The Sound Design of "Avatar"
Avatar is one of the most impressive films I’ve seen. Amazing use of technology and a great story. Fantastic combination. The 3D experience there is totally amazing. The sound is really great… A good challenge with animals, sci-fi stuff and of course: create a new world.
The January’s Issue of Mix Magazine contain a fantastic article featuring Chris Boyes talking about the sound of “Avatar”. Let’s read:
If you’ve seen James Cameron’s epic 3-D fi lm, Avatar, or even just the trailers and commercials, you know that the director has gone to incredible lengths to create a visually and aurally sumptuous adventure set in a fantasy world unlike any that we have ever seen before. There are bizarre creatures, fi erce and friendly, that walk the planet Pandora or soar its skies.
There are futuristic machines and aircraft straight out of Cameron’s vivid imagination. And then there is the Na’vi, a peaceful race of tall, blue-skinned, long-tailed, humanoid tree dwellers who have their own customs and language and are now being threatened by an incursion to Pandora by people from Earth bent on exploiting the planet’s valuable natural resources. It’s a rich and very complex story I won’t recount here, but suffi ce it to say, it involved incredible feats of technical wizardry to bring it realistically to the screen, including improved motion-capture technology, next-gen visual FX supplied by the best digital artists, and newly designed 3-D cameras that allowed Cameron to see approximations of the story’s virtual world in the camera as the fi lm was shot. No wonder it took three years to make.
Not surprisingly, Avatar also required tremendous imagination and dedication from Cameron’s sound crew, which was spearheaded by supervising sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer Christopher Boyes (pictured on this month’s cover), who earned his first sound Oscar for Cameron’s Titanic in 1998, and subsequent trophies for Pearl Harbor (2001), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) and King Kong (2005). He’s also had fi ve other nominations, the latest last year for Iron Man. In fact, when I caught up with Boyes in early December, he’d just started work on the sequel to Iron Man down at Fox in L.A.—this after a mere one-day break following the nearly 80-day fifi nal mix on Avatar (also at Fox).
Avatar was not your typical film where the “post” crew gets heavily involved once principal photography has been completed. Rather, Cameron brought in Boyes, who in turn called on sound editor Addison Teague to start working on sound design from the beginning of the shoot. “When Jim and I sat down in the summer of ’06,” Boyes recounts,” he said, ‘This is what I want to do: I’m going to shoot, then I’m going to go in and edit, and while I edit I want to be cutting sound eff ects that you’ve made, and then I’m going to go back to shooting’; and back and forth like that. And true to form, that’s exactly what he did. What we didn’t expect him to do was keep shooting as long as he did, but then all these big fi lms tend to do that so it wasn’t exactly surprising.”
Teague, who shares a supervising sound editor credit on the film with Boyes and dialog specialist Gwen Whittle, says, “Jim wanted to have a sound editor working in the picture department during editing, and I had done that before for Chris on the fi rst Pirates of the Caribbean fi lm. Avatar was going to be a multi-year commitment and involve relocating from Skywlker Sound to L.A. to work alongside Jim. It was quite a commitment for a sound editor, but seemed like an amazing challenge and experience so I jumped at it.
“In a way, working like that is a dream job for a sound editor,” he continues. “You want to be involved as early as possible because oftentimes as sound editors, we’re fi ghting what a director and a picture editor have been listening to for months, and in some cases, years as crude temp FX, and you want to get your own fingerprint on it. So for us, this was perfect. There were so many creative sound possibilities, and we were able to get in right from the beginning and work with Jim and try to get our ideas in there right away. But it also provided some interesting challenges, because since we were doing it as we went, the turnaround on these sound eff ects requests was actually much faster than it would be in a traditional sound schedule because we would need to provide something almost immediately for some scene he was shooting.
“Jim wanted the sound and picture editing always moving forward together so he could make creative choices that traditionally might be left for post-production at any point in the process. There was never a clear production and post phase on this movie; one was always informing the other. So his goal was to never have to start over building what he’d already worked out, but rather do it for real as he went—so a decision that he might make in 2007 was done and in place for the final mix two years later. Obviously there were changes along the way, but he really did keep some things that long.”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.