'Toy Story 4' to 'How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World': How to Create Sound From Scratch in Animation

Dreamworks Animation
For one dragon's voice, the 'How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World' team incorporated cat sounds.

Not being able to record on set — as with live-action movies — is just one challenge faced by pros who reveal how they built their films' fantastical worlds.

While it can go unnoticed, there's more than meets the ear when listening to the sound artistry in an animated movie.

"Nothing is recorded [during a shoot] as in live action. With no reference, nor pre-existing material, every single sound needs to be 'invented,' " sums up Manuel Drouglazet, sound designer on Netflix's animated I Lost My Body. "That leaves us a huge amount of possibilities for the creation of the sound."

Both the Cinema Audio Society (CAS) and Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) have animated feature categories (sound mixing and sound editing, respectively) in their annual awards. And while rare, it's not without precedent for an animated movie to crack the sound categories at the Academy Awards. Pixar's The Incredibles won an Oscar for sound editing in 2004. Aladdin (1992), 2007's Ratatouille and 2008's WALL-E all earned nominations for both sound editing and mixing.

Toy Story 4's two-time Oscar-winning rerecording mixer Michael Semanick, whose additional nominations included Ratatouille and WALL-E, admits that he really doesn't make a distinction whether mixing live action or animation. In an especially challenging scene for Toy Story 4, he and the Skywalker Sound team had to create an unsettling tone for when Woody and Forky meet creepy talking doll Gabby Gabby in an antiques store. "There are references to horror movies, the record player with music from The Shining," he says.

For the sequence, the sound effects and Foley teams created elements from the squeaking of the baby carriage to footsteps, says supervising sound editor Coya Elliott. "You had to make Gabby Gabby's voice mechanism sound creepy but leave room for her to evolve." She adds that the filmmakers "wanted to create this sense of scale [both the size of the room and that of the toys compared to the humans] and wanted the different parts of the store to sound different," with subtle shifts as they walk on different surfaces or move from inside a pinball machine to behind dusty furniture.

This year, the CAS and MPSE animated feature nominees include The Lion King, a photoreal CG retelling of the 1992 classic that was made using virtual production techniques. The film's supervising sound editor/designer and rerecording mixer Chris Boyes — a four-time Oscar winner from Skywalker Sound whose credits include Coco and Rango — acknowledges that virtual production "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 [sound] that as a sound designer and mixer I kind of rely upon." To bolster that sense of reality, a member of the sound team went to Africa to record background sounds that were used in the movie, while other elements were pulled from sound libraries.

"In a lot of cases 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," says Boyes. "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, [director Jon Favreau] 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."

With a story centered on adventurer Sir Lionel traveling to locations as varied as the Pacific Northwest, London and the Himalayas, Laika's stop-motion/CG hybrid Missing Link required creating numerous environments with sound. "All of the film's environmental sounds were mostly realistic recordings augmented with sound design," says supervising sound editor/designer and rerecording mixer Tim Chau. "For the Pacific Northwest, we recorded the birds, open air and wind in trees in Oregon. You'll hear wrens and finches." He adds that the team also recorded horses and buggies, church bells and a busy market for period London-set scenes.

To give the Himalayas a "magical" sound, the team "designed backgrounds where we added musical tones and instruments in the sound mix," says Chau. "We used chimes and singing bowls from the Himalayas and Tibet and subtly blended them with the environmental sounds."

Randy Thom, supervising sound designer and rerecording mixer on DreamWorks Animation's How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, had the unique challenge of creating the "voices" of the dragons, including Toothless' love interest, the Light Fury. "As humans, we don't really differentiate between male and female animal sounds. So how do you make her sound female?" asks the two-time Academy Award winner. After experimenting with various approaches, he found one that included pitching up elements that were used for Toothless — including his own voice. Additionally, he incorporated feline sounds.

Thom adds that the team wanted it to be as if the dragons had their own language, taking the sound beyond grunts. "It involved essentially putting together little 'sentences' for each dragon, especially Toothless," says Thom. The team also created the Viking village of Berk — a cacophony of sound as it's overcrowded with both humans and dragons — as well as the immersive home of the dragons, a cavern known as the Hidden World.

Creating sounds for a mere hand might seem easier than for a flight of dragons, but a unique challenge is presented when the hand in question is disembodied and roaming the streets of Paris, as it is in Netflix's I Lost My Body. Drouglazet says it was especially tough "not only because there are no references but also because [director Jérémy Clapin] didn't want this character to be funny or creepy.

"How do you define subtlety for a character with only five fingers to express itself? As the camera was always close to the hand, we had to imagine the sound of the tips of the fingers," he says. Working with Foley artist Gregory Vincent, they realized that the rhythm of the "walk" didn't work with the picture — they had to overplay it. He adds that they also had to figure out "the scale that would match the size of what is around it" while adding "a layer of sound design to help us feel the hand's fear, using some bass pulsations. This is a good example of how animation can use sound to create a world of its own."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.