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



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“Within that scene, there are two different types of explosives,” Boyes adds. “The initial explosives are meant to get the Na'vi to leave, and they catch the base of the tree on fire. They're like these big whooshing explosions. But then there are the much bigger H.E. — high-efficiency — explosives, which were a challenge because they needed to detonate with a furious attack but then have a sort of sonic wash that goes over you. You get this very percussive attack — this impact I made by picking elements of some of my favorite explosions and then truncating very transient elements of them on the keyboard in the Synclavier and then playing it as a sharp attack and a quick decay. It's very effective in the film.”

For the gargantuan falling tree, the duo employed a combination of recordings Boyes has made through the years of trees being cut down in his native Marin County, all sorts of wood-related sounds he'd captured for other films, and some new recordings Teague obtained “from a eucalyptus tree that had fallen down outside Jim's house,” he says. “I climbed underneath it and twisted roots around and got great dirt recordings and collected a number of sounds I was able to bring back and manipulate [in Pro Tools] and make bigger.

“So we create this palette of sounds for Jim and now he can go at it. He finished his picture edit with temp music and literally stayed up all night cutting his pass on the sound effects. He was headed for bed as I walked in to start my day. I listened to it and he did such a great job cutting! I'm not going to fight that. He loved our sounds and he did a great job orchestrating them, so I cleaned it up, added some elements to fill it out, but basically took his tracks straight to the premix, and that's the backbone of the final track.”

Those are just a few of the hundreds of sounds Boyes and Teague were tasked to create for Avatar. We haven't even mentioned the heavily technological world that comes with the invading Earthlings — from a couple of different kinds of futuristic helicopters (which drew upon Boyes' extensive collection of helicopter recordings) to a shuttle-rocket (another Boyes specialty, having worked on Space Cowboys, Titan A.E., Armageddon and Iron Man) to the giant robotic AMP Suits the humans sometimes don to do battle (the sounds of which began with recordings of various machine servos blended with other metal and mechanical sounds).

Most of the early work on the film was done in Malibu at the director's work space, but at a certain point, some of the more traditional post sound work shifted to Skywalker Sound in West Marin — the usual home base for Boyes and Teague, and a number of the other sound personnel who ended up working on the film. Skywalker's Gwen Whittle, for example, supervised the dialog, from cleaning up the production tracks as necessary to shepherding the ADR, which was mostly recorded by Doc Kane over at Disney, but also, over the course of the long production, required sessions at Todd-AO, Fox and smaller studios in San Diego and Shreveport, La.

“Jim's not afraid of ADR at all,” Whittle says. “He's very aware of how powerful a tool it can be. But he also has the issue that he's been working on this film for five years, so the guide track is sort of embedded in his head. I don't care how good you are at ADR, you get used to hearing the production track and you know the tiniest nuances of it, so sometimes directors are reluctant to do ADR. But Jim is good about saying, ‘Well, I am used to hearing that, but this [ADR version] is a lot better,’ so he's willing to go with the best that's there.”

Whittle says the production sound — which was captured by several different recordists — was mostly quite good, though she was vexed by some of the material that came from the La Playa shoot: “The set was plywood, and a lot of time they're running around and I guarantee you, Pandora, their planet, is not made of plywood. So that was an issue. [Laughs] Also, [the actors] have their virtual suits with the [motion-capture] dots on them and headgear for their microphones and sometimes there would be some crunchy sounds that came with their movements.”

Another unexpected challenge for Whittle was dealing with dialog and ADR in the Na'vi language. “At first, I thought, well, if we have to do any ADR or loop group stuff around it, it will be pretty easy because as opposed to some kind of Urdu or Pashto or other languages we've had to do in the past, where people actually speak it so you have to be really precise with it — which is difficult when it's not your own language — I thought this might be a lot looser because nobody speaks Na'vi. But no, I was totally wrong. They were completely precise about it. Carla Meyer, the accent coach, worked with me — she worked closely with Paul Frommer, who invented the language, who is a Ph.D. from USC. He actually developed the language from various Indonesian and African languages — it has some of the clicks and mouth sounds that a lot of South African tribes speak. There are also no ‘p’s and no ‘th’s; things like that. So when we had the loop group in, we had to make sure they didn't say those sounds. It was quite strange. But it was also fun, and I even picked up a little of it myself.”

Because Avatar was such an enormous sound job, the decision was made to have separate re-recording mixers handling music and dialog for the final mix — tasks that are often combined into one job. For the dialog mix, Cameron went back to another veteran of countless Skywalker sessions: Gary Summers, who won Oscars for his work on two previous Cameron films, Terminator 2 and Titanic. “Jim wanted the dialog to be straight-up front and center,” Whittle says. “Sometimes Cameron wanted Gary to raise stuff a little more than our instincts would have told us to raise it, but he wanted to make sure that for that bad theater in Topeka, Kansas, that you could still hear the dialog at all times. He actually said, ‘What if the right speaker goes out and then they can't hear it? So pan it a little more to the center.’ He was very clear that the dialog had to be heard at all times. He's a storyteller, and that's important to him.”

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