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On the Record: The Sound of Avatar

I came across this panel discussion a few days ago and thought it would be fitting to re-post it here. With the awards season well under way, it’s customary for filmmakers to convene panel discussions that showcase the art and craft of the Academy’s “technical” crafts like sound and visual effects. For Avatar, the sound team, along with director James Cameron and producer Jon Landau, took the stage at the Zanuck Theater on the Fox lot for a 45 minute discussion of how sound worked in the film. Joining Cameron and Landau was supervising sound editor and sound designer Christopher Boyes, and re-recording mixers Gary Summers and Andy Nelson.

Over the last year I have written about Avatar indirectly, preferring instead to cover the broader technological and aesthetic issues that surround the film, including 3-D imaging and its place in Hollywood cinema. With this in mind, I found the panel discussion to be extremely illuminating. I want to briefly highlight four points that were made at the session that relate back to some of the things I’ve written about in the past.

The sound team makes the important point that Cameron was very concerned about narrative intelligibility, which meant sacrificing some effects work in favor of pushing character dialog and sounds to the front of the mix. Boyes recalls a moment in the film when Jake’s avatar is being chased, and his heavy breathing was not present enough in the mix for Cameron’s taste. He reasoned that we need to hear Jake in order to better feel his fear. In the weeks leading up to the film’s release, Landau and Cameron emphasized the importance of story and the emotional attachment to characters even as many in the press were touting the film’s use of 3-D technology and advanced CGI.

Boyes discusses how early he was involved in the process, which goes back to 2006 when he first started designing the creature sounds. As much as Cameron and company may claim the film is a cinematic “game changer” (how I have come to hate that phrase), I believe the film’s lasting effect and its true innovation is in the way Cameron reconfigured the production process. Cameron has arguably created an entirely new workflow for high-profile pictures that involves the collaboration and involvement of crafts like sound much earlier in the process than usual.

Cameron’s home base in Malibu became ground zero for editorial. Music cues, sound effects, and visual effects shots could be sent to this production center so Cameron could continue to tweak his workprint, adding music or effects here or there. With respect to the visual effects workflow, check out this lengthy interview with Cameron, where he details the ways in which the film’s innovative production framework allowed him to work more freely within “3-D space.”

One of the key aspects to my own research on contemporary film sound is the concept of balance within the mix. In a large film like Avatar, there is the potential for sonic overload: dialog competing with effects competing with music competing with more effects. Cameron and Boyes go through the destruction of Hometree sequence, and how dramatic pauses and various kinds of explosions built a sonic architecture around the action sequence. “Clarity is king,” as Cameron puts it later in the talk. With hundreds, if not thousands, of individual tracks the crew worked in a reductive process, stripping away sounds that were deemed to be unnecessary or excessive.

Finally, the crew confirms something that I discussed in an earlier post about 3-D sound. With all the focus on 3-D imaging, mixers have not really changed the way they work with sound in a 3-D space. In fact, Avatar was mixed in 2-D. However, the crew makes an interesting observation about watching reels silently in 3-D, which had them imagining what sounds were appropriate for a specific 3-D moment. In effect, they worked with the silent images to figure out what sounds to feature in the mix, and where to place those sounds in the 5.1 space.

Andy Nelson’s “3-D” treatment of James Horner’s score was also illuminating. By “hanging” certain instruments in the theater space, Nelson adds depth to the sound space in a way that is usually reserved for traditional effects. I’ve only seen the film once and can’t remember this foregrounding effect, but I’ll be interested in hearing how it worked on my second viewing.

Fascinating stuff. Hopefully we’ll get additional panels from the other sound nominees in the coming weeks.

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