AVATAR SOUND SPEECH – XIAMEN
I have been a production sound mixer for 44 years, and have recorded hundreds of feature movies, television programs, documentaries, commercials, video games, music videos, and a lot of other stuff that makes noise in front of a camera. I recorded production sound on the U.S. unit of “Avatar” from August 2007 until production wrapped in September of 2009. Working on “Avatar” was an experience so far beyond any other film in my career that I might as well have been on Pandora myself.
For the first 25 years of my career, I used a Nagra ¼-inch reel-to-reel analog tape recorder exclusively. Then a D.A.T. cassette recorder for the next 10 years. Hard-drive recorders lasted me 5 years, and optical disk (CD and DVD-RAM) recorders three more. Now flash card recorders are the current in-vogue machines. This accelerating technology curve has two benefits: I can do things in recording sound that I never could do before; and producers can make movies more cheaply than ever.
In 2002 I received an Emmy for the sound on “Live From Baghdad”, along with a C.A.S. nomination. I have previously received Emmy, Golden Reel, and C.A.S. nominations for “Tuesdays With Morrie”. “Avatar” received an Oscar nomination for sound mixing – the New Zealand production sound mixer, Tony Johnson, got his name on the statue because his tracks had the most screen time.
I am a member of the Cinema Audio Society (CAS), the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS), and the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films (ASFFHF). I am also a member of three Hollywood sound unions: IATSE Local 695, IBEW Local 45, and NABET local 53.
In addition to production mixing, I have been teaching sound recording at UCLA since 1988, and conduct sound seminars for organizations like AES, SMPTE, and various production companies and trade shows worldwide. I have written a timecode book and many articles for trade publications like “Mix” and “Sound & Picture”. Finally, I served as one of the scientific consultants and technical writers for James Cameron on the “Avatar” spin-off books and Pandorapedia website.
“Avatar” was a type of motion picture that had never been made before: a totally unreal world that appeared perfectly real. James Cameron spent many years planning it before beginning production, and developing the techniques to bring the script to life. A fantastic script with an alien culture on an unknown world, spaceships that can travel almost as fast as light, military aircraft that will not exit for many years, and seemingly-impossible metaphysical elements that are perfectly believable. His co-producer, Jon Landau, shared this vision, and provided support throughout the production, especially when the studio was recalcitrant.
Cameron sought out experts to design Pandora, the world where most of the story takes place. The astrophysics of the Alpha Centauri system, the language of the Na’vi and the artifacts of their culture, the plants and animals of the Pandoran ecosystem, and the politics of the Earth’s future civilization that drive the exploitation of the Na’vi’s homeworld.
Cameron also was responsible for the Pace 3-D Fusion camera system, and much of the motion-capture technology that was used to create “Avatar”. This included: the real-time display of the C.G.I. characters and their world on flat-panel monitors as a scene was being captured; a hand-held “virtual camera” that would allow Cameron to view and record the action on Pandora from various angles as it was taking place, or afterward by simply having the computer play back the data from a previous capture while he walked around the empty sound stage with the virtual camera; and the “Simulcam”, which gave him the ability to add previously-captured C.G.I. elements to the video monitors of live-action cameras to control the interaction of the human actors with the C.G.I. characters.
From the beginning, Cameron considered sound to be an integral part of “Avatar”. Christopher Boyes was chosen for the sound designer, as well as the supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer. Among his many Oscars was one for working on Cameron’s “Titanic”, and Boyes was very experienced in handling unusual sound effects. He knew that the visual images Cameron would create for “Avatar” were going to be as real as any photograph, but he also knew that the audience would not believe in the reality of Pandora if the sounds of “Avatar” were not equally real. To accomplish this, most of the sound effects began as real recordings of Earthly animals and machines, many recorded by Boyes himself – but then they were modified to make them fit the reality of “Avatar”. Cameron oversaw every step of the process – he wanted the sounds to feel “real”, but not be recognizable as to their original source.
Cameron intended to shoot some live action or motion-capture footage and then stop shooting for a while so he could edit and work on the G.C.I. elements. He wanted to have the appropriate sound effects ready in advance so he could incorporate them at once, rather than wait for years to do it conventionally in post-production. Actually, many aspects of post were merged with production on this project and survived largely intact to the final release. Boyes agreed, and brought in sound editor Addison Teague so they could begin working on the sound design for “Avatar” immediately. Addison remained with the project continuously while Boyes left from time to time when he wasn’t needed.
Boyes and Teague prepared a wide variety of hundreds of animal and other sounds for Cameron, who would pick out what he needed, sometimes using them for another purpose entirely. He knew what he wanted, and more importantly, what he didn’t want – he eliminated many of the effects in some scenes so that there would be no audio clutter to block the key sounds. Cameron cut much of the effects track himself, leaving Boyes and Teague to perform minor fine-tuning and clean up.
During production, many of the sound effects that had been created and modified before the capturing of a particular scene were played back on the stage to help the actors experience being on the world of Pandora while they were performing their roles. This included Na’vi music for the dancing and music-making sequences.
Dialog specialist Gwen Whittle was also hired at the start of production, in part because of the all the complications the extensive use of Na’vi language dialog would create. A special Na’vi dialog coach, Carla Meyer, was on set to keep the actors’ pronunciation of the five-hundred Na’vi words accurate. And Paul R. Frommer, Ph.D., the U.S.C. linguistics professor who created this language, was often present to observe it being spoken.
Cameron picked James Horner to compose the film score of “Avatar”, in part because of his work on “Titanic”. His music needed to match the epic scale of the movie, but not lose the nuanced emotions of the individual characters and the challenges they faced. And here again, there was the necessity of insuring the audience’s acceptance of the reality of a completely made-up world. To begin with, Cameron had built up a temporary music track to give Horner an idea of what he wanted. Horner would then write a piece and present it to Cameron, who would make suggestions for a re-write. This back-and-forth collaboration continued until Cameron was satisfied. Creation of the score was a difficult and complex undertaking because of its dual nature. The bulk of the score was written with “traditional” music, of the type the audience was used to, which powered the movie forward and amplified the dramatic impact of battle scenes as well as the quiet, personal ones. This was a massive undertaking in itself, but there was a second, entirely different score: the tribal music of the Na’vi culture, which had to be both familiar and strange at the same time. The studio’s human musicians used ordinary instruments, but they had to sound like the weird instruments the Na’vi were seen playing. Sadly, some of the most fantastic ones had to be left out of the finished picture because of limitation on the released film’s running time. (A few of these are seen in the DVD release, however.) Vocals were sung in the language of the Na’vi.
Simon Rhodes did the music recording, and kept as many of the instruments separated as possible, to give Cameron and Nelson the maximum flexibility in the final mix. There were up to ten pre-mixed 5.1 stems for each cue. This made it possible for on-the-spot creativity like replacing the drums with the hoofbeats of the 6-legged direhorses at some places where they would otherwise be in conflict.
Production sound had two quite different styles: the live-action scenes were shot mostly in New Zealand, and recorded by production mixer Tony Johnson; and the motion-capture scenes were shot in the U.S., in Playa Vista, California. The main production mixers there were William B. Kaplan, Art Rochester, and myself.
Sound for the live-action scenes was “conventional”, in that it was recorded with overhead booms, planted microphones, and wireless mikes. Sound for the motion-capture scenes was “unconventional”. Miking the actors was the easy part – they all wore lightweight helmets that had a tiny video camera mounted on a rod to position it in front of their faces. These C.C.D. chip cameras were used to record the actors’ faces for later use in generating the C.G.I. characters’ facial expressions. A Sanken COS-11 lavaliere microphone was mounted on the same rod in front of their mouth, so the actors were always “on-mike” no matter which way they turned their heads. The microphones were connected to wireless mike transmitters, and digitally recorded on individual iso tracks.
The hard part was the acoustic environment: the motion-capture stage was an old aircraft factory that had been converted to a “sound” stage. Unfortunately, the stage walls and roof were not very sound-proof. Even worse, the building was located in the middle of a huge construction site. We were surrounded by pile-drivers, cranes, bulldozers, pneumatic riveters, and many other machines that made loud noises.
We also had noise problems inside the stage: dozens of computers with cooling fans, plywood platforms that the actors walked and jumped on (when their Na’vi characters were walking or jumping on soft dirt or rocks), and squawking Earth birds that had nested in the building’s beams and rafters. The motion-capture suits had many meters of Velcro straps to hold them together, and to fasten the various electronic devices each actor wore: wireless mike transmitter, audio receiver for voice cues or music playback, digital video recorder, real-time video microwave transmitter, timecode synchronization unit, and the video camera power and lighting battery pack. When the actors moved, the stretched Velcro sometimes made tearing sounds.
In spite of these many problems, we managed to get good sound most of the time. If we had time, we put down strips of carpeting to muffle the actors’ footsteps on the plywood. Kaplan was one of the first production mixers, and he got extra sound-proofing put on the exterior air conditioning ducts, and sound-absorbing baffles made for most of the computer fans. When, in spite of all our efforts, we couldn’t get usable production tracks, we discovered that Cameron had invented something new for the sound department, too. Before “Avatar”, if the production sound was no good, it had to be replaced by “looping” or “A.D.R.”. This meant that the actors would have to try and lip-sync to a playback of the original picture, a process that was often not entirely perfect. Now, when we recorded the replacement dialog, we would re-capture the actor’s facial image as well, and then simply replace the C.G.I. character’s face with the new image, so the new dialog was always perfectly in sync.
When “Avatar” finally reached the usual post-production point, there was much less sound work remaining than on other films. Boyes was joined by re-recording mixers Gary Summers for dialog and Andy Nelson for music in the final mixing sessions, because Cameron wanted separate individuals to handle the dialog and music, to insure that the dialog would be audible and understandable for audiences in any venue. Summers worked to keep the dialog above the effects and music, and centered enough that problems in a particular theater’s left or right speaker channel would not totally obliterate any of it.
The final track for the 3-D version was only slightly modified – subtle changes to pull the effects of some objects leaving the plane of the screen forward, but never to the extent of being intrusive. Some of the music was also pulled forward to immerse the audience and draw them in to its emotional component.
Overall, Cameron’s intent was to present the soundtrack with absolute clarity. The important elements had to be delivered to the audience clearly, without distraction. Neither extraneous sounds, nor distortions or unnatural coloration of the essential features, were to interfere with the audience’s absorption into the world of “Avatar”. The result speaks for itself.
While only six names were on “Avatar’s” Oscar nominations for sound mixing and sound editing: Boyes, Summers, Nelson, and Johnson for mixing; and Boyes and Whittle for editing, those individuals were just the tip of the iceberg – they were supported by nearly a hundred other people: production mixers, boom operators, sound utilities, effects recordists, A.D.R. crews, sound editing assistants, equipment maintenance techs, and many, many more.
I am honored to have been chosen to be among them.