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Jan 1, 2010 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

JAME CAMERON AND AUDIO TEAM CREATE A NEW WORLD OF FUTURISTIC SOUNDS

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Director James Cameron and actress Sigourney Weaver

Director James Cameron and actress Sigourney Weaver

Boyes recalls that the first design work he did on the film — based on memory of the script at that point — was on two of the flying creatures that inhabit Pandora: Banshees are similar to pterodactyls (and have a special function in the story because Na'vi warriors can psychically bond with the creatures and then ride them through the air), and the Leonoptryx is a bird-like sub-species of the Banshees. As is usually the case with creating vocalizations for mythic creatures, sound design usually involved combining original and library recordings of everything from birds and other animals to dinosaurs Boyes had helped create as an assistant under Gary Rydstrom for Jurassic Park in the early '90s. The base sounds of another intriguing animal, the Viperwolf, came from recordings of hyenas at a university research center in Berkeley, Calif., made by Boyes' assistant, Dee Selby; coyotes that Teague recorded outside his home in Southern California over the course of about a month; and a little bit of sound library snake hisses thrown in for good measure. Boyes also cites editors Ken Fischer and Shannon Mills as being critical members of the FX team.

Unlike many modern sound designers who do their work exclusively in a Pro Tools environment, Boyes uses that platform (“I have pretty much every plug-in Pro Tools can accommodate,” he says with a laugh) but relies more on an old favorite: the Synclavier. “I guess I wouldn't suggest using the Synclavier to a young sound designer coming up, but for me it's like a tool that's an extended part of me. I know how to work with it, and it's a very fast machine for me to do certain types of things with; specifically, blending or layering different sounds and finding what pitch of one sound will complement the pitch of another sound — right now. In my opinion, no platform has ever been able to emulate what a Synclavier does with the equivalent kind of dexterity. I've got one here with me at Fox that I brought down, and I also have one at Skywalker [where he often works].”

Teague says, “Chris and I figured out pretty quickly that our best approach was to provide Jim with lots of alternatives, some of which even went in radically different directions. I'd give him a bunch of sounds, and he might come back and say, ‘This sound is wrong for the Thanator, but it might work for the Hammerhead.’ Or, ‘This one's too big for the Viperwolf, but could be good for the Thanator.’ So he would mix and match from this palette of sounds. He might file something away in his head that he felt was not an appropriate sound for what I pulled it for, but a year later when he edited a different scene, all of a sudden that sound would show up, used for something else. This process helped Chris and me get into his head and figure out what he was after, because [Cameron] was so busy he didn't have time to sit down and talk with us in detail about sounds early in this phase. The ultimate spotting for us would be listening back to what he cut.”

Cameron is a notoriously hands-on director who is ready, willing and able to handle just about any technical task himself — from film editing to color timing to sound design. “He would take the elements we gave him and make his own choices and mix it himself,” Teague says. “Then, we would take scenes back, study what Jim did with them and build from there. A successful soundtrack to Jim is all about clarity and dynamics, so he could cut a very simple track, if you will, but it's exactly what he wants to hear and nothing that he doesn't want to hear, and that was a great blueprint. Then it was our job, as sound people, to fill in the gaps with details that he wouldn't necessarily cut, with the challenge of never stepping on the beautiful simplicity he created with 16 Avid tracks.

“There was one Monday morning I walked in and the picture assistants told me he had been in his cutting room until midnight on Sunday cutting Foley footsteps — that's when I realized how detail-oriented this guy is. That would be crazy for a picture editor to be doing, much less the director. But that's Jim.

“Where we hit the perfect moment of the synergy of this process he outlined to us,” Teague continues, “was on this sequence called ‘hometree destruction,’ in which the Na'vi's home [in a skyscraper-sized tree] is destroyed and falls down.”






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