SFP: "The Tale of Desperaux"

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

MAKING ANIMATED FANTASY SOUND REAL

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Bender adds that composer William Ross “was doing comps and tests all along and we were able to share things in the evolution of both the score and the sound, which is ideal. He might have a certain instrumentation in mind for a particular scene, so I would be aware of that and maybe stay away from what he was doing; or him knowing that I had certain sounds in mind affected what he did, too. We also integrated our work wonderfully in the sequence where Despereaux is exposed to the giant arc lights in the stadium.”

Because of the way animated films are made, there is no “on-location” production track as in live-action movies. All the voices — lead and groups — are recorded at ADR studios, though as ADR supervisor Chris Jargo notes, this one was a little different. “Usually, you go into a room with all these actors and you put them on a bench or you have them stand and it's a static recording. For this we had a boom operator, sometimes two, because the director wanted some physicality from the actors. We also put radio mics on them, so if there was overlap he'd have total control. So in that way, it was more like a live-action film. That ended up being a cool way of doing it because it had a little more life and didn't sound like it was all done the same way. We recorded directly to Pro Tools and we'd have a combination track, isolated tracks and a boom mic track. When we got into cutting, we almost always deferred to the boom mic because it sounded best.”

Bender says, “Chris worked on this film longer than any other sound person. He spent close to four years on this movie, doing all the original recordings and original assemblies for the directing team, all the looping and all the subsequent walla group direction.” Most of the ADR was done at Todd-AO, but sessions also took place at Disney, at Sound One in New York and even in London as the script changed or new animations became available. “Suddenly, what we thought was an empty street has hundreds of people in it when the animation comes back,” Jargo says. “I think we recorded [narrator] Sigourney Weaver 15 different times!”

The voices form the basis of the story, of course, but then, Bender says, “every effect, all the ambiences, every footstep, every hand movement, every treatment on the voices” comes under the supervisors' domain at some point.

“Aside from the little odd things you do,” he says, “it's the obvious things that are so much more important than in a live-action film because you have no production track to support the performance when somebody is just walking and talking, and making a mouse or rat walk and talk so you believe it — now, that's a tough one! All of the little things that are made up from the Foley have a lot more importance in making it feel real and alive. The animation is so three-dimensional and so moody in its lighting — it's really like no other animated film I've ever seen — so Foley was a huge, huge part of it.”

Bender supervised the Foley sessions at Todd-AO West. “No detail could be left unturned because it was playing all the time and it adds so much depth to the project,” he says. “It was even important to get the mouse feet and rat feet right, which make Despereaux more adorable and the rats that much scarier. And the trick is not just to do it in real time, but animation time because it's different and these characters aren't human.”

So how was it done? “We didn't do [the Foley recording] with feet, we did it with hands, and we used different kinds of gloves to get the sound of padded mouse feet [wearing soft shoes]. And the rats, who were generally not wearing shoes, except for Roscuro, we did that with nails and other things to make scratching sounds.”

A combination of FX, Foley and ADR were important in establishing some of the ambiences in the film, from the big rat “coliseum” scene at the climax to the more subtle overall sounds of the dark, unseen rat world. Of the latter's sound design, Bender says, “Aside from some of the obvious ploys, like dripping water and echo, we used a lot of voices and created a certain amount of dark hysteria in the backgrounds using vocals that came from the loop group. That was a big part of the character of rat world.”

There was plenty of sonic experimentation at every stage of the film's production. “The process we went through with Gary in coming to the final sound of the movie was, let's have it be full, with every sound in its place, and then let's strip out as much as we need to really home in on the characters, particularly Roscuro's story. Despereaux's is a little more obvious as the hero; Roscuro's is more oblique because he's going through more complicated things. [Though a rat, Roscuro is sympathetic to the mice.] So we stripped a lot of things away — effects and music — and then really got close to him in terms of his dialog [he's voiced by Dustin Hoffman] and his Foley, so every sequence he's in you can really feel him and he doesn't get lost. Then we put some things back in that supported the character.”

Bender says that for FX, he and Jon Title used Pro Tools as their primary sound editing and mixing device, and they made extensive use of Native Instruments' Kontakt 3 software sampler in their design process: “You load sounds into it and then you can manipulate them and weave them together, or have one sound after another.” The Lexicon 480 is still Bender's reverb of choice. He notes that mixer Frank Montaño also used the Lexicon 960. Montaño and Jenkins (whom we will be profiling in an upcoming issue for their work on Watchmen) mixed the film on a Harrison digital board.

As is typical with the new generation of animated films, Bender says, “We kept evolving sounds as long as we were getting shots that had new lighting on them — the lighting affects the mood of the shots, so it also affects the sound of the shots. When you get the full, lit animation, you invariably have to go in and adjust levels and reverbs and things based on light and dark, based on color temperature. We adjusted right up to the last minute.

“I've been doing this 30 years now, and every show I do I learn a new approach for some aspect of a show. And that's a great thing about this job. There's always something new you can learn about the aesthetic or the process or technology, and it never gets old.”






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