If you’ve seen James Cameron’s epic 3-D film, Avatar, or even just the trailers and commercials, you know that the director has gone to incredible lengths to create a visually and aurally sumptuous adventure set in a fantasy world unlike any that we have ever seen before. There are bizarre creatures, fierce and friendly, that walk the planet Pandora or soar its skies. There are futuristic machines and aircraft straight out of Cameron’s vivid imagination. And then there is the Na’vi, a peaceful race of tall, blue-skinned, long-tailed, humanoid tree dwellers who have their own customs and language and are now being threatened by an incursion to Pandora by people from Earth bent on exploiting the planet’s valuable natural resources. It’s a rich and very complex story I won’t recount here, but suffice it to say, it involved incredible feats of technical wizardry to bring it realistically to the screen, including improved motion-capture technology, next-gen visual FX supplied by the best digital artists, and newly designed 3-D cameras that allowed Cameron to see approximations of the story’s virtual world in the camera as the film was shot. No wonder it took three years to make.
Not surprisingly, Avatar also required tremendous imagination and dedication from Cameron’s sound crew, which was spearheaded by supervising sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer Christopher Boyes (pictured on this month’s cover), who earned his first sound Oscar for Cameron’s Titanic in 1998, and subsequent trophies for Pearl Harbor (2001), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) and King Kong (2005). He’s also had five other nominations, the latest last year for Iron Man. In fact, when I caught up with Boyes in early December, he’d just started work on the sequel to Iron Man down at Fox in L.A. — this after a mere one-day break following the nearly 80-day final mix on Avatar (also at Fox).
Avatar was not your typical film where the “post” crew gets heavily involved once principal photography has been completed. Rather, Cameron brought in Boyes, who in turn called on sound editor Addison Teague to start working on sound design from the beginning of the shoot. “When Jim and I sat down in the summer of ’06,” Boyes recounts,” he said, ‘This is what I want to do: I’m going to shoot, then I’m going to go in and edit, and while I edit I want to be cutting sound effects that you’ve made, and then I’m going to go back to shooting’; and back and forth like that. And true to form, that’s exactly what he did. What we didn’t expect him to do was keep shooting as long as he did, but then all these big films tend to do that so it wasn’t exactly surprising.”
Teague, who shares a supervising sound editor credit on the film with Boyes and dialog specialist Gwen Whittle, says, “Jim wanted to have a sound editor working in the picture department [during editing], and I had done that before for Chris on the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. Avatar was going to be a multi-year commitment and involve relocating from Skywlker Sound to L.A. to work alongside Jim. It was quite a commitment for a sound editor, but seemed like an amazing challenge and experience so I jumped at it.
“In a way, working like that is a dream job for a sound editor,” he continues. “You want to be involved as early as possible because oftentimes as sound editors, we’re fighting what a director and a picture editor have been listening to for months, and in some cases, years [as crude temp FX], and you want to get your own fingerprint on it. So for us, this was perfect. There were so many creative sound possibilities, and we were able to get in right from the beginning and work with Jim and try to get our ideas in there right away. But it also provided some interesting challenges, because since we were doing it as we went, the turnaround on these sound effects requests was actually much faster than it would be in a traditional sound schedule because we would need to provide something almost immediately for some scene he was shooting.
“Jim wanted the sound and picture editing always moving forward together so he could make creative choices that traditionally might be left for post-production at any point in the process. There was never a clear production and post phase on this movie; one was always informing the other. So his goal was to never have to start over building what he’d already worked out, but rather do it for real as he went — so a decision that he might make in 2007 was done and in place for the final mix two years later. Obviously there were changes along the way, but he really did keep some things that long.”
Director James Cameron and actress Sigourney Weaver
Boyes recalls that the first design work he did on the film — based on memory of the script at that point — was on two of the flying creatures that inhabit Pandora: Banshees are similar to pterodactyls (and have a special function in the story because Na’vi warriors can psychically bond with the creatures and then ride them through the air), and the Leonoptryx is a bird-like sub-species of the Banshees. As is usually the case with creating vocalizations for mythic creatures, sound design usually involved combining original and library recordings of everything from birds and other animals to dinosaurs Boyes had helped create as an assistant under Gary Rydstrom for Jurassic Park in the early ’90s. The base sounds of another intriguing animal, the Viperwolf, came from recordings of hyenas at a university research center in Berkeley, Calif., made by Boyes’ assistant, Dee Selby; coyotes that Teague recorded outside his home in Southern California over the course of about a month; and a little bit of sound library snake hisses thrown in for good measure. Boyes also cites editors Ken Fischer and Shannon Mills as being critical members of the FX team.
Unlike many modern sound designers who do their work exclusively in a Pro Tools environment, Boyes uses that platform (“I have pretty much every plug-in Pro Tools can accommodate,” he says with a laugh) but relies more on an old favorite: the Synclavier. “I guess I wouldn’t suggest using the Synclavier to a young sound designer coming up, but for me it’s like a tool that’s an extended part of me. I know how to work with it, and it’s a very fast machine for me to do certain types of things with; specifically, blending or layering different sounds and finding what pitch of one sound will complement the pitch of another sound — right now. In my opinion, no platform has ever been able to emulate what a Synclavier does with the equivalent kind of dexterity. I’ve got one here with me at Fox that I brought down, and I also have one at Skywalker [where he often works].”
Teague says, “Chris and I figured out pretty quickly that our best approach was to provide Jim with lots of alternatives, some of which even went in radically different directions. I’d give him a bunch of sounds, and he might come back and say, ‘This sound is wrong for the Thanator, but it might work for the Hammerhead.’ Or, ‘This one’s too big for the Viperwolf, but could be good for the Thanator.’ So he would mix and match from this palette of sounds. He might file something away in his head that he felt was not an appropriate sound for what I pulled it for, but a year later when he edited a different scene, all of a sudden that sound would show up, used for something else. This process helped Chris and me get into his head and figure out what he was after, because [Cameron] was so busy he didn’t have time to sit down and talk with us in detail about sounds early in this phase. The ultimate spotting for us would be listening back to what he cut.”
Cameron is a notoriously hands-on director who is ready, willing and able to handle just about any technical task himself — from film editing to color timing to sound design. “He would take the elements we gave him and make his own choices and mix it himself,” Teague says. “Then, we would take scenes back, study what Jim did with them and build from there. A successful soundtrack to Jim is all about clarity and dynamics, so he could cut a very simple track, if you will, but it’s exactly what he wants to hear and nothing that he doesn’t want to hear, and that was a great blueprint. Then it was our job, as sound people, to fill in the gaps with details that he wouldn’t necessarily cut, with the challenge of never stepping on the beautiful simplicity he created with 16 Avid tracks.
“There was one Monday morning I walked in and the picture assistants told me he had been in his cutting room until midnight on Sunday cutting Foley footsteps — that’s when I realized how detail-oriented this guy is. That would be crazy for a picture editor to be doing, much less the director. But that’s Jim.
“Where we hit the perfect moment of the synergy of this process he outlined to us,” Teague continues, “was on this sequence called ‘hometree destruction,’ in which the Na’vi’s home [in a skyscraper-sized tree] is destroyed and falls down.”
“Within that scene, there are two different types of explosives,” Boyes adds. “The initial explosives are meant to get the Na’vi to leave, and they catch the base of the tree on fire. They’re like these big whooshing explosions. But then there are the much bigger H.E. — high-efficiency — explosives, which were a challenge because they needed to detonate with a furious attack but then have a sort of sonic wash that goes over you. You get this very percussive attack — this impact I made by picking elements of some of my favorite explosions and then truncating very transient elements of them on the keyboard in the Synclavier and then playing it as a sharp attack and a quick decay. It’s very effective in the film.”
For the gargantuan falling tree, the duo employed a combination of recordings Boyes has made through the years of trees being cut down in his native Marin County, all sorts of wood-related sounds he’d captured for other films, and some new recordings Teague obtained “from a eucalyptus tree that had fallen down outside Jim’s house,” he says. “I climbed underneath it and twisted roots around and got great dirt recordings and collected a number of sounds I was able to bring back and manipulate [in Pro Tools] and make bigger.
“So we create this palette of sounds for Jim and now he can go at it. He finished his picture edit with temp music and literally stayed up all night cutting his pass on the sound effects. He was headed for bed as I walked in to start my day. I listened to it and he did such a great job cutting! I’m not going to fight that. He loved our sounds and he did a great job orchestrating them, so I cleaned it up, added some elements to fill it out, but basically took his tracks straight to the premix, and that’s the backbone of the final track.”
Those are just a few of the hundreds of sounds Boyes and Teague were tasked to create for Avatar. We haven’t even mentioned the heavily technological world that comes with the invading Earthlings — from a couple of different kinds of futuristic helicopters (which drew upon Boyes’ extensive collection of helicopter recordings) to a shuttle-rocket (another Boyes specialty, having worked on Space Cowboys, Titan A.E., Armageddon and Iron Man) to the giant robotic AMP Suits the humans sometimes don to do battle (the sounds of which began with recordings of various machine servos blended with other metal and mechanical sounds).
Most of the early work on the film was done in Malibu at the director’s work space, but at a certain point, some of the more traditional post sound work shifted to Skywalker Sound in West Marin — the usual home base for Boyes and Teague, and a number of the other sound personnel who ended up working on the film. Skywalker’s Gwen Whittle, for example, supervised the dialog, from cleaning up the production tracks as necessary to shepherding the ADR, which was mostly recorded by Doc Kane over at Disney, but also, over the course of the long production, required sessions at Todd-AO, Fox and smaller studios in San Diego and Shreveport, La.
“Jim’s not afraid of ADR at all,” Whittle says. “He’s very aware of how powerful a tool it can be. But he also has the issue that he’s been working on this film for five years, so the guide track is sort of embedded in his head. I don’t care how good you are at ADR, you get used to hearing the production track and you know the tiniest nuances of it, so sometimes directors are reluctant to do ADR. But Jim is good about saying, ‘Well, I am used to hearing that, but this [ADR version] is a lot better,’ so he’s willing to go with the best that’s there.”
Whittle says the production sound — which was captured by several different recordists — was mostly quite good, though she was vexed by some of the material that came from the La Playa shoot: “The set was plywood, and a lot of time they’re running around and I guarantee you, Pandora, their planet, is not made of plywood. So that was an issue. [Laughs] Also, [the actors] have their virtual suits with the [motion-capture] dots on them and headgear for their microphones and sometimes there would be some crunchy sounds that came with their movements.”
Another unexpected challenge for Whittle was dealing with dialog and ADR in the Na’vi language. “At first, I thought, well, if we have to do any ADR or loop group stuff around it, it will be pretty easy because as opposed to some kind of Urdu or Pashto or other languages we’ve had to do in the past, where people actually speak it so you have to be really precise with it — which is difficult when it’s not your own language — I thought this might be a lot looser because nobody speaks Na’vi. But no, I was totally wrong. They were completely precise about it. Carla Meyer, the accent coach, worked with me — she worked closely with Paul Frommer, who invented the language, who is a Ph.D. from USC. He actually developed the language from various Indonesian and African languages — it has some of the clicks and mouth sounds that a lot of South African tribes speak. There are also no ‘p’s and no ‘th’s; things like that. So when we had the loop group in, we had to make sure they didn’t say those sounds. It was quite strange. But it was also fun, and I even picked up a little of it myself.”
Because Avatar was such an enormous sound job, the decision was made to have separate re-recording mixers handling music and dialog for the final mix — tasks that are often combined into one job. For the dialog mix, Cameron went back to another veteran of countless Skywalker sessions: Gary Summers, who won Oscars for his work on two previous Cameron films, Terminator 2 and Titanic. “Jim wanted the dialog to be straight-up front and center,” Whittle says. “Sometimes Cameron wanted Gary to raise stuff a little more than our instincts would have told us to raise it, but he wanted to make sure that for that bad theater in Topeka, Kansas, that you could still hear the dialog at all times. He actually said, ‘What if the right speaker goes out and then they can’t hear it? So pan it a little more to the center.’ He was very clear that the dialog had to be heard at all times. He’s a storyteller, and that’s important to him.”
Andy Nelson — a 13-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner (for Saving Private Ryan) — was charged with doing the re-recording mix on James Horner’s big score, which included both traditional orchestral music and smaller-scaled, more tribal elements. Years before the final, Cameron built a temp music track primarily from previous Horner film scores (as well as some from other composers) to get the feeling he wanted for a given scene. “Then, when James started writing properly,” Nelson explains, “he would bring in synth mock-up versions of what he thought he wanted to do on a particular scene. Bit by bit they would be incorporated into the scenes, and then once Jim was happy with them, they would get the go-ahead to start orchestrating them.”
Simon Rhodes, who did the music recording, supplied Nelson with premixed 5.1 stems of percussion, orchestra, synths, vocals and more: “Most of the time I was working with nine or 10 5.1 stems of music for every single cue. And the beauty of that is it gave me and Jim Cameron complete flexibility to sit the drums out front, or maybe where there were certain action scenes, the drums were starting to tangle up with some other things, so we could pull them back a bit and leave the orchestra out front. He likes to do that sort of thing — trade a bit. If the hooves of the Dire Horses [six-legged creatures] come in and drums are playing, often there’s confusion, so he’ll want to pick one or the other. In one instance we let the drums herald the horses coming in and then let the real horse hooves take over. And because we had the stems we could do that.”
Asked whether the film being shown principally in 3-D affected his music mix, Nelson says, “Just a little. I had worked on another 3-D film, Monsters vs. Aliens, and I applied a principle there that I also used on Avatar, which is to bring the music a little more out in the room, so it just hangs a bit from the screen without seeming gimmicky. It’s subtle, but when you put the [3-D] glasses on, it has a slightly more wrapped feeling.”
Of course, it was more important for the FX mix to reflect the film’s 3-D qualities. Boyes, the effects mixer at the final, notes, “We knew we had to step up how we surrounded the audience in sound because we knew they were going to be surrounded in image,” he says. “So we would go upstairs [at Fox] and Jim would play us scenes in 3-D. We’d put on glasses, and he’d say, ‘You see how that bullet comes by? The audience is really going to feel that come by.’ Or, ‘You see how this arrow flies through the screen — that specific one we need to take from the back to the front [speakers].’ So we would pick specific elements that we really wanted to enunciate the back-to-front movement. We took copious notes of frame counts, and then downstairs we’d often step through it frame by frame with Jim and then perform it, and he would sign off when he felt it was working.
“I never felt we had to make radical adjustments [for the 3-D] and I also felt it was very important to just choose certain details to highlight and not get gimmicky because there’s a tremendous amount of information to take in, and if we give them too much sonic information at the same time, it will detract from the experience. Jim’s edict to me was: Clarity is king. He was always looking for a focus and clarity to the sound. It was important to him — and to me — that any sound that went into the film really had to have a reason behind it and be driving the story forward or really selling an environment, but not overselling it.”
Blair Jackson is Mix’s senior editor.