"How to Train Your Dragon" – Exclusive Interview with Randy Thom, Jonathan Null and Al Nelson
I loved “How to Train Your Dragon”, the latest Dreamworks animated film. The storytelling and animation was top-notch, luckily the sound dept. followed suit. Below is an interview with the leads of the post sound crew discussing their work on the film. Many thanks to Sound Designer Randy Tom, Sound Supervisor Jonathan Null and Sound Designer Al Nelson for answering the questions regardless of their busy schedules.
Miguel: When did you guys start working on the film? What were the filmmakers thoughts/direction for the sound design? How was the sound crew’s relationship with the directors, animators, etc.?
Randy Thom: First, I want to say that this is the first time I’ve worked with Jon as a Co-Supervisor and Al as a Co-Sound Designer. It was an incredibly rewarding team effort all the way, and I can’t say enough good things about the work each of them did on the movie. When you can create believable and dramatic creature vocals with a range of emotions, you’ve reached the upper echelons of sound design. In my opinion there are only a few people in the world at that level, and Al is one of them. Likewise, Jon is a master at subtly manipulating the human voice… finding, editing, and when necessary “tuning” voices in ways that are absolutely faithful to the actor’s performance, but also an enhancement. Both these guys are just the best.
Also a shout-out to Gary Rizzo, who mixed the movie with me. We’ve mixed many films together, and I’m always impressed with his attention to detail and his creativity.
I started working on HTTYD about three years ago, but only a day or two here and there until about six months ago. The filmmakers wanted sound effects to be an early influence on the animation, especially for the dragon movements and vocalizations. This is an approach I’ve been publicly advocating for many years, and it’s great to see it gaining some inertia. Sound shouldn’t be a decoration you add to an otherwise finished movie. It should have an influence on all the other crafts while there is still time for them to be affected by it. Dean and Chris, the Directors on “How To Train Your Dragon”, were 100% in favor of that kind of reciprocity between the sound and image crafts on the film.
Jonathan Null: I kinda don’t want to jinx it, but I haven’t worked a day since I started at Skywalker Sound in ’93. Yeah, I come to work and spend my days cutting sound and hanging with my friends whom I am closer with than many of the people in my extended family. Skywalker actually lets me supervise and cut from an office that has French doors leading out to a deck that overlooks a vineyard and a lake. Maybe I shouldn’t be taking such advantage of them, considering I’ve gained a bit around the mid section because of all the wonderful food that’s available at the multiple locations on the ranch. I guess that’s why they put in the new tennis court near the pool, right outside the indoor basketball court and gym. They even pay me to hang out and learn from the most incredibly talented sound designers and sound editors in the business!
I really would like to thank Randy for having me be a part of this and the many projects I’ve had the pleasure to work on with him at Skywalker. He has always empowered me to do my best work. He is quite a talented sound designer, an extraordinarily intelligent man, and a close friend. Al, on the other hand…just kidding Al. Al is my number one choice for a sonic partner. He has such a love for the art of sound design and has tireless amounts of energy. What he did on this film was truly amazing. Al and Randy made designing nine dragons look easy. (It’s not!) We had the opportunity to play our work for each other on almost a daily basis and for the clients weekly. I highly recommend playing material for your peers and clients as often as possible during a project so there are no surprises at the final mix. When peers listen to your work with you, you listen to your work differently as well. It’s a powerful and productive exercise. Because of these playbacks, I think our bond as a crew was much stronger. The Dreamworks folks were also a pleasure to work with. Their clear and focused vision for the sonic landscape and their trust in our ability to deliver made this a dream project. It was very productive, having them up to the ranch to sit in on and participate in the foley sessions and to have the opportunity to play our design for them in our environment. It put us all on the same page very quickly. I wish Chris and Dean the directors, and Bonnie the producer would make a film every year! They were a joy to work with as were their picture editorial department. I hope you put a link to IMDB in this article so folks whom are interested could look up all the members of our sound crew. They are all so talented. Each of them pushed the envelope on this film and it shows in the final mix. I am so proud of this film and congratulate everyone at Skywalker on a job well done.
Al Nelson: Thank you, Randy. Yes, when the Director of Sound Design for Skywalker Sound taps you to co-sound design, you definitely try to put your best foot forward.
This was one of those dream sound jobs where everyone from the directors to the interns was excited about the audio. We all tried very hard to give these characters and creatures their own unique voices.
I was brought on the project about a year before its release. It was one of those memorable career moments I’ll be telling my grandchildren about. Randy Thom called and asked me if I’d like to help out with some sound design for a dragon movie. My first task was to work on the scene where Hiccup first discovers Toothless entangled and barely alive. Randy’s direction was to make the dragon sound powerful and dangerous but we should also empathize with him. I came across appropriately eager for the task but inside I was thinking, “WHAT?” Randy, being the sound design historian he is, suggested I review “The Black Stallion” – specifically the scene on the beach where the stallion is caught. That scene is a classic example of using creature vocals to evoke human emotion. And I was off and running…
Throughout the sound process we were very fortunate to have multiple reviews with the filmmakers and picture editors. They gave us constant feedback about both the physical characteristics of how things should sound as well as the emotions we were trying to convey. It was a wonderfully collaborative and creative process.
Jake: A period piece, whether animated or not, brings with it an extra set of challenges in regards to crowds and call-outs. How did you guys record and design the Viking crowds and what specific ADR group call outs we’re cued to accentuate the Norse town atmosphere?
Jon: Mad Dogs Loop Group are my secret weapon for this sort of film. Having used them on period films such as “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol”, I had complete confidence in their esthetic and ability to create a realistic crowd track for “Dragon”. After hiring the Loop Group, I spent some time researching Viking nautical terminology such as “Hard to port!”, “One length to your stern.”, “On your starboard flank.”, and “Ahead at your bow.” Battle cries were created mostly by screaming with the occasional “Prepare the catapults!” , “Plant your spears!”, and “Great Odin’s Ghost!” Although, Vikings are Nordic, it worked better for this film to tend more towards a Scottish accent. A quarter of our group were actually British, so we payed close attention to reign in the deliberate diction of a Shakespearean stage actor and concentrated our efforts on more of a southern Scottish twang.
Jake: Since dialogue is usually shot before principle animation begins are there ever problems with lip sync or any other ADR related challenges that arise during editorial and mix? What other ways do the dialog/ADR team approach an animated film differently?
Jon: Dreamworks has some of the best animators on the planet. Even with that said, we still need to re-sync the dialogue from time to time as the finished shots come in. Lighting tends to change the lip plosives and interior of the mouth. Sometimes, the hard sync of an unlit shot looks early when lit. And, even in animation we sometimes cheat a line instead of re-animating. The best thing about animation in regards to dialogue editing, is we don’t typically have to cut fill since all the production and all the ADR are recored in a controlled environment. Chris Gridley and Brian Chumney did a fantastic job of whipping this track into shape. I’d also like to thank Rich Quinn for helping us out in a pinch towards the end.
Miguel: I love the way sound accentuated the character design. Specific attributes set them apart visually, so how did you guys deal with the character design aurally?
Randy: From very early stages of animation we talked with the filmmakers about shaping the visual aspect of the dragon design so that it would open doors for dragon sound. Often, we wanted the dragon’s whole body to move or vibrate when it vocalized or shot fire. That way the sound could be more complex, and feel more fully integrated with the visuals. When a creature like a dragon simply opens its mouth and closes its mouth, without any other related body movements, it severely limits the kind of sound you can create. Toothless is a great example of the opposite. There are scenes where he does all kinds of interesting things with his mouth and lips during each vocal. That opens the door to creating a voice with more character.
Al: In addition to vocal aspects of the dragons, as Randy describes, I’d like to credit our foley team with helping to create the body language of the creatures. We were looking for specific characteristics of skin and body movement for each of the dragons. They did a fantastic job of making Toothless sound “reptilian”, creating the perfect claws for the Monstrous Nightmare and the Zippleback and adding wing and tail sweeteners for the others.
Jake: One dragon related aspect in the film I wish they would have explored more was that loud sounds affected the beast’s vision. I can remember just the one shot of sound blurring the dragon’s POV. It could have been such a cool sound element for the film! Was there any desire from the filmmakers to expand this plot device? Were there any sounds that you created that motivated the filmmaker’s direction, editorial, or design?
Randy: I remember having some early discussions with the filmmakers about the Gronkle having blurred vision when it’s confused by loud sound. As you know, I always like to take sonic advantage of POV moments. We didn’t use it extensively in the film, but I agree it’s a cool idea, and worked well.
Al: One important and obvious use of sound to motivate was Toothless’ “sonar”. A concept implied in the movie is that the dragons can sense and possibly communicate with each other outside of our human perception. This concept is presented in our first flight to the hive – the cave on Dragon Island. Astrid and Hiccup are riding on Toothless and their romantic flight is interrupted when Toothless senses danger and is aware that he is surrounded by thousands of other dragons. Later when Stoick has captured Toothless, he uses Toothless to direct the ship to the island. You’ll notice a specific flutter that Toothless produces. This is a sound that the filmmakers spoke of very early on. They wanted to imply that dragons communicate the way whales or insects do. Randy created a few ideas early on and they literally dropped right in on final animation.
Miguel: Let’s talk about “Toothless” the “Night fury” dragon, who is a really important character in the film. He doesn’t have recognizable dialogue so the sound design did all the talking. How did you handle the “voice” of this special dragon and can you elaborate on his fire breathing attack? (You can hear the fire blast but it also has a kind of plasma gun feel to it…)
Randy: The Toothless voice has some horse elements, whale elements and tiger elements in addition to vocalizations and breaths that Al and I did. The big cat stuff was useful for the aggressive Toothless; and the horses, whales, and human stuff was the “softer,” more sympathetic side of the character. Al, what about the “plasma gun”?
Al: Toothless endears himself to us pretty early on and he’s pretty darn cute. But, as Hiccup reads in the book of dragons, the Night Fury should not be engaged. The best thing to do is “pray he does not find you.” So, this dragon is dangerous. With that in mind, the directors wanted to present him almost like a fighter jet in attack mode. He has that rising tone and various tonal whooshes that aurally represent his stealth and speed. In addition, his blasts are more than just gas and flame. Toothless packs a mean punch with his fire. We based his fire sound on this concept and then ultimately on the visuals. They are these colored, laser-like blasts. Also, fire contains such broad, noise based frequencies which are hard to articulate in a fierce battle. Quick, plasma like blasts stand out amongst the roaring and screaming and percussion and brass.
Jake: From accentuating anger to evoking contentment, why does vibrato (the best way I can describe the sound) in animal vocals/breathing create such emotive sound? One scene in particular was when Hiccup finally gets to touch Toothless. How were the dragon’s vocals used to convey what it was feeling as it touched a human for the first time?
Randy: Purring is a sound that humans respond to very emotionally. I guess it’s some sort of primitive, brain stem thing that gets passed on through the genes. I had conversations with Chris and Dean very early about Toothless purring when he’s happy. It works so well in that sequence because the animators made him vibrate a bit as he purrs. One odd thing about the emotional spin of a purr is that there is a fine line between purring and a certain kind of low growling. A purr strikes us as being a happy or sympathetic sound, but a growl is almost always angry. I remember listening to some big cat purrs that were right on the border, and I was concerned they might be interpreted as a growl.
Miguel: How did you approach the work on the queen dragon? The sound made the audience feel it’s enormous size. I especially love those moments when you start to hear it’s growls in background, makes you feel there’re something unimaginable lurking in the shadows. How was sound perspective at play when much smaller dragons we’re battling this Juggernaut?
Al: The visuals for this beast came later and I remember thinking cool and at the same time holy cow. Or holy dragons! I think it’s final name became The Red Death. This creature is much more the classic dragon we’re used to. It’s not emotive. It doesn’t have inflection. It’s just pissed. Her source of food has been taken away and her comfort level is at an all time low. The goal was low lows to define the size of this thing but also high screeches to let us know it’s angry. Also, knowing it was going to be part of a battle involving multiple dragons, we wanted to keep her voice separate from the others. Her lows were pitched layers of animal vocals mixed with my own bellows through a huge 12” round by 16 foot long pvc pipe. I was hoarse for a few days after that one. The highs were Styrofoam and metal scrapes combined with bird vocals. In the end, Randy saved the day with some bellow sweeteners that really sold the creature.
The other thing to note (due credit to the directors) is the first time we’re introduced to this creature is just after we meet the smallest, most pathetic Gronkle in the history of dragons. This is a great example of how to establish scale.
Miguel: The moments where Hiccup rides “Nighty fury” are just amazing! Lot of mixed cuts, different POV’s, and beautiful landscapes. How were those dragon-flights scenes approached? And what about the mixing process there?
Randy: Lots of decisions to make in sequences like that, and mixing is all about making decisions. John Powell’s beautiful score rules certain moments and sequences; wind, wings, and whooshes rule others, and in a few the music and sound effects are about equally strong in terms of loudness. I love POV cuts. It’s one of the things you can take advantage of in film sound that you could never do in theater sound design, where the point of view of the audience never changes.
Al: Pete Horner cut many of these scenes using Randy’s palettes of winds and whooshes. Every single perspective change was cut and split for the mix. In addition to the many winds and whooshes, there were multiple layers for the wings, various cloth and leather elements for Toothless’ flight apparatus and a variety of low end, sub sweeteners. We kept all of these elements discreet throughout the final mix process.
Jake: During the scene where Hiccup and Astrid fly together there is a section where Toothless’s wing flaps become very delicate, almost serene. Are delicate effects like that more challenging to design than louder ones? What other examples of overtly graceful sound design like that can be found in the film?
Randy: Everything Al does is overtly graceful. I’m the sledgehammer guy. Just kidding, Al isn’t that overt. It’s true that sometimes delicate or quiet sounds ARE more difficult. The kinds of wing sounds that are the easiest to make are short duration flaps. Slower wing movements, and soaring kinds of sounds are harder to fabricate. I often start with a recording of wind, then doppler shift it at various durations. The real trick is in finding the right kind of wind. In the Skywalker sound effects library we have more than a thousand different wind recordings, and every one of them has a unique set of spectral characteristics. For a subtle wing flap I often like to start with a wind that has lots of highs and some lows, but not much between 400Hz and 4000Hz. The mids will make it seem harsh, but there is something ethereal about the highs and lows together.
Al: In the beginning I found it curious that Randy was so specific about exactly these scenes. I figured, its flying and music, what’s the big deal? I’m flattered that Randy says I’m not overt. It took some work. In the beginning Toothless’ wing flaps were like grandma in army boots. The lesson is, don’t play the visual, play the emotion. Ultimately, what’s the most romantic sound? It’s wind. The wings are almost implied.
Again, it’s this wonderful opportunity to take advantage of the mentorship that Randy provides. He’ll explain conceptually what we’re going for – subtle, romantic. And then, he’ll show you techniques such as volume graphing the peaks and using eq to eliminate the mids. Then, suddenly, you’re overtly graceful.