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SFP: “The Tale of Desperaux”


Film Stills Courtesy NBC Universal

When my then-11-year-old daughter and I read Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry Award-winning children’s book The Tale of Despereaux back in 2003, we were completely swept up. This beautifully told story of a brave medieval mouse and his adventures among both humans and rats (boo, hiss!), and the wonderfully rendered black-and-white illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering had both of us exclaiming: “Wouldn’t this make a fantastic movie?!” Well, five years later it is. The Tale of Despereaux is a wonderful capper to what has been a great and varied year for high-quality animated films, including WALL-E, Kung-Fu Panda, Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, Madagascar 2 and Bolt.

Despereaux is a bit different from the rest (except WALL-E) in that it is fundamentally a drama, albeit one with plenty of action and lots of humor. The directorial team has a good pedigree: Sam Fell co-wrote and co-directed the fine, underrated 2006 British film Flushed Away (which also had a rodent as a main character); and Robert Stevenhagen’s work as an animator goes all the way back to the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988, and includes such films as An America Tail: Fievel Goes West, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Balto, Space Jam and The Road to El Dorado. Supervising sound editor and lead sound designer Lon Bender also has an impressive resumé in the animated world, including such modern Disney fare as Pocohontas, Mulan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as The Prince of Egypt and Shrek. (Bender also does plenty of live action work: He was most recently Oscar-nominated for his sound work on Blood Diamond, and he won a trophy as co-supervisor of the sound team for Braveheart.)

Asked about some of the differences between designing sound for those Disney films and the new, completely computer-generated Despereaux, Bender says, “The detail of the animation style has a lot of bearing on how you approach the sound, and the other major thing that has a bearing on it is that Despereaux is not a musical; almost all of those films were musicals. This film is really a narrative — with some magic thrown in — that concentrates deeply on characters and their development, so we really had to add level and dimension to the space and the worlds in which characters are operating to keep the viewer close to the characters. In this case, you have the human world, the mouse world and the rat world, so you have representations of each of those and [sonically] each is treated differently. There’s the human world [of the town and kitchen], and then behind the walls is the mouse world, which is a world of light [lit by matches and such], and then down below in the dungeons and cellars of the human world is the rat world. The descent from mouse world into rat world is a very dramatic moment. Rat world has to be terrifying and creepy, yet there’s also something alluring about it to the hero, Despereaux.”

The basic sonic approach, Bender says, was a sort of heightened realism. This isn’t broad cartoon comedy at all; rather, “Everything in it was real, in terms of what it is in real life, and then how it would be perceived from a rat or a mouse perspective. For instance, there’s a great sequence [in the human world] where [chef] Andre is sitting there bored, and he’s playing with a coin on the table, and the coin knocks off the table, hits on the floor and goes down into mouse world — which is our introduction to mouse world. So it goes from a tiny coin on a tile floor to become this huge thing that’s like the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark as it rolls into mouse world, knocks a bunch of stuff over and everyone goes crazy. It takes the viewer through the transition from the real world into the miniature world of mouse world and rat world in a way that makes it accessible.”

So what does a coin sound like when it seems like it weighs three tons and is rolling around? Bender’s solution was “a lot of large metal objects that we cobbled together to create the sense of movement and turning because it had to feel like it was rolling forward, but also really large. The key to that sound is how the ridges on the edge of the coin bang against the ground — ‘Oh, I get it, it’s a coin!’”

The picture editorial was primarily done in England by the newly formed animation division of a company called Framestore, which is the most successful special effects house in Europe — its list of credits includes four Harry Potter films, The Golden Compass, Superman Returns, X-Men: The Last Stand, V for Vendetta and many others. But it was posted in L.A. by Soundelux. In addition to Bender, the American crew included Bender’s sound design associate Jon Title, ADR supervisor Chris Jargo and, working in the Hitchcock Theatre at Universal Studios Sound in L.A., re-recording mixers Chris Jenkins (music and dialog) and Frank A. Montaño (FX). The score was composed by William Ross, who was previously best known as an orchestrator for John Williams and many others. Bender’s primary liaison when it came to sound was not either of the directors, but rather screenwriter and co-producer Gary Ross, whose past work includes Oscar nominees Seabiscuit (which he also directed), Dave and Big, as well as Pleasantville (another directorial effort). As Bender puts it, “Gary Ross was the creative force behind our part of the movie.

“One of the interesting things about our early involvement was that Gary, who did not have a background in animation, was very reliant on music when he was blocking out the sequences,” Bender continues. “At first he didn’t have a lot of strong sound work to support his ideas, because — as with all animated films — in the beginning he had only the voices. Then come the storyboards, then the animatics, then animation, then lit animation, which is the final stage.” Bender and his team got involved “when they were coming out of storyboarding and into the animatics stage — so long before we had any color, any lit shots or complete shots — and as soon as Gary started hearing sketches of different environments and sketches of the action that had sound put to them, all of a sudden he realized that he had to completely change his perspective on his reliance on music in terms of the storytelling. The music itself also changed from how it was developing, because the scoring of character and the scoring of story are two different things, and the sound work we did in those early phases helped him reconsider the emphasis of the score.”

Bender adds that composer William Ross “was doing comps and tests all along and we were able to share things in the evolution of both the score and the sound, which is ideal. He might have a certain instrumentation in mind for a particular scene, so I would be aware of that and maybe stay away from what he was doing; or him knowing that I had certain sounds in mind affected what he did, too. We also integrated our work wonderfully in the sequence where Despereaux is exposed to the giant arc lights in the stadium.”

Because of the way animated films are made, there is no “on-location” production track as in live-action movies. All the voices — lead and groups — are recorded at ADR studios, though as ADR supervisor Chris Jargo notes, this one was a little different. “Usually, you go into a room with all these actors and you put them on a bench or you have them stand and it’s a static recording. For this we had a boom operator, sometimes two, because the director wanted some physicality from the actors. We also put radio mics on them, so if there was overlap he’d have total control. So in that way, it was more like a live-action film. That ended up being a cool way of doing it because it had a little more life and didn’t sound like it was all done the same way. We recorded directly to Pro Tools and we’d have a combination track, isolated tracks and a boom mic track. When we got into cutting, we almost always deferred to the boom mic because it sounded best.”

Bender says, “Chris worked on this film longer than any other sound person. He spent close to four years on this movie, doing all the original recordings and original assemblies for the directing team, all the looping and all the subsequent walla group direction.” Most of the ADR was done at Todd-AO, but sessions also took place at Disney, at Sound One in New York and even in London as the script changed or new animations became available. “Suddenly, what we thought was an empty street has hundreds of people in it when the animation comes back,” Jargo says. “I think we recorded [narrator] Sigourney Weaver 15 different times!”

The voices form the basis of the story, of course, but then, Bender says, “every effect, all the ambiences, every footstep, every hand movement, every treatment on the voices” comes under the supervisors’ domain at some point.

“Aside from the little odd things you do,” he says, “it’s the obvious things that are so much more important than in a live-action film because you have no production track to support the performance when somebody is just walking and talking, and making a mouse or rat walk and talk so you believe it — now, that’s a tough one! All of the little things that are made up from the Foley have a lot more importance in making it feel real and alive. The animation is so three-dimensional and so moody in its lighting — it’s really like no other animated film I’ve ever seen — so Foley was a huge, huge part of it.”

Bender supervised the Foley sessions at Todd-AO West. “No detail could be left unturned because it was playing all the time and it adds so much depth to the project,” he says. “It was even important to get the mouse feet and rat feet right, which make Despereaux more adorable and the rats that much scarier. And the trick is not just to do it in real time, but animation time because it’s different and these characters aren’t human.”

So how was it done? “We didn’t do [the Foley recording] with feet, we did it with hands, and we used different kinds of gloves to get the sound of padded mouse feet [wearing soft shoes]. And the rats, who were generally not wearing shoes, except for Roscuro, we did that with nails and other things to make scratching sounds.”

A combination of FX, Foley and ADR were important in establishing some of the ambiences in the film, from the big rat “coliseum” scene at the climax to the more subtle overall sounds of the dark, unseen rat world. Of the latter’s sound design, Bender says, “Aside from some of the obvious ploys, like dripping water and echo, we used a lot of voices and created a certain amount of dark hysteria in the backgrounds using vocals that came from the loop group. That was a big part of the character of rat world.”

There was plenty of sonic experimentation at every stage of the film’s production. “The process we went through with Gary in coming to the final sound of the movie was, let’s have it be full, with every sound in its place, and then let’s strip out as much as we need to really home in on the characters, particularly Roscuro’s story. Despereaux’s is a little more obvious as the hero; Roscuro’s is more oblique because he’s going through more complicated things. [Though a rat, Roscuro is sympathetic to the mice.] So we stripped a lot of things away — effects and music — and then really got close to him in terms of his dialog [he’s voiced by Dustin Hoffman] and his Foley, so every sequence he’s in you can really feel him and he doesn’t get lost. Then we put some things back in that supported the character.”

Bender says that for FX, he and Jon Title used Pro Tools as their primary sound editing and mixing device, and they made extensive use of Native Instruments’ Kontakt 3 software sampler in their design process: “You load sounds into it and then you can manipulate them and weave them together, or have one sound after another.” The Lexicon 480 is still Bender’s reverb of choice. He notes that mixer Frank Montaño also used the Lexicon 960. Montaño and Jenkins (whom we will be profiling in an upcoming issue for their work on Watchmen) mixed the film on a Harrison digital board.

As is typical with the new generation of animated films, Bender says, “We kept evolving sounds as long as we were getting shots that had new lighting on them — the lighting affects the mood of the shots, so it also affects the sound of the shots. When you get the full, lit animation, you invariably have to go in and adjust levels and reverbs and things based on light and dark, based on color temperature. We adjusted right up to the last minute.

“I’ve been doing this 30 years now, and every show I do I learn a new approach for some aspect of a show. And that’s a great thing about this job. There’s always something new you can learn about the aesthetic or the process or technology, and it never gets old.”