How 'The Lion King' Sound Team Re-created the Stampede and That Iconic Roar

"Every animal and bird sound that you hear, much of the ambiance, it's all from the African savanna. We tried to honor that world and make sure we weren't polluting it with sounds from somewhere else," says Christopher Boyes.
Walt Disney Studios; Inset: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc
'The Lion King' (Inset: Chris Boyes)

Just prior to the release of Jon's Favreau's box office record-breaking The Lion King, the film's supervising sound editor, designer and rerecording mixer Christopher Boyes talked with The Hollywood Reporter about working to create the live-action remake's thunderous stampede, animal and bird vocalizations, and even a surprising use of a roar from the 1994 animated Lion King.

"We'd listen to the original to see what they did, because there was a lot of reverence paid to the original approach," said Skywalker Sound's Boyes, a four-time Oscar winner for Titanic, Pearl Harbor, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and King Kong. "At the end of the day, it's not about what you do in any given place, it's more about capturing the emotion that is on the screen and understanding how it was approached in the original and applying that to the new medium. I think we all felt that this wasn't so much a remake of the original as it was a celebration of the original."

The Lion King was made using virtual production techniques, but for sound, I'd imagine it was the same approach as working on an animated feature to the extent that there wasn't any production sound (meaning sound recorded during a live-action shoot).

Yes, that did affect the way we approached it and ultimately to some extent the way the film sounds. As much as it freed us up in many regards, it also gave us additional challenges because there is a sort of air of reality that you get out of production that as a sound designer and mixer I kind of rely upon.

It definitely affected the way we [Boyes and rerecording mixer Lora Hirschberg] approached the mix. In a lot of cases where we were in simple scenes — for example, when young Simba is out in the desert, in this vast open space — you would capture sound on a location like that which is hard for the human ear to describe. So we had to find that sense of simplicity that gave our characters a medium for their dialogue to fit in and their movement to fit in, but at the same time Jon was very adamant that little creatures and cats intentionally don’t make sound because they don’t want to be heard. We had to balance that. Sometimes we hear almost no Foley, intentionally, to sell a light-footed animal ... but [we had to] fill that void with something, and oftentimes that's the challenge.

We sent one person to Africa who recorded a bunch of backgrounds for us and we used those extensively. But then we also have a huge library of sounds. I love the BBC historical library because there are recordings of those types of atmospheres that I can extract and build into a clean believable ambience. The film is a celebration of new recordings as well as old recordings that I have made, as well as old recordings that are in the Lucasfilm library or the BBC.

What did you draw from the original Lion King for inspiration?

Where they were subtle with sound effects is probably where we knew we needed to make a statement and albeit probably a more aggressive statement, but also it informed places where it was okay to let go and let it live in a musical world. At the end of the day, it's not about what you do in any given place, it's more about capturing the emotion that is on the screen and understanding how it was approached in the original and applying that to the new medium. I think we all felt that this wasn't so much a remake of the original as it was a celebration of the original.

Speaking of the original, James Earl Jones reprised his role and you recorded his voice for this movie. Did you use any of his archival material from the 1994 version?

There may be one or two lines; I can't speak with authority on that. I mean, he just hasn't lost anything. The man has a voice to be celebrated as one of the greatest in cinema and he delivered yet again. I think, really, he probably changed it up because he was looking at a different image and he was acting against different actors.

Did you use other archival elements from the animated movie?

Sound effects-wise, yes. One place Jon thought we should celebrate more akin to what was done in the original film was where Mufasa comes to save Simba and Nala from the hyenas. There's a moment where Simba roars and we think, "My God, how did he make that sound?" and we come to discover it's Mufasa. And Jon said, "In that scene, I think they used some things other than lion vocals to get that intensity to the roar" and [supervising sound editor Frank Eulner and I] said, "Okay, we better get those elements." They had actually used an F-14 (aircraft) as a component and a number of other things. So, I took that and I thought, "Okay cool, I can use that. I'll put it in, but let me embellish it and see if we can make it even cooler." And so I used an F-35 and some other elements, and that roar became a big climatic moment that borrows from the original track and also is kind of glorified by other elements as well, some of which are not lion, and that's the only case where I did that. I was very careful that we used lion recordings in every other moment of the film.

And then Jon had this great idea [for the scene during which] Simba as a young adult comes back to confront Scar at Pride Rock later in the film. We reprised that exact roar, as if he now has his father's voice. Nobody would ever know, but I think on a storytelling level, in sort of a visceral way, it really works well.

Would you describe how you created the stampede?

My assistant Lucas Miller and I and Frank Eulner flew to Texas to a big game ranch with a large group of wildebeest and we recorded for two days. That wasn't easy because it was a game refuge, so we had to go out there and hide mics and let mics run for four to six hours to get anything. You just have to capture them in the wild. We got some great vocalizations and some great movement and actually some beautiful wind. That was a leaping-off point. Then we embellished it with various types of rumbles and hooves.

Then when we got down to the final mix — we mixed it at the William Holden stage at Sony — and the music came in, we realized it didn't quite have the intensity that we were hoping it would and so I embellished it yet again ... to give it that intensity but at the same time leave room for the music to do what it needed to do. It needs to serve several purposes, the emotion and the emotional arc that only the music can deliver, and there's some dialogue in there as well, and so there was a little give and take. It's one of those scenes where you use restraint and build an overarching sound as opposed to a sound of detailed specifics.

Is there anything you'd like to add about the animal vocalizations?

Every animal and bird sound that you hear, much of the ambience, it's all from the African savanna. We tried to honor that world and make sure we weren't polluting it with sounds from somewhere else. As well as with the lions, to make sure they were always lion vocals. And there's a lot of baby lion or cub sounds in there that were very cute and work really well. They were very hard to get ahold of. There's not that many playful cub sounds that have been recorded, because typically you go to record a cub and they're going to get aggressive and their mom is going to get aggressive, so it's very hard to get that stuff.

The other thing is we did do some sound design and some clever folding of components into both Scar, Simba and maybe a little bit of Mufasa, but mainly with Scar. The first time you meet him, if you really listen to the track, there's an embellishment to his voice, a sort of deep rumble, to get the sense that this is coming from the chest cavity of a big lion. That was something that we, Lora and I, kind of worked on with Jungle Book and we reprised that notion where I actually cut sounds and processed sounds and gave them to her and then she took them to the next level, because Jon really wanted to kind of capitalize on the performance of that actor and give some resonance below the register that he could actually achieve.

Did you take advantage of Dolby Atmos (immersive sound) when you were mixing? 

Absolutely. Both with sound effects and dialogue. [For example] when Zazu is accompanying Simba and Nala on their little supposed excursion to the water hole, which is really a rouse to get them to the elephant graveyard, you hear Zazu’s voice move all around the room because he is flying around trying to keep his eye on these two and they are cleverly trying to evade him.

Are you on to your next project?

I am taking a bit of a break, and then I start up on [Avatar 2] in a short while.