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Little Chicken

If the sky were to fall what would it sound like?

KEVIN HILTON seeks the answer from the sound crew for the new Disney 3-D computer animated film, Chicken Little.

With a slight name change the Chicken Licken story has been updated for a new generation of youngsters, who appreciate the bright characters and action, and their parents, who remember the tale from their youth but also need a few pop culture references to get through the film.

The story of a young, cute anthropomorphised creature and a similar band of misfits struggling to prove themselves and win the love and respect of family and townsfolk alike is classic Disney. The visual style is not, as this is the House of Mouse’s first fully digital computer-animated feature without the collaboration of Pixar, the pioneer in the field that created the phenomenally successful Toy Story films and The Incredibles.

Egg To D i f fe r
Disney wanted to do something different and very much of its own character for its first solo venture into computer animation, and not anything that could be compared directly to the work of Pixar or of major rivals Dreamworks. That extended to the sound and all involved on the project – whether in audio, animation, visual effects, editorial and original conception – were given the time and opportunity to create something new.

“We definitely wanted this to be completely our own,” confirms Robert L. Sephton, the Sound Designer and Supervising Sound Editor. “The creative team didn’t want to be associated with anything that had gone before from Disney or Pixar, the aim was to have an individual signature and I believe we’ve achieved that; sonically, musically and in the animation.”

Sephton was the first of the audio crew on the project, beginning a five-week process of sound design during which he liaised with Director Mark Dindal, something of a veteran on the modern animation feature scene whose credits include The Emperor’s New Groove, picture editor Dan Molina and producer Randy Fullmer.“Some of the film was still in storyboard form, there was some CG work done and Mark and the others had a concept for the sound, so I was the first to play around with noises.”

These early noises included the alien voices – the explanation for why the “sky” is falling – but it was when dialogue and music re-recording mixer David E. Fluhr came onto the project soon afterwards that the rest of the sounds began to fall into place.“Dave and me collaborated closely and I came up with all the noises when we were working together on stage. We discussed the design together, taking in what the director wanted and everything fitted together.”

E a r l y B i rd
Also involved in the process was Sound Effects Rerecording Mixer Christian P. Minkler and Sephton says it was fortunate that a great deal of the score, by composer John Debney, had been delivered by the time work began on the effects and dialogue.“That gave a good sense of the tonality and allowed us to work with and play against the piece, so that the effects and dialogue weren’t fighting the score later on,” he explains.

David Fluhr observes that having the audio team inhouse working at the Disney studios was an advantage: “We were all just a doorstep away from a meeting, so we could discuss quickly how we were going to approach things. The film was five years in the making on the animation side and the creatives had got their ducks in a row on everything, down to the right score and the dialogue choices. Being on the same lot Rob and we on the mixing side were involved a year-and-a-half before the dub and that meant everybody kept audio in mind.”

The voice casting shows some inspired choices, with Zach Braff playing Chicken Little as a cross between the character he plays in the medical sitcom Scrubs and Woody Allen. Joan Cusack adds typical edge to the part of Little’s friend, Abby Mallard, while actor-writer-director Garry Marshall, co-creator of Mork and Mindy, is hapless and confused as the title character’s father, Buck Cluck.

As is now common the voice performances were recorded at different times and in a number of locations but with the long production schedule there was enough time to work on those performances and for them to influence the visuals beyond the initial look of the characters.“No one knew how the genie in Aladdin would look or sound until Robin Williams came in,” observes Sephton, “so performance does dictate how a character turns out. There was some reanimation on this after the voices were recorded, particularly with the deadpan way Joan Cusack performed Abby Mallard.”

The voices were recorded“straight”but some de-essing was used to give a uniform sound on the top-end. ADR was mixed by Doc Kane and James A. Sandweiss working on Stage B at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, which features a LarTec custom console and monitor matrix. The Digidesign Pro Tools HD workstation was used in both Sephton’s cutting room and in dubbing theatre Stage A.

Plug-ins on the Pro Tools were used to pitch-shift and process voices to change a performance; a live microphone was available on the stage if the Director wanted to make any last-minute changes. A few background lines were altered in this way, as was the “voice” of the alien baby. “Mark Dindal is a writer and performer as well as a director, so he likes to have as much creative input as possible,” notes Sephton. Another member of the crew given an opportunity to perform was Picture Editor Dan Molina, who played the part of Fish Out of Water by speaking through a tube attached to a five-gallon water bottle and blowing bubbles.“Dan came up with the idea and me and Dave embellished it,” explains Sephton.

All tracks and stems were laid out in Pro Tools, starting from Sephton’s initial sound design work in his edit suite. Sephton says that he “didn’t use a ton of processing” on tracks but did have available a range of plug-ins, including SoundToys and Waves, to create specific effects. The voices of the alien parents were treated with Waves Ultra Pitch to make the “gibberish” adlibbed by actors Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara sound suitably extraterrestrial. “It was also compressed on stage to make it sound like they were saying more in less time,” Sephton adds.

Fl a p p e r B o a rd
Stage A, the dubbing theatre where Fluhr and Minkler work and which was once Disney’s scoring facility, is based around a dual tower AMS Neve Logic DFC digital console with 88 top panel faders and over 500 signal paths, with the necessary Pro Tools HD from where the pre-dubs were played back. As well as the grouped pre-dubs for dialogue and reverb, specific stems were created for the voice of Buck Cluck, as another actor was used for the Australian version, and for the aliens and the Big Voice effect.

The Big Voice is a parody of the booming tones used for extraterrestrial warlords in old science fiction movies and, according to Fluhr, it evolved during the post-production process.“We ended up with something big that resonated all around the theatre but which wasn’t too scary for the children.” he says. The Big Voice takes advantage of 5.1, with sub bass for added presence.

During the dub four 48-track Pro Tools systems played into Stage A from the machine room; two for the effects and two for the music. “This was a very large production,” comments Fluhr.“People think animation is just ADR and a few effects but there were 11 eight-track dialogue pre-dubs on this,”comments Fluhr. As well as the separate stems for Buck Cluck and the various alien voices, there were discrete reverbs and Pro Tools playback for editorial, which allowed changes to be made and flown in as needed.

Outboard equipment was relatively standard, with Lexicon 480s, TC Electronic's M6000, using the Backyard Quantec as the original source program, and Fireworks effects generator, dbx 120XDS sub-harmonic generator and a LaFont LP23 telephone futzer, together with the delay channels on the DFC. A CEDAR unit was used on some Avid video sequences to clean up the sound.

Wo r k s A Twe e t
Two Pro Tools workstations, one of 24-channels, the other of 48-channels, were used for the music tracks to give individual control over the large number of tracks for both the score, which was mixed by Shawn Murphy, and the “source” music, comprising the songs used during some sequences. Fluhr has worked with composer John Debney on previous occasions, which he calls a “comfortable” working relationship. “What John brings to a project is themes,” observes Fluhr, “which there seem to be lack of in a lot of films.”

Both Fluhr and Sephton comment that mixing and editing crews on even large film projects have become smaller in recent years. Fluhr says that now it is something of a luxury to have a music mixer on a dub and the music is now re-recorded by the dialogue mixer. Like Sephton, Fluhr has a music background and feels that enables him to give equal attention to the score and songs.

The 48-channel source music ProTools held 24-channels of the main mixes – the band, backing vocals and lead vocals – and then stems of the drums, guitars, basses and orchestra if needed. “The two machines gave me the control I needed to play the music and hear it against the dialogue, so nothing was driven out,” comments Fluhr. “During the pre-dubs I was able to balance the music against the dialogue and effects and have the dialogue at a comfortable level. This is a big action movie but we were concerned about little ears, so everything had to work together and not go over the top.”

There is a lot of surround action in Chicken Little, part of the reason why Dolby UK had it as its traditional New Year’s film screening. The opening sequence, in which Little makes his infamous claim, makes full use of the 5.1, with the effects and accompanying song matching the fast-moving, 360 degree movement of the camera. “Dave came up with the idea of a big choir and moving the score around,” says Sephton, “which caused a few questions to be asked.” Fluhr adds nonchantly: “It’s about risk-taking and it’s worth it.”

Sephton and Fluhr say that the majority of what they came up with for the sound design was accepted, with few notes from the director. And what does the sky falling sound like? The blue space ship tile that causes all the panic buzzes and hums; Sephton says he “had the most fun” designing its effects, despite clocking up long hours, which probably gave the impression of the sky falling. ?

Publication:AMM; Date:Feb 1, 2006; Section:Special Report; Page:34 AudioMedia Feb 2006

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