Engine FX With Personality in Pixar's CarsDIGGING FOR AUTHENTIC SOUNDS—WHETHER IMPALA OR FIAT 7/01/2006 8:00 AM Eastern
Pixar, the animation studio that can apparently do no wrong, continues its amazing string of successful films with Cars, in which anthropomorphic autos of every stripe (including some with stripes!) roar and race and putter and sputter and — naturally — tell us much about the way that humans behave. Once again, the animation wizards at Pixar have created a fantastic world, rich with imaginative detail. And it all begins with the cars themselves.
The sound designer and effects re-recording mixer for the film was Tom Myers, who has worked at Skywalker Sound in rural Marin County, Calif., since 1987, and done sound work on such films as Toy Story (1 and 2), Dogma, The Mexican, Monsters Inc., Star Wars: Episode II and III, Hoodwinked and many more. For the cars in Cars, Myers says that director John Lasseter (Pixar head honcho and director of both Toy Story films and A Bug's Life) wanted the engine noises to be as accurate as possible, which meant tracking down everything from a tiny Fiat 500 and a VW van to pickup trucks and sports cars.
“His biggest concern was that every car be literally accurate,” Myers says of the director, who's known to be quite a car buff. “He didn't want to face anybody who was going to say, ‘That's not a '59 Impala or a '51 Hudson Hornet.’ Beyond that, it was really important to him that the cars be emotionally and character-accurate. So John got us involved very early on. We went to the first screening, which was probably 90-percent storyboard, and after that we had a meeting where we sat down and he explained what each character was like. He also had his car expert there who knew whether something was an eight-cylinder, a slant-six, straight-six — whatever. Plus, that guy was a great connection for recording all these cars because he knows so many people in the car world. Some of the cars were easy to find; others were more tricky. You do a lot of car recording in film, so there are a lot of established connections already. Then on top of that, you also do tons of Internet research and you cast a net among the network of animators and other sound guys.”
Once they'd located the appropriate makes and models of cars, “we did some recordings at Sears Point [now known as Infineon Raceway, in Marin], and we also went out and rented an abandoned air strip in Alameda [Calif.] and took cars out there,” Myers says. “It depended on how fast we had to drive the cars. If we needed to drive them 100 miles an hour, we needed a track. But if it was one of the Fiats or one of the town characters and they're only going 20 miles an hour…”
Myers had a large recording team helping him, including Al Nelson, Shannon Mills, Dee Selby and, from Pixar, E.J. Holowicki, “and we did tons of recording; it would be either all of us or some of us,” Myers says. “We got it down: We'd put a [Zaxcom] Deva with four outputs in the car — two mics under the hood in different spots and then a mic on the exhaust and another on the interior. We mostly used these little Schoeps [mics] and we'd use pads because some of the high-performance cars are just ridiculously loud, so we'd put a 30dB pad in there. We'd have them run around, set a level and then pull it down. We also had a couple of guys tracking cars for 'bys.”
I wondered if the engine recordings were then augmented to match the needs of the characters, who were voiced by an array of stars, including Owen Wilson, (racing buff) Paul Newman, Cheech Marin and George Carlin. “It would depend on the character,” Myers says. “There was one character, who's sort of the antagonist, who we pitched a little bit to make him more annoying.” Then there were some high-performance Japanese imports that were problematic: “We recorded lots of these cars and we even did some research about how they recorded The Fast and the Furious, and that was one spot where the literal car did not match what we really wanted to convey. It never had quite the impact that John wanted, so we took the recording and then we pitched it up and EQ'd it to make it more characteristic rather than literal. With most of the cars, though, the more characteristic aspects came out as suspension squeaks, and Foley and creaks and movement that were less engine-oriented. We built a database of all the material associated with a given character and we talked about trying to find some signature sound — not in the literal engine stuff, but some emotional sound for each character — and we had a palette for each.
“Then the other tricky thing was fitting the engine effects around dialog, because obviously you want to be able to hear what everyone is saying.”
The film was mixed at Skywalker on a Neve DFC, with Gary Summers handling the dialog and music (by Randy Newman), as he has for most of Pixar's films. “Pixar movies are so dense with dialog and music and effects,” Myers says, “that a big job is finding all the spots for each of those elements and then handing off from one thing to another and making sure it all sounds organic and cool and not just a collision of all these elements. Gary is particularly good at anticipating problems before they come up.”
Not surprisingly, too, this film offered some juicy surround possibilities. “John was really keen on making the surround interesting,” Myers offers. “In the big race scenes, we wanted to keep the cars moving off-screen, even when you weren't seeing them, so we had a lot of fun with that.” So does the audience.