved creatively with the project,” Wilson explains. “Even if you're still dealing with some rough animatics and frozen animation, generally they have the timing together and you know where you're going with a scene. In animation, there usually isn't a temp mix; we go right to the predub stage to build for the final. It's nice to send some sound effects material over and some cut sequences that we've created to play for the filmmakers to make sure we're headed in the right direction.”

What kind of remarks might the director make at that stage? “Well, Vicky Jenson felt that some of the fish movement was in a higher register that seemed to interfere with dialog for her,” Wilson recalls. “She has some of the most incredible ears I've ever worked with, so this didn't surprise me. So now what we're doing is recording some special sounds for the higher frequency: smaller fish movements that have a silkier texture to them rather than a splashy high-frequency water sound. We'll do that, with some EQing, and it should be great.”

WATER RECORDING

Not surprisingly, Shark Tale required a lot of underwater recording — everything from fish motion to bubbles to undersea impacts. Wilson says that the perfect place to do that work ended up being in large swimming pools. “If you go out into the middle of the pool and do movements, you don't get a lot of slap-back sound, which is what happens if you use too small a tank,” Wilson says. “In these large pools, it really sounds like it's being recorded in a bigger environment.”

Though Wilson generally does most of his effects recording on DAT (and occasionally Deva), for the in-pool material, the SFX recordists recorded straight to Pro Tools. “There were some [recordings] with hydrophones and some using regular condenser mics with condom setups,” he recalls. “We've been experimenting with all sorts of things. We don't want anything in this underwater environment to sound too metallic. It's all coral reefs and things that are made out of organic, natural material, so that's been a challenge. We're trying to create sounds that have a different tonality than metal.”

That said, Wilson did have a session in which he “went to a place where they keep industrial pipes and did a bunch of recordings using rubber hammers and percussion mallets and played the pipes,” he says. “A lot of great tonalities came out of that, which I'll manipulate into the soundtrack. Richard had a Schoeps mic and was running the DAT, and I was doing the pounding.” Some of that material will show up in a specifically programmed rhythm sequence built around a new version of the funk classic “Car Wash,” sung by Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliott.

FISH FROM SCRATCH

As for fish movements, “We've been attaching fabric and different materials to a 4- or 5-foot-long dowel, taking that underwater to a certain level and doing movements with it,” Wilson explains. “We want to give characterization to the movement of the fish with very specific textures. The sound will then be a combination of various different sounds layered together — as few of them as possible to make it work. In a film like this, size specificity is very important. When a shark is swimming by or you have a very tiny fish, those have to feel very different. So it's all about the layers and choosing the right ones.”

Some of those decisions will be made on the dub stage by effects re-recording mixer Anna Behlmer, who's working, as usual, with partner Andy Nelson, who previously worked with Wilson on several films, including Shrek. Wilson also credits Shark Tale's Foley artists — One Step Up (Dan O'Connell and John Cucci) — with coming up with top-notch fish movement and bubble effects. “They're a very creative team,” Wilson says.

“We've done millions of bubbles, and bubbles are a wonderful texture that we'll layer in with the fish movement,” he adds. There are, not surprisingly, many ways to generate bubbles for a recording, including blowing into liquids and doing air tank releases underwater.

Wilson notes that the sound team also worked hard to create interesting ambiences for the film's different set pieces, even though in reality, an undersea cave, for example, doesn't sound much different than an undersea plain. “Fortunately, we don't have to be constrained by reality,” Wilson says with a chuckle. “We want there to be a sense of different locales, and one way to do that is to have them sound different. The final ambiences will be assembled on the stage, with Anna doing some processing with the Lexicon and other processors no doubt. In general, we haven't been putting reverb into our material because we want [the re-recording mixer] to have more flexibility later. But I have been doing some sound design treatment with echo and even some Line 6 guitar processors I have for kelp fields under the sea.”

Wilson and Anderson have been in contact with composer Hans Zimmer (whose team also scored Shrek) throughout the process, and Wilson notes that “at best, the sound design, the effects and the music all work together in a seamless tapestry and you don't know where one ends and the other begins. Hans loves to get material early on and hear what we're designing. He makes notes on it and it helps him construct the score.”

Though the final mix of an animated feature still involves the delicate balancing act between dialog, music and effects found on a live action film, Wilson says, “There usually aren't a lot of new shots and changes that come in [at the end of an animated film]. A lot of the things that we address on the stage are sync issues, because when we get final color timing and final animation, sometimes the sync can slip a frame or a half-frame here and there, so we'll be manipulating dialog and trying to get the best sync we can, and also making sure that the sync on all our impacts and other effects are exactly what we cut. It's still a lot of work no matter how powerful computers become.”

Wilson is convinced that all of this hard work will translate into a first-rate film. “This film is totally unique, and the soundtrack we're creating is unlike anything I've ever done before,” he says. “We've really had a great time working on it.”






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