Exclusive Interview with Peter Miller, Sound Designer on “Rango”
“Rango” is ILM’s first animated feature. I was blown away by the level of detail in both the look and the sound design. Sound designer Peter Miller was kind enough to share his film making experiences with me.
Designing Sound: So how did you become involved in the project?
Peter Miller: I worked with Gore (Verbinski) on The Ring and we’ve wanted to work together since. I think he knew this film was right up my alley – he pitched it to me as Sergio Leone meets Hayao Miyazaki meets Carlos Castaneda. How could I refuse!? My good friend Craig Wood edits for Gore and the three of us have a great rapport in sound language. Both Gore and Craig are very sound-aware, and really great collaborators.
DS: How was it different working with the director on this film compared to the last?
PM: I think we kind of slotted quickly back into the way we worked on The Ring. We followed a similar process, even though Rango was a lot longer in creation. Gore is very much what I would call a ‘contributive’ director. He likes to be involved in as much of the process as he has time for. Typically, that means we start working very early on in the production time-line and discover our ideas together. It’s not a situation where he just gives a brief and then turns up for the final mix. Even though Rango is a comedy, I found the emotional requirements for the construction of The Ring and Rango oddly similar. In the same way as setting things up to scare an audience becomes a very subjective and intellectual exercise in a horror film, so does making people laugh in a comedy. After you’ve heard the jokes a few dozen times the initial funniness has worn off, so finding the humor takes a fairly cerebral approach. Which is not to say that we didn’t laugh a lot when we were making Rango – we just hoped the audiences would laugh at the same things.
DS: When did you start sound designing the film?
PM: I started on Rango in 2008, when the storyboard edit was almost complete. There had been some sound work already as the ideas came together, but Gore felt it was important to get me on-board as soon as he was able. I did some work on the ‘Metaphor’ sequence, where Rango is thrown between the cars on the highway, and the ‘Ritual’ where the townsfolk do their odd dance. Over the next months I also built a large library of atmospherics and fx and then went to Los Angeles later in the year when Craig came on. Craig mostly cuts with 5.0sound when he works, and we’ve found it a great way to start forming the shape of the final soundtrack. It is very unusual for sound people to be pulled into a project this early, and it is a measure of Gore’s great skill and commitment to sound that he insists on this happening.
During 2009, as the digital animation phase commenced, I worked from my studio in Australia providing sound effects and sequences as they were needed. In July 2010 I traveled back to the US for the next 7 months to complete the sound. At this time the full sound crew came on-board and I was very fortunate to have as my co-Supervising Sound Editor an old friend, Addison Teague, who I had worked with previously on ‘The Ring’. Addison headed a very talented sound crew from Skywalker Sound, and together we set about realizing Gore’s vision for Rango.
DS: Did anything from your first wips make it to the film?
PM: Oh yes – many of my first ideas for Jake, the rattlesnake, were carried through to the end. A lot of my atmospherics are there also, and many structural elements. There were other sequences that made it through too – my good friend Tim Nielsen did some early work that was so good we really couldn’t lose it. That’s the great thing about working on a film in this manner. It is truly a collaborative effort.
Some sequences were realized slightly differently than I’d originally mapped them. The ‘Metaphor’ scene was set up structurally the way I designed it but it changed a lot in the last few weeks of sound post. The notable difference was the orchestral piece that Hans Zimmer wrote for it, which replaced my earlier more abstract percussion work.
DS: What were your main sound design challenges?
PM: Rango was an interesting project because right from the start Gore had pushed for this ‘ultra realistic’ animation style. When we were looking at simple pencil sketches – not even animated – he was vibing us up to think of the film as a ‘movie’, rather than ‘an animated movie’. Crash McCreery, the production designer, created amazing concept art and character designs, and we had that on the walls all over Blind Wink as we worked. Crash and his team had previously designed the Davy Jones crew for Gore’s ‘Pirates’ movies and we knew that we were aiming at that level of realism.
The thing is, there was also an other-worldly aspect to Rango which needed to be captured as well. There are several dream sequences, flashbacks and surreal moments that had to be included in this realistic world. So the difficulty was walking a line where the ‘real’ needed to feel real and the ‘surreal’ needed to feel like it belonged somehow. In addition, Gore was emphatic that he didn’t want this to be a cartoon, so (except in some special cases) we tended not to use any of the kinds of sounds that might be associated with, say, a Warner Brothers cartoon-style world. The way we approached it in fact was as a standard Western in most cases.
Things like quiet desert environments are tricky for any kind of film – the problem of having ‘the sound of emptiness’, as it were. We used several approaches to pulling this off, but it mostly works when there is some decent dynamic contrast.
Additionally, because we were trying to build a working 5.0 track as the movie was assembled, we needed to try and embed as much of the sound in as we could, as early in the project as was possible. This is a great way of working, but it does require a very present participation on the part of the sound designer (it’s why I started so early on the picture). The huge challenge is to get the flavour of the sound working as soon as possible, but not end up handcuffing yourself when it comes to further possibilities outside the technical restrictions of the cutting room. Although there are some things I wish we’d been able to do, I think we ended up with a pretty viable compromise.
DS: How closely did you work with the animators conceptualizing the sound of the characters?
PM: The animators were constantly referring to our sound. Some sequences, such as ‘Metaphor’, required a lot of attention from the animators and I’m sure it drove them nuts. By the time ILM came on board, the soundtrack was a fairly comprehensive 5.0 map, and some things were rhythmically structured and we didn’t want to alter them too much (since we’d spent a lot of time on getting them to work). Very occasionally Gore would hear a sound effect we made and get the animators to match it. An example is the glass crack in the bank vault at the end of the movie. Gore liked it so much that he had the animators redo some animation to fit better with what we’d done.
On the whole though, we just sat back and watched all the amazing stuff coming in from ILM and had a great time working with it.
As far as character design is concerned, Gore’s main instructions had to do with the ‘dirtiness’ and ‘unglossiness’ of the world and the characters. We talked about squeaks and creaks, groans and grit, dust and rust. It was all about making a world that felt worn and lived-in. Crash’s characters and the realization of them by ILM were so magnificent that it was no chore!
DS: Can you talk a bit about Jake and how you helped make him a villain?
PM: Gore talked about Jake like this: ‘He’s big, he’s threatening, he’s mean, and I want little kids in the audience to say, “Mummy, I want to go home now!”‘ He’s obviously a great character for a sound designer to play with: he is a big slithery metal-scaled creature with a machine-gun for a tail instead of a standard rattlesnake-rattle. His body movement components alone were composed of six or seven 5.0 groups, depending on the surface he was slithering on.
To make his tail rattle, I found some actual recordings of rattle-snake tails and slowed them right down to listen to what was happening. It seems that in a real rattle, a series of bone ‘clicks’ are causing interference patterns with one another as they speed up and slow down, and I used this idea to recreate the sound from a half-dozen different socket-wrench ratchets that I recorded. To be truthful, I was surprised that I cracked it quite so quickly. The first few takes I assembled sounded fantastic and I knew I could make it work. Of course, there were many different articulations needed for Jake throughout the film, and that was where I spent most of the time. I tried to make his rattle (and his movement for that matter) a kind of extension of his speech – a snake equivalent of hand gestures, if you like.
DS: What was the most interesting field-recording you made for the film?
PM: I spent some time on a hillside at Skywalker Ranch rolling a plastic water bottle down the hillside. It was pretty funny. I kept thinking ‘I’m getting paid to do this!’ I spent a very hot summer day in Joshua Tree recording all manner of things including more rolling bottles. I got some great recordings, and also got to understand that the main thing you hear these days in the North American desert is planes flying from one horizon to the other.
DS: Was the process different due to distance?
PM: Not so much for me. There is a sizable advantage for me to work in Australia on a US production, in that at the end of the US day, the editing department can send me requests and I can work on them for almost a full day and send them back so that they have a whole heap of new material for their next working day. The main problem with the distance was that Gore really likes that one-on-one rapport, and that’s hard to do even over a video link. I totally understand it, especially with someone like Gore – his personal enthusiasm is really infectious. The bottom line is that he really likes to be sitting there and mucking-in, even if it just means shooting the breeze for a half hour.
DS: You’re a musical sound designer, so did you have to approach things differently to stay out of the way once the musical score, or were those decisions made in the mix?
PM: Oh, I think Hans and I have great mutual respect. He is always so gracious about my sound, and I really admire his enormous musical talent. He did an amazing job on Rango – walking a very difficult line between not handing off just another Morricone Western pastiche, and still capturing the flavor of Westerns that so much tip their hat to Morricone. When I’m working with people like Gore and Hans and Craig, I don’t ever feel musically compromised. As I mentioned earlier, I structured several pieces that later became the domain of the music people – it’s just the way we work on these projects. When it came to the mix, Gore knows the structure of the sound so well that mostly he makes very good calls when it comes to the music/sound blend. Also, on Rango, both Craig and Gore were very consciously allowing the sound to have its moment, rather than having wall-to-wall music.
Our mixers on this film, Paul Massey and Chris Boyes are two of Hollywood’s most accomplished sound guys and there was a great effort made by them, and the rest of the sound team, to meet Gore’s expectations on this picture. This is often very challenging, because Gore hears EVERYTHING and is particularly aware of musical and sound cadences that he has set up in the cutting room. He hears music and sound as one big ‘musical’ progression, and understanding that is key to getting into his brain.
DS: Do you have a favorite scene?
PM: One of my favorite scenes in Rango is one I didn’t even do myself. It is what we called the ‘Suicide Walk’, where Rango, exposed as a fraud and disillusioned and dejected, walks across the highway amidst the hurtling trucks and cars.This sequence was designed very early in the process by Tim Nielsen, and it was always so effective (and I would have to say ‘perfect’) that we couldn’t improve on it. It’s the kind of sound design one always wants to claim for oneself, but in this case, it’s all Tim’s work.
As far as sequences I did do, I am fond of the scene where Rango is chased by the Hawk in the first reel of the movie. The many perspective cuts of Rango in the rolling bottle, and the general frantic-ness was lots of fun. I forgot to mention that I used a lot of convolution processing in the film in the creation of the sounds, and for this scene I made bespoke convolution maps for all the interior bottle environments. The constant cutting in an out of the bottles and up into the air, with all the different environmental changes, gives the scene a berserk manic quality that I love.
DS: What was the most challenging aspect of working on this film?
PM: I often find that the most challenging things in my job haven’t much to do with the sound itself, but with the process. On Rango, we had a very lengthy process of creation and discovery, and it was an enormous challenge to get that working in the edit room and then make sure the best parts of it remained intact for the many months it took to get to the mix stage. Because there are numerous highly talented creators involved in a project of this magnitude, sometimes extremely good ideas have to go the way of mediocre ones, simply because to change one aspect of the track means re-examining ideas that are already very effective. That can create unpleasant domino effects. Juggling the overall design is a hard job when you know there might be a better way to do something, but that better way would throw a big spanner in the workflow, and possibly wreck things that are already strong. The challenge is, of course, to make sure that an opportunity for actual improvement is not missed. It’s tricky.
It’s a problem that I never have if I’m working on a project all by myself, but the size of something like Rango calls for a lot of diplomacy and ego suppression. I’ve never believed in the concept of sound designer as auteur. Sound design is almost always a collaborative effort on the part of many talented people.
DS: What’s next?
PM: I’m currently working on one of my own image/sound works, Europa, which is something that has been kind of relegated to the backburner over the last year and a bit. I did the sound on Gore’s company Blind Wink’s website a few weeks back – nice and weird. There are some intriguing things happening later in the year, which I can’t talk about just yet. For the moment, I’m enjoying the great responses we’re getting back from Rango and looking forward to working again with all the brilliant talented people who created it.