Erik Aadahl Special: Animation Sound Design [Exclusive Interview]
Erik Aadahl has worked in animated films such as “Kung Fu Panda”, “Monsters vs Aliens”, and currently in “Shrek: Forever After”. Here is an interview I had with him, talking about his work on that kind of films.
DS: Animation is not a genre and the way to deal with sound in animation films is different from the way you work with sound in a typical film, but there’s one thing: you have to create a whole world starting from computer animated graphics. Do you find something special in animated films? Any difference you find compared with the rest of films?
EA: Animators are extremely detail oriented, and compared to other filmmakers can be much more detailed in their notes.
In sound, like animation, we start with a completely blank canvas. Actors’ dialogue is typically ADR, so the production track is exceptionally clean. This helps our sounds live clearly and precisely in the track.
Beyond clarity, animation is a very fun medium. You get a little more latitude with what is believable. Starting with “Kung Fu Panda”, and continuing with “Monsters vs. Alien”s and “Shrek: Forever After,” we’ve tried to stretch the boundary of the believable.
For “Kung Fu Panda”, the challenge was to keep things whimsical. Our first instinct was to go “big and bold”, which is what our directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne had asked for. But after playing a first pass of bad guy Tai Lung’s prison escape to Dreamworks Animation studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg, we learned that we were definitely working in a different medium, with different acceptable decibel and violence thresholds. “Panda”, which was aimed at family audiences, challenged us to find ways to make the track interesting without being an assault; to make things dynamic and exciting, but also pleasant, playful and easy on the ear.
So for “Panda” making things musical became our central strategy. This is not new to the Kung Fu genre. Kung Fu films are all about rhythms, beats and hyper-expressive, often musical and tonal sounds. Sound effects editor P.K. Hooker put together a collection of Kung Fu movies, from classics like “Iron Monkey” to newer films like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” What these films all have in common are intricate rhythms, where punches sound like percussion, most impacts have a WHOOSH leading into them, and the sound effects are often indistinguishable from music.
In “Monsters vs. Aliens”, we felt we could be more comic. The movie is a spoof on monster and sci-fi films from the ’50s, which is fun because we could pay homage to classic vintage-type sound effects, playing on clichés with a wink to our film sound history. This was the film that led to our first theremin experiments, which we elaborated on in Transformers 2.
I think my favorite thing, looking back, in “MvA” was one sound challenge we gave ourselves. When we designed Galaxar’s giant space ship, the principle for making the sound effects was to make every sound using our mouths only. Almost everything in the ship, from the space hatches to the hover bike to Galaxar’s laser gun was recorded vocally and then processed (or not). This sort of thing would be a lot harder to pull off in a live action film.
EA: I think most people in animation are very aware of how important sound is to bring the picture to life. That’s why so much work is put into sound on these films very early. In fact, it’s the first thing they do. All the actors’ voices are recorded first, and animators then spend years animating to those vocal performances. Similarly with sound effects, years before we start on the film, the picture editorial crew puts together an intricate temp effects track. Over time, as shots go from storyboard through animation and lighting, the picture slowly catches up to the temp sound track. Then we jump in with our sounds.
We could see how energized the “Panda” team became when we first started sending fresh sounds; that in itself became an inspiration to us.
We sent picture editor Clare Knight FX mixes as often as we could, getting notes and evolving the track so that by the time we got to pre-mixing, everything had been heard and approved by the filmmakers.
We also got a longer schedule on “Monsters vs. Aliens”, but one comment we got in the early days from directors Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman was: “It doesn’t sound big enough”. We realized the problem: our sounds were being monitored on stereo speakers in the editorial room, often dialed down to play against the dialogue and temp music. So we thought we’d better get a full 5.1 presentation with a bunch of scenes temp mixed in the ProTools to squash the “size issue”. With a sub channel the size complaints stopped.
One of the sequences we chose to present was Susan’s (a.k.a. Ginormica’s) arrival to Area 51, where she slowly learns that she’s trapped in a monster prison. This turned out to be our favorite sequence. The entire bit relies on sound design, with no music for the first few minutes, cuing Susan to explore her mysterious new home. We pitched the idea of playing sound effects only. Perhaps by luck, or maybe by design, we avoided going the music-driven and traditional route.
DS: In “Monsters vs Aliens” Ginormica has to sound “big”, Insectosaurus is a beast-insect, or in Kung-Fu Panda you have the little master mantis and the beast Tai Lung. What were your thoughts about the sound of these characters when you saw it on the sketches and then in the animated sequences? How does the sound help to improve the character design on those films?
EA: I think character design is one of the most important parts of our job. We are literally doing a performance for a character, the same way an actor would.
Po the Panda’s style of fighting is using his rolly-polly body weight to deflect and bounce an attacker’s power right back at them. So for this, we played with “boing” sounds. Supervising sound editor Ethan Van der Ryn built a “gut-bucket,” basically an iron bucket with a tensioned string that we could pluck and bend notes with. I did a design pass on these recordings, making escalating magnitudes of bouncy deflection as Po’s skills developed.
In “Kung Fu Panda”, each character represents a different style of Kung Fu, represented by a sonic signature: Mantis is based on wood-instrument ratchets, with doppler zips as he flies; Tigress is based on swift vocals, tennis racket whooshes and precision jabs; Crane is based on feathers and wings; Monkey is based on swingy whooshes; Viper is based on snake rattles (made out of serrated air hisses), and villain Tai Lung is based on sheer brute force, contrasting Po’s rubbery-ness.
Making sounds for characters in “Monsters vs. Aliens” was pretty similar. Our heroes, Susan (the 50 foot woman), B.O.B. (the blob), Link (the swamp thing), Dr. Cockroach, and Insectosaurus (the giant furry bug) all have their own individual soundscapes.
Susan has thunderous feet, designed by sound effects editor John Marquis.
Bob has gloopy blob sounds, created with our mouths, suction cups and latex stretching recorded by sound effects editor P.K. Hooker. Link is all about flippers and gurgling water (my throat was raw after this session). The Doctor is all about the sci-fi mad scientist inventions surrounding him. And Insectosaurus, voiced completely with sound design, is a cute version of the classic giant monster Godzilla, created with metal wails, a pig and a kazoo. The filmmakers mentioned “Godzilla’s” vocal as being created by a sharp metal screech, and wanted to achieve that feel.
DS: One of may favorite characters on “Monsters vs Aliens” is Bob. Great and funny sound design on it. I think you had a lot of fun, I guess). How was the sound of “Bob” created?
EA: BOB was lots of fun. P.K. did a bunch of recording sets using pudding and jello, and actually got sick after eating too much while recording. After the session, there was pudding splattered all over the canvas tarp we had protecting the carpet. Listening to those recordings still makes me nauseous.
P.K. also found some big sheets of latex off the internet. To this day we’re not sure about the true business of the supplier. Those sounds wound up being used for BOB’s stretchy and elastic components.
The core design elements used for BOB were made using our mouths; suction pops, juicy lip smacks, wet tongue wiggles. BOB’s eye movements were exclusively mouth sounds and tongue clicks. For his arms and body, I layered these mouth sounds with our latex and foley toilet plunger sounds. Depending on the moment, we’d adjust the proportions of mouth to latex or plunger, and that combo of sounds was basically the sound of BOB.
DS: Do you have some filed recording stories on the sound of those films?
EA: When we started recording for “Panda”, we tried to get into the spirit of the genre. It seemed the classic Kung Fu “whoosh” and “punch” could be a starting point. We spent some days on the Hawks Stage at 20th Century Fox when its DFC mixing console’s system software was being upgraded, an used the space to do a complete “whoosh” recording set.
Foley stages are sometimes a little small when recording things on long tethers swooshing around the room. The Hawks Stage is a big space and has an exceptionally low noise floor.
One of the the first things we recorded in there was a jagged piece of metal that we attached to twine and began furiously swinging past the microphone. The slicing sound it made whipping though the air was fantastic. As I checked my recorder meter, I heard a SNAP! and looked up to see the jagged piece of metal, no longer attached to the twine, hurtling through the air.
My heart skipped a beat as I contemplated the damage that jagged metal piece could do to the extremely expensive and newly-installed silver screen in the mixing theater.
We continued to record anything swing-able, from bamboo sticks, to pool cues, wood flutes and spatulas. I think we have around a hundred different varieties of whooshes from that session. Certainly one of the weirdest was a suggestion of sound effects editor Paul Pirola: 30 feet of bungee cord stretched and released across the stage. That sound became Po the Panda’s slow and relaxed whoosh.
We also recorded a bunch of Chinese instruments for “Panda” that later became character sounds: wood blocks, Tibetan chimes, a ringing bowl and gong.
At one point, John Stevenson requested a “sloshing of noodle soup” in Po’s belly as he moved. To attempt this sound, Ethan Van der Ryn wrapped a Sparkletts water bottle in thick cloth, and we recorded those sloshes with varying amounts of liquid. Dan O’Connell also contributed some water balloon gurgles and squishes to the mix. We kept these elements on their own pre-dub to dial in as needed.
We also had some fun recording crowds. Two hundred Dreamworks animators volunteered themselves on “Panda” and “MvA” to perform big exterior crowd sounds; sceaming and cheering for a whole variety of situations. At Dreamworks Animation studios in Glendale there’s a lovely courtyard with a massive fountain that was shut off and surrounded with hoards of sleep and UV-deprived animators that were ready to seriously release some steam.
DS: And what about foley?
EA: Working with Dan O’Connell, John Cucci and James Ashwill at “One Step Up” Foley is always a pleasure. The team is so creative and fast; they just nail it. On each of the three films we spent several days each recording “Wild Foley,” big sets of sounds that fit into the effects palette we need. For “Panda” we recorded punches, which we designed into Kung Fu smacks, and bells, swords and knives, snake slithers, whooshes and whip cracks, mystical chimes and anything pertinent we could think of.
We also spent this time establishing personalities for all the character’s textures and footsteps.
For every film, we typically shoot “cloth tracks” that for animation is especially important. It gives movement and life to a scene, subtle movements of the characters that is critical to create intimacy when a production track is absent. On these animated films, our cloth track is a dizzying melée of cloth, silk, nylon, fur, feathers, hair and any texture required.
For “Monsters vs. Aliens”, Dan gave us tons of great foley material. We did extensive sets of metal screeches, metal slides, air hatch releases, weapon action, and coiled spring twangs and zangs. The more I do this, the more I realize that there is no difference between sound effects and music … both tell a story, it’s just the instruments that vary.
DS: There are a lot of intense fight scenes on Kung-Fu Panda. How were the sound design decisions there?
EA: It’s all about the rhythms. Bottom line. Period. Whoosh and punch. I think of the punches like musical beats, like a drummer drumming. We pick the rhythm: musical and expressive.
The classic “Kung Fu” SMACK! was a sound that took a while to figure out. Both Dan O’Connell and I suffered some bruises smacking a variety of objects into our legs. Interestingly, the sound that reminded me the most of the classic Kung Fu WHACK! wound up being a slowed down chopstick impact.
DS: In Kung Fu Panda the story is in China, in a very cultural valley, and in “Monsters vs Aliens” you have earth, monsters, space and sci-fi stuff. Two different perspectives but the same things to deal with: time and space. How was the sound design approach to give believability to the historical time and the space?
EA: We’ve heard from some Chinese fans that our sounds were very authentic — a lot of this may have been accidental luck, because realism was secondary for us in these films.
We did pay deference to certain cultural sounds. We recorded a bronze singing bowl, ancient prayer bells and chinese gongs for sounds for Master Oogway’s mystical sonic palette. Shifu was much more authoritarian in his sounds, precise and quick whip slashes. We used a slicing spatula for a lot of his movements.
But when it came to “MvA,” there was little connection to reality. The sound for Galaxar’s spaceship was a Didgeridoo.
DS: Every DreamWorks animated film has a lot of funny scenes and unexpected dose of laughter. There’s a way you treat the sound to enhance these comic moments?
EA: Comic timing is a lot of it. With “Panda,” I think the filmmakers wanted to treat the genre with respect, but still be playful. In their storytelling, they timed the scenes out for certain beats, certain realizations and moments. I think it’s important to think of sound “in the moment”, a constant “river of tao” experience that helps tell the story in an unfolding, visceral, and emotional way.
With “Monsters vs. Aliens”, we played our sounds more hyper-real, more neon. I love listening to the old Hanna Barbera collection of sound effects. The sounds are pretty low-fi and gnarly, but also very fundamental and expressive. From the Dreamworks logo on, we tried to capture that spirit.
When it comes to comedy, it works a lot like music does: if you time it to follow a certain rhythm, it’s funnier. Try it.