SFP: "The Tale of Desperaux"

Jan 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Film Stills Courtesy NBC Universal

Film Stills Courtesy NBC Universal

When my then-11-year-old daughter and I read Kate DiCamillo's Newberry Award-winning children's book The Tale of Despereaux back in 2003, we were completely swept up. This beautifully told story of a brave medieval mouse and his adventures among both humans and rats (boo, hiss!), and the wonderfully rendered black-and-white illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering had both of us exclaiming: “Wouldn't this make a fantastic movie?!” Well, five years later it is. The Tale of Despereaux is a wonderful capper to what has been a great and varied year for high-quality animated films, including WALL-E, Kung-Fu Panda, Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who, Madagascar 2 and Bolt.

Despereaux is a bit different from the rest (except WALL-E) in that it is fundamentally a drama, albeit one with plenty of action and lots of humor. The directorial team has a good pedigree: Sam Fell co-wrote and co-directed the fine, underrated 2006 British film Flushed Away (which also had a rodent as a main character); and Robert Stevenhagen's work as an animator goes all the way back to the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988, and includes such films as An America Tail: Fievel Goes West, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Balto, Space Jam and The Road to El Dorado. Supervising sound editor and lead sound designer Lon Bender also has an impressive resumé in the animated world, including such modern Disney fare as Pocohontas, Mulan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as The Prince of Egypt and Shrek. (Bender also does plenty of live action work: He was most recently Oscar-nominated for his sound work on Blood Diamond, and he won a trophy as co-supervisor of the sound team for Braveheart.)

Asked about some of the differences between designing sound for those Disney films and the new, completely computer-generated Despereaux, Bender says, “The detail of the animation style has a lot of bearing on how you approach the sound, and the other major thing that has a bearing on it is that Despereaux is not a musical; almost all of those films were musicals. This film is really a narrative — with some magic thrown in — that concentrates deeply on characters and their development, so we really had to add level and dimension to the space and the worlds in which characters are operating to keep the viewer close to the characters. In this case, you have the human world, the mouse world and the rat world, so you have representations of each of those and [sonically] each is treated differently. There's the human world [of the town and kitchen], and then behind the walls is the mouse world, which is a world of light [lit by matches and such], and then down below in the dungeons and cellars of the human world is the rat world. The descent from mouse world into rat world is a very dramatic moment. Rat world has to be terrifying and creepy, yet there's also something alluring about it to the hero, Despereaux.”

The basic sonic approach, Bender says, was a sort of heightened realism. This isn't broad cartoon comedy at all; rather, “Everything in it was real, in terms of what it is in real life, and then how it would be perceived from a rat or a mouse perspective. For instance, there's a great sequence [in the human world] where [chef] Andre is sitting there bored, and he's playing with a coin on the table, and the coin knocks off the table, hits on the floor and goes down into mouse world — which is our introduction to mouse world. So it goes from a tiny coin on a tile floor to become this huge thing that's like the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark as it rolls into mouse world, knocks a bunch of stuff over and everyone goes crazy. It takes the viewer through the transition from the real world into the miniature world of mouse world and rat world in a way that makes it accessible.”

So what does a coin sound like when it seems like it weighs three tons and is rolling around? Bender's solution was “a lot of large metal objects that we cobbled together to create the sense of movement and turning because it had to feel like it was rolling forward, but also really large. The key to that sound is how the ridges on the edge of the coin bang against the ground — ‘Oh, I get it, it's a coin!’”

The picture editorial was primarily done in England by the newly formed animation division of a company called Framestore, which is the most successful special effects house in Europe — its list of credits includes four Harry Potter films, The Golden Compass, Superman Returns, X-Men: The Last Stand, V for Vendetta and many others. But it was posted in L.A. by Soundelux. In addition to Bender, the American crew included Bender's sound design associate Jon Title, ADR supervisor Chris Jargo and, working in the Hitchcock Theatre at Universal Studios Sound in L.A., re-recording mixers Chris Jenkins (music and dialog) and Frank A. Montaño (FX). The score was composed by William Ross, who was previously best known as an orchestrator for John Williams and many others. Bender's primary liaison when it came to sound was not either of the directors, but rather screenwriter and co-producer Gary Ross, whose past work includes Oscar nominees Seabiscuit (which he also directed), Dave and Big, as well as Pleasantville (another directorial effort). As Bender puts it, “Gary Ross was the creative force behind our part of the movie.

“One of the interesting things about our early involvement was that Gary, who did not have a background in animation, was very reliant on music when he was blocking out the sequences,” Bender continues. “At first he didn't have a lot of strong sound work to support his ideas, because — as with all animated films — in the beginning he had only the voices. Then come the storyboards, then the animatics, then animation, then lit animation, which is the final stage.” Bender and his team got involved “when they were coming out of storyboarding and into the animatics stage — so long before we had any color, any lit shots or complete shots — and as soon as Gary started hearing sketches of different environments and sketches of the action that had sound put to them, all of a sudden he realized that he had to completely change his perspective on his reliance on music in terms of the storytelling. The music itself also changed from how it was developing, because the scoring of character and the scoring of story are two different things, and the sound work we did in those early phases helped him reconsider the emphasis of the score.”

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