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SFP: Pixar’s Vince Caro


Engineer Vince Caro in his control room at Pixar

Photo: Courtesy Pixar Entertainment

Pixar Entertainment’s resident vocal recordist/mixer, Vince Caro, broke into voice recording for animation 20-plus years ago when he was on staff at RCA Studios in New York City. His first voice-for-animation project: Disney’s blockbuster Beauty and the Beast (1991). Following the success of those sessions (which included helping to record the orchestral score and songs, as well as the speaking actors), recording voices for animation became a strong thread running through a varied career that has also included work on everything from jingles to Broadway cast albums to episodes of The Simpsons to several of his friend Harry Connick Jr.’s albums. As an RCA staffer, then as a free agent and more recently as part of the Pixar team, Caro recorded voices for every major Disney animated release from Beauty through Chicken Little (2005). It was his work for Disney that led him to become a go-to recordist for Pixar’s New York-based talent, beginning with the animators’ much beloved feature debut, Toy Story.

Studios and technologies have come and gone since Caro moved his family and his career to California to become a full-time Pixar engineer, but he has remained one of the constants in Pixar’s impressive run of creative, high-quality animated films.

Tell me how your relationship with the animation studios began.

Disney came in to RCA to record the score for Beauty and the Beast, and we also did the dialog. It was done quite differently from how we make the movies now. All the voice talent who were singing for the soundtrack would record with the orchestra from nine to noon, and they would take a lunch break. Then Angela Lansbury [the voice of Mrs. Potts] and Jerry Orbach [the voice of Lumiere] and a few of the other people would come to another studio and record the dialog. Doc Kane, the Disney mixer, came for the first session and then he left. He said to me, “Take over because I need to get back to California. You can do this.” Meanwhile, I was also assisting Mike Farrow upstairs, who did the music.

Were there prescribed techniques for recording dialog for Disney in those days?

With Disney and with Pixar, we now have a really tight spec on how we do our dialog recording — what mics we use and which mic pre’s. We also try to use about the same-sized room. But at this point with Disney, in the ’80s and early ’90s, their main spec at the time was that it was all analog with Dolby SR. The only other spec we had back then was to use a [Neumann] U87 microphone. They wanted that to be the same wherever they traveled around the world.

Back then, did a lot of the voice talent come to you in New York?

For the most part, up until we did Mulan [1999]. We chased Eddie Murphy all over the country for that, but certainly when I was at RCA, it was me at RCA in New York or Doc Kane on Disney Stage B in L.A. for voice talent, though for The Lion King [1994], there were a couple of times we had to go to London to record Jeremy Irons [Scar]. But RCA closed while we were still working on Lion King.

And then what happened?

We made Howard Schwartz Recording our home base. We finished Lion King there, and we might have done a little bit of Aladdin, and then it was Pocahontas [1995] and The Hunchback of Notre Dame [1996], which was again between Stage B in L.A. and Howard’s in New York.

When working at Howard Schwartz’s studios, were you still working some on score and some on dialog?

We mostly focused on dialog. Every now and then, they would send me a 2-track mixdown of a song, and say, “We need you to record a vocal for this song,” or they would need a demo version of a song, but it was really just becoming dialog for me with Disney.

Vince Caro’s recent projects include Pixar’s short film “Presto.”

Photo: Courtesy Pixar Entertainment

Were you happy with your career taking that direction away from music?

I missed being part of the music, but at that point [after RCA closed], I was a freelance engineer, so whatever work I was getting was great. And I still had other music clients, like Harry Connick.

It sounds like you were keeping busy as a freelancer. Tell me how you ended up making the bold move to join Pixar on the West Coast.

When Pixar started Toy Story [1995], they called Disney, and said, “Who does your voice recordings in New York because we need to record Wally Shawn for [the dinosaur character] Rex.” So I got to do a bunch of recordings for Toy Story, and that started my relationship with them.

Then during one of our recording sessions for probably Cars, John Lasseter said to me, “We’re building a new building and with a recording studio. Have you ever thought about leaving New York and moving to the West Coast?” I said, “No, I hadn’t,” but he said, “Well, once we get this up and running, we’re going to need someone to run it, and we’ve always worked with you so think about it.”

Well, that was before 9/11, and the results of 9/11 were that the business in New York basically collapsed. More studios closed, and all of these great engineers I knew couldn’t find work. I scuffled around for a few years, taking whatever gig I could, and some of them were horrible. It was one gig after another of, “I want it fast, I want it cheap, I don’t care about the quality,” and I was thinking, “This is not working for me.”

Then out of the blue, [Pixar post-production supervisor] Paul Cichocki called, and said, “We built our studio and we’re trying to build a sound department here at Pixar.” I was thinking, “This is a godsend” — not just because I needed the work, but also because whenever I worked for Pixar, they never said, “I want it fast and cheap.” It was always, “We want it the best it can be.”

Tell me about the studios there.

We have a decent-sized room, where we record to Pro Tools. Normally, we do one or two people at the same time. We have a Sony DMX-R100 digital console that we’re replacing next month with a Digidesign D-Command and custom monitor section. When I came here, I brought in good Focusrite Red 7 mic pre’s, which is what we’ve been using since Mulan. That came about because Eddie Murphy goes from a whisper to a scream, and the first session I did with him, at his house, he could easily distort the microphone or the mic pre if I wasn’t careful, so I brought those pre’s along on my second Eddie Murphy session, and I got everything and I’ve never had a problem since.

Do you still use those U87 mics?

Yes, and one of the other things Doc Kane and I have agreed on is what we call the “scream mic,” which is a [Neumann] TLM 170 back about four inches from the 87. We place it a little lower and on its side. The TLM170 goes up to about 134 dB, whereas the 87 is about 118, and so it gives us that much more headroom. What will often happen is the director will say, “We want this fairly quiet, in a stage whisper,” and if it’s someone like Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy or Billy Crystal, they’ll give you that, but then they’ll also give you one where they’re screaming. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we get it with the 87 and the Red 7 mic pre’s, but there’s that one percent you just miss and the TLM always catches it.

What type of guidance do you give to actors you work with to get a great take?

The one thing that we always tell people when they start on a project is, “Please don’t get annoyed if we ask you to do another one or many more.” For animation, you have to overact and do things louder and faster than you normally would do when you’re acting a line. So for someone like Holly Hunter [in The Incredibles], it took her a couple of sessions before she was at ease doing this. Or Christopher Plummer, who was Charles Munce [in Up] — he is a classically trained actor. When he says, “That’s the one,” he doesn’t want to do another one, but you have to tell them, “It might be annoying if I ask you to do another one, but a lot of times it’s because of a noise or we need it a little bit faster.” Other times, we’ll ask them to push over the emotion because we don’t have your face or your eyes to tell the story like a live-action director would have.

Now that you are on staff at Pixar, are you pigeonholed as a voice recordist or do you also participate in any of the music recording?

I do occasionally help with other things. There’s a short film tied to Wall-E called Presto. It’s about a little bunny who is the partner of a magician, and it takes place in an old-time theater. I got to record all the music and all of the vocalizations. I say vocalizations, not dialog, because nobody talks in our short films. We went to the scoring stage at Skywalker and Scott Stafford, the composer, and Doug Sweetland, the director, said this is really an homage to the old Warner Bros. cartoons. So we want it to have that kind of sound when it starts — kind of small and mono — and then when the score really kicks in, it should sound big and modern. So what I did was to double up everything with old ribbon mics and I also used modern condensers and tube mics. Then we mixed it both ways — with the ribbon mics in mono, smaller panning, then panning out to the modern microphones — and we mixed every cue as both a modern 5.1 mix and smaller, with the old ribbon mics. Then the music editor was able to mix and match.

In Pixar’s feature films, are characters written and animated with specific actors in mind?

There’s not usually just one actor in mind. Sometimes what they’ll do is they’ll take dialog from movies or TV shows that a few actors have done and they’ll animate a character to that voice to get a test. That’s how they chose Ed Asner as the voice of Carl Fredricksen for Up. Once they did that and saw Ed Asner’s voice with this character, they said, “We have to get Ed Asner.”

Is it true that you are getting a new studio soon?

We’re building a new building with a whole new studio, a bigger room, which is nice because this room is a little small, and it’s nice to get a little air between the mic and the performer. In a small room, you really have to mike tight or you start hearing the room. It’s almost too much for an animated feature to have it so close-miked; it becomes difficult to create any kind of natural ambience.