3:35pm

Thu February 20, 2014
Arts & Culture

The sounds of Pixar

The Bay Area is home to one of the world’s most famous animated film production companies: Pixar. They’ve taken us into the worlds of rebellious toys, struggling superheros, lonely old men, wandering fish, brave young redheads.

But the worlds they create depend greatly on the sounds that exist there.

For that step, Pixar sends their animated films to Skywalker Ranch in Marin.  That's where sound designer Tom Myers works his sonic magic, bringing animated characters to life. 

Monsters University, for example, tells a story about monsters attending a university for monsters.  And a particularly nerdy monster, Mike Wizowski, wants to be accepted by the ‘cooler’ students at school. So he and some friends take on an athletic challenge called, “The Toxicity Challenge.”  And one part of it is running as fast as they can while other monsters throw what are called “glow urchins” - at them -- they’re a sort of spiky jellyfish.  

When a glow urchin hits a monster, his skin instantly swells into a comically giant wound. When that happens, you hear the sounds of the monsters getting hit by glow urchins and running from them.

Myers is one of the sound designers behind all of the sounds used in that scene.

“The great thing about animation is there's no sound to begin with,” says Myers. “That's very freeing in that it’s all built from the ground up.”

Myers’ office is a tiny studio in a corner of the sprawling Skywalker Ranch up in Marin. He’s been nominated three times for Academy Awards, and has worked on over 70 films.  

In his studio there’s a pretty large movie screen, speakers and a single microphone. He’s also got a computer and an old-school kind of synthesizer, called a Synclavier.

As he creates and manipulates sounds for each scene, the film projects onto the movie screen. With help from the director, Myers has to figure out how each movement on screen will sound. The first time he watches a scene can be a bit intimidating.

“You look at it and say, "Oh my God.  How will we ever get to a spot where we have it all together?"  But your mind starts to think about certain things.  What will that sound like?  And how should that work together?  And how do we make each sound distinctive?  Because they all happen very fast,” he says.

So back to that clip from Monsters University -- Tom, and his team  had to create sounds for most of that -- everything but the voices and the sounds that the Foley artists make - like footsteps or opening and closing doors.

For everything else, the team has to invent the sounds of that world. For example, in this scene, the sounds have to get across both the danger and the comedy of what’s happening.

“The last character, who gets hit, he gets hit three times and expands.  Then they shoot one into his mouth and his whole body expands.  So obviously that one needs to be bigger and needs to be kind of the pay off, the fattest body inflation. So you try and vary the frequencies so you can build a rhythm and kind of reach a climax with it,” explains Myers.

And the sound has to evolve throughout the scene. Otherwise It wouldn’t seem realistic, it would bore the audience, and it would take us out of the moment.

“It flies in, it stings, and then there's an inflation.  So there are 3 aspects to each one of those things that come in. And there are hundreds of them that fly by. So you have to figure out, How do we get that idea of 1, 2, 3 across.And then with so many different ones, how do you do it so it doesn't become a mess of sound - so many things happening at once,” Myers says.  

To make the sound of the glow urchins flying through the air and hitting a body, Myers did the following:

“The first is sort of a synthesized tone that I put through a Doppler program.  I took that tone, pitched it down a bit, I think I added a little bacon frying with it. To give it some texture.”

That’s right. He adds the sound of bacon frying. And just so you know, this isn’t a fancy industry term.  It’s literally the sound of bacon in a pan.

And beyond the pitched up tone and the bacon frying, there’s also the sound of two Hot Wheels cars banging into each other. And at one point, they used the sound of someone hitting a giant, empty water bottle.

So - why, you may ask - do they go to all this trouble?  Why not just throw something urchin-like through the air and record that?  Why not record sounds as close as possible to the real world?

Myers says it gets tricky to record in the real world because you can’t necessarily control that sound.  In order to explain this to us, he tells us a story that’s infamous at Skywalker Ranch.

Randy Thom is the Director of Sound Design at Skywalker. He once went on an outing to collect sounds from a nuclear facility.  

“And it didn't really work out,” explains Myers. “Or it was very diffuse and mushy.  And the sound was not what he expected it to be.  But as he was leaving, there was a watercooler that had a specific kind of hum and bloop when he went by it.”

So he recorded that. The sound of the watercooler blooping.  He was at a nuclear facility and the sounds he recorded there that he liked were of an ordinary watercooler.

Celebrated sound designer Walter Murch once said, “Sound kind of sneaks in the side door.” The design doesn’t have to knock you over. It’s there to enhance your experience. To keep you inside the story, and the moment.

Myers agrees. “The emotional component is at least as important as the literal component. You have to be open to different things, and think beyond the specifics of what something would literally sound like. Because oftentimes, that's not the most interesting, or the most dramatic,” he says.

But sometimes the most literal does end up being the best fit. For example, there’s a scene toward the end of Monsters University where Mike Wazowski, that nerdy monster, has to roar.  It’s got to be a really particular kind of roar, too, because Mike’s a pretty little guy.

“It had to be good, but not great. So, it was very subtle... A very subtle thing.  Of doing that roar. I actually did use my own vocal and pitched it and put some EQ in it.  So it had some body.  And I performed a number of things. It's big and scary, but not quite so big and scary.”

Myers has to hit just the right balance so that the audience believes that that roar came out of a monster’s mouth instead of his own.  

In a way, That’s what he’s doing through the entire film - and it’s ultimate test of a good sound designer. In order to make this animated world exist, Myers has to make the audience forget that he does.  

Pixar’s next feature film, Inside Out, isn’t due for release until 2015.  But you can watch all of the other Pixar features, including Monsters University, on DVD.  

To listen to this story, please click on the audio player above.

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