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Movie audiences certainly hear the big scenes — the battles, the sword hits, the crowd roars with grunts and groans. The sound effects demand attention and, coupled with score, provide the energy and propulsion that take an epic film to the next level. But what most filmgoers don't realize is that it's the quiet scenes that set up the big scenes; it's the contrast and the balance of sound that ultimately provide the impact.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe brought the challenge of big and small to the re-recording team at Buena Vista Sound. There is a large lion and small beavers; centaurs and mice; a White Witch and armies facing off with the fate of the world in the balance. And yet, when the four Pevensie children step through the wardrobe and enter the winter world, all is quiet.
Before they enter the magical world, however, the children spend much of their time exploring Professor Kirke's mansion, far away from war-torn London. “When they're running around the house being chased, we have this very elegant Foley track of the footsteps guiding and chasing them coming from various speakers,” explains lead re-recording mixer Terry Porter, a 25-year veteran of more than 140 films, including many of Disney's animated offerings of the past two decades. “It's an extremely tricky sequence to sell, when pictorially the kids are running down this hall and you have these offstage footsteps that you never see driving them to the room where the wardrobe is. It has this wonderful percussive music and then these footsteps that come out of the left-surround and right-surround and front. It accelerates and decelerates. Our director [Andrew Adamson] orchestrated it, every single footstep, to the pace and the angle. My effects mixer, Dean Zupancic, did such a great job with the various reverb room sizes to give this illusion of getting closer, getting farther. I think we sold the fact that whatever this footstep is — whoever it is — is getting them toward the wardrobe.
“Then they finally make it through the wardrobe and they fall into this quiet, stark magical enchanted land of Narnia, the first time with Lucy by herself and the second time with the four of them,” he continues. “The approach we took was to have virtually no backgrounds. There's just this low air. The lamppost with the flame — every footstep, every sound is articulated. We have thinned it out so that every sound that is in there, you hear it. There's not 20 layers. It's very specific, very beautiful. The Foley tracks on this show are incredible. Dan O'Connell and his crew at One Step Up did a fantastic job. The footsteps in snow are so good; the delicate sound of snow coming down is there. Every movement. Then, as the children get into it, we expand. We go to Mr. Tumnus' house and there is a fireplace. Then we get to areas where we re-introduce sounds of wind, but never quite as much as you'd expect in the real world. We keep it a little askew.”
To be sure, the track isn't all about silence, as Harry Gregson-Williams' score (he worked with Adamson on Shrek and Shrek 2) drives much of the visual, clocking in at a little more than two hours. The score was delivered on seven 5.1 stems — orchestra, choral, percussion, synth, etc. — “well-balanced and beautifully mixed, the best I've had music laid out for me,” Porter says. First-call music editor Adam Smalley was on the stage with his Pro Tools rig, making fixes throughout the 10-week premix and final.
Lead re-recording mixer Terry Porter
The film's sound was supervised by two-time Oscar-winner George Watters, with sound design by Oscar-winner Richard Beggs, an ace team that Porter says combined the best of Beggs' design chops with Watters' creative and organizational genius. When it came to creature voices — and there were a lot of them, some physical and some created in the shops at New Zealand's WETA Productions — both Watters and Beggs covered them, as did the ADR and group ADR teams led by veteran Kimberly Harris. (Much of the group ADR was recorded outdoors, in stereo, sometimes with runbys so that Porter could take advantage of the Doppler effect.) In big scenes such as the sacrifice when creatures abound, Porter avoided the potential wash by carefully picking and choosing.
“Some of your animal characters just speak,” Porter explains. “Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, the horse centaurs — they speak and they're non-processed; just regular voices that we supplement with organic sounds in and around them. Then you have special characters who speak and have been slightly treated. Then the White Witch's first-in-command is a big guy with a certain character, but it's integrated beautifully with these large burrowing, bellowing animal sounds so that he goes from sound effects to talking back to sound effects all at once.”
While the triple coverage allowed Porter and Zupancic to duck and weave — filling out lows, mids and highs with voices, grunts and roars — the sound of Aslan, the mammoth lion, was largely accomplished by the actor. “I wish I could say that I took Donny Osmond and made him threatening, but I didn't have to,” says Porter with a laugh, in reference to his work with Robby Benson as the Beast in the Disney classic Beauty and the Beast. “They cast Liam Neeson as Aslan, and he has this wonderful, low resonating voice. I worked with EQ, but no real processing — just to keep it down with these deep chest tones. Along with Richard [Beggs'] lion roars, the integration of the two is just beautiful.”
While he didn't have to fiddle much with Aslan's vocal, Porter did take a rather aggressive approach to the dialog in general, mainly to clean up production (a very busy set) and, as he says, “make it sound like the ADR so that if the director wants to create silence, I don't have rumble in the track.”
The film was finally mixed in six weeks at the DFC on Buena Vista Sound's main stage, with up to seven Pro Tools rigs adding sweeteners and making fixes to accommodate last-minute CGI and picture changes. Because the film was being simultaneously released day and date in 22 languages and 38 countries, the stages at Disney were running day and night. Keith Rogers, a talented young mixer whom Porter has been helping to groom, took over the C stage to handle some fixes and finish up some predubs. As Porter and Zupancic finished a reel, they would send it to the C stage for the M&Es. “I have a lot of breaths, grunts and crowds in the dialog stem. I was able to copy the automation from the theater and transfer it to the ‘C’ stage console for Keith. By using Pro Tools and muting any English, the automation replicated the audio exactly the way it appears in the domestic release.
“I love the Pro Tools and what it can do on the stage,” he continues. “I really try to make it a collaborative effort. We have a delineation of our expertise and it works really well. Just because the editors can do a ProControl mix doesn't mean it's going to be better or equal to an old-fashioned predub on a traditional stage. We recognize that at Disney, so we're using Pro Tools and the digital pipeline that we have with our servers as a tool to get to the proper stage of mixing.”