'War Horse'

Jan 1, 2012 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson



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“At the beginning, Spielberg said to me, ‘Just make sure they’re really horses.’ I think he worries that we sound people are going to put together a walrus and an otter and call it a horse,” he says with a laugh. “Every movie I’ve ever worked with him, Steven gives me something not to do, and for this one, it was to not use non-horse sounds for horses. But that was fine because horses make such a broad range of sounds. For me, the great revelation was, if you record miniature horses, which have an emotional range that makes them seem almost dog-like at times, and then slow them down, they sound like a full-sized horse.”

Do you do your pitch alteration in Pro Tools? “Within Pro Tools, and I also still have a Synclavier. My room at Skywalker is pretty much a museum of the 1980s,” he says jokingly. “I’ve got a Synclavier and a quarter-inch deck—there’s still nothing better for slowing sounds down.”

There are two main horse characters in the film: We follow Joey from his birth on a farm in southwest England through his “conscription” into the British Army on the eve of World War I (hence the title); and the larger black horse Topthorn figures into the war part of the story. Rydstrom says it was important to give each horse his own sonic personality, so great care was taken in assigning vocalizations, breathing and movement sounds to what are, in a sense, the film’s main characters.

“When I first talked with Spielberg,” Rydstrom offers, “what I most wanted him to explain was his idea of Joey’s character because we treat him like a real actor. And he said Joey was noble, so even when Joey’s in pain, we still wanted to make him somehow sound noble. The movie is full of opportunities to let the horses ‘act.’ All of the vocals and sounds of Joey for the whole movie were cut by Terry Eckton, who’s a longtime Northern California sound editor who specializes in creature vocals.

“We collected so many great horse sounds, and then I would organize them: ‘This seems like a Topthorn vocal, this seems like a Joey vocal, based on size. This might be good for this scene.’ When Terry started cutting the horses, we would spot it, and this is where my years at Pixar came in handy because it was sort of like working with an animator, where you say, ‘I want the character to feel like this, or do this, or do this.’ So we would talk about where the horse’s brain was—what he was feeling—in the scene and then try to create a character through that. Terry would go off and cut something amazing from our library and then we’d finesse it into the movie. Breathing does a lot for you, and there’s a huge range of breathing, but it’s also one of the hardest things to cut because there’s a pace and a rhythm to it. When we got to the final mix, we ended up simplifying some of the horse vocals and relied more on breathing.”

Horse Foley—encompassing hoof steps, body swishes and shudders, and tail shakes—was also critical in providing depth and dimension to the horses. Dennie Thorpe and Jana Vance performed the Foley, which was supervised by Luke Dunn Gialmuda, recorded by Sean England and edited by Colette Dahanne.

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