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Destiny Law
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Film Sound - Part One

George Lucas has often said that the soundtrack to a film is half of the experience of enjoying it.  It's this philosophy that has motivated him and other film makers to ensure that as much effort goes into what you hear in a movie theater as what was put on the screen.

But a long time before George Lucas hired Ben Burtt to create the signature sounds that continue to give the "Star Wars" Universe its voice, Walt Disney was putting the same kind of effort into his early productions. From the very first sound cartoon in 1928, "Steamboat Willie," and just 13 years later the very first commercial presentation of a motion picture in Stereo, "Fantasia," Disney helped pioneer techniques that have grown and evolved into what movie sound is today.

Over the next couple months, I'll talk about some of the details that go into the soundtrack of a motion picture.  But right now I'll give you a quick overview of how a soundtrack is assembled, and tell you a little about the place where the final soundtracks to most of Disney's animated feature films come together.

A film's soundtrack is basically created in 3 steps: the production recording; sound editing; and sound mixing.

Many people assume that all of a live-action film's soundtrack is recorded when the film is being shot. Actually, production sound recordists mainly concern themselves with getting a clean recording of just the dialogue.  Sometimes this is difficult to do, especially if they are at a noisy location.  This makes the sound editor's job very interesting! ...But I'll tell you more about THAT in a later column.

Another general assumption, for an animated film, is that the dialogue is recorded after the film is animated - when in fact 90 percent or more of the voices are recorded before animation begins. These tracks are what inspire the animators to draw the performance of each character, as they time and break down each line of dialogue and draw each frame to match them.

The sound editors take the dialogue tracks that have been recorded and prepare them for the mix. Their job includes cleaning up the dialogue as best they can by editing out any ticks and pops that might have been induced along the way, and they supervise recording of replacement dialogue and additional or alternate lines (a process we'll discuss in a future column as well).

Meanwhile, sound editors are also busy assembling and editing all the various sound effects needed for the film. Some sounds are recorded fresh for the project; most are pulled from libraries. In some cases, sound designers create special sounds from various elements to tailor fit a particular scene - which happens quite often in fantasy or science fiction films.

Finally, all of the sound elements are brought to the final mix. Sometimes hundreds of separate tracks are combined for each sequence in a movie, depending on their complexity.

Although the Disney Studio has a full sound department on their lot in Burbank, nowadays the sound effects editorial work for their animated features is almost always given to independent sound houses, including Soundelux in Hollywood ("Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Tarzan") and Weddington Productions in North Hollywood ("Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," "The Lion King").

Stage D
Stage D

Almost all of Disney's major animated features have been mixed at the Main Theater on the Disney Studio lot in Burbank - referred to also as "Stage D." (One exception was "Tarzan" - which was mixed at Todd-AO in Hollywood with Chris Jenkins, Mark Smith and Ron Bartlett.)

In front of the Theater is where the Studio conducts the company's "Disney Legends" ceremonies. On the steps at the entrance to the theater are small brass emblems featuring the names of artists who have been recognized by the studio as major contributors to Disney's productions. Those who were able to attend the ceremonies also have their signature in the cement.  Immortalized here are such artists as Ward Kimball, Marc Davis, Julie Andrews, Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen, Dean Jones, Thurl Ravenscroft... and many others.

The Disney Legends walk
The Disney Legends walk

Terry Porter is the lead sound mixer at Disney Stage D. Terry has been a fixture at Disney so long, he has supervised restorations or special editions of audio tracks that he helped create in the first place - including "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast." "You know you've been around a long time when you're restoring your own work," he once said to a co- worker.

Several improvements have been made recently to the Main Theater at Disney. The screen was replaced, and a brand new state- of- the- art digital mixing console was installed.

"The Emperor's New Groove" is currently being mixed on Stage D. The live-action historical epic, "Pearl Harbor" will immediately follow it.

As I said, I hope to write more about the film sound process over the next few months - not to mention other aspects of film making. But if you're serious about finding out more about how the soundtrack to a film takes shape, there are two events being held at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills you may wish to attend.

This Wednesday evening (10/11) begins a two-part symposium at the Academy exploring the art, history and technology of motion picture audio.  Sound designers Walter Murch and Randy Thom will co- present a program of great film sound moments, past and present.

Walter Murch is a three time Oscar winner, and his credits include "American Graffiti," "The Conversation," and "Apocalypse Now." Randy Thom's resume includes "Return of the Jedi," "Forrest Gump," "Contact," "The Iron Giant," and he won an Oscar for his work on "The Right Stuff." In addition to showing examples of their own work, the program will feature clips from "Steamboat Willie," "King Kong," "The Third Man," and "Once Upon a Time in the West."

The following Wednesday evening (10/18), Academy Governor and sound editor Don Hall, with a panel of sound luminaries, will lead the audience through the process of creating a film soundtrack. Confirmed guests include production sound mixer Gene Cantamessa ("Star Trek IV," "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," "Close Encounters"), supervising sound editors Paul Huntsman ("Thin Red Line," "The Peacemaker") and Dane Davis (Oscar winner for "The Matrix"), dialogue editor Avram Gold ("South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut," "JFK"), re-recording mixer Anna Behlmer ("LA Confidential," "Braveheart") and Foley artist John Roesch ("Roger Rabbit," "House on Haunted Hill").

Tickets for each evening are only $5 each - $3 for students with valid ID. See the sidebar on this page for more information.

...And be sure to tell 'em that Destiny sent you.

ADDITIONAL INFO

To find out a bit more on Disney's Main Theater, check out their website.

For more information on the "Sound Minds" lecture, call the Academy at 310 247 3600, or check out the information page for the event at their official web site.


Please feel free to email me at DestinyELaw@aol.com 

I can't guarantee a response... but I'd still love to hear from you!

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