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‘Inside Out’: Skywalker helps hug the audience with sound

Pixar’s latest gets a Dolby Atmos mix

By Jennifer Walden

Ever ask yourself what goes through a child’s mind? Well, Pixar did, and the result was their latest Inside Out, which has left audiences laughing and crying. The film focuses on 11-year-old Riley, whose emotions are sent reeling as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco.

The story, by directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen, portrays five main emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear — which hang out in the control room of people’s minds. The audience gets to experience Riley’s tumultuous transition through the actions of those five core emotions as they interact inside her mind. They get to see a bit of how her mom and dad’s minds work too. It’s a refreshingly creative animated feature like no other.

Inside Out has two main environments: inside the mind where everything is hyper-real, and out in the world, where everything seems dull by comparison. “We wanted to have the sound mimic that and to follow the actions they took with the picture,” says re-recording mixer Michael Semanick, who handled the sound effects, backgrounds and music for Inside Out.

Michael Semanick

Since the film’s sound — created at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, California — was designed and mixed natively in Dolby Atmos, Semanick and fellow re-recording mixer Tom Johnson, on dialogue/Foley, were able to heighten that difference further by only using the upfront speakers during scenes in the outside world, and the full array of speakers in the Atmos set-up during scenes inside the mind. “We made a conscious decision to have the outside world sound flat, with nothing in the surrounds or the top speakers,” says Semanick.

For inside the mind, sound designer Ren Klyce designed rich backgrounds and elements that could be used in the surrounds and the overhead speakers to fill out the space without being gimmicky or distracting. “For example, Ren had designed these really great water sounds that are, I believe, babies in the womb. They are these cool, inside-the-body-type sounds. I got to move those back and forth and over the top when we’re in the head. It’s very subtle. It’s not meant to be distracting but it’s supposed to give you this feeling like you are inside the mind, and that it’s alive and moving.”

All-Around Sound
With the full-range speakers in the Atmos set-up, Semanick could fluidly move sounds around the theater without having to account for the level dips and EQ differences typical of the surrounds used in 5.1/7.1 set-ups. So when Joy and Sadness get sucked up a memory tube, Semanick was able to fly Klyce’s sound design elements past the viewer without losing low-end detail. “With the Atmos, I can move the sound anywhere and I don’t have to push the level to get the sound to read in the back,” says Semanick.

Additionally, the full-range overhead speakers in the Atmos set-up allowed Semanick to bring sounds in from above, and seemingly move them down the screen. For example, there are memory balls (small, clear balls containing Riley’s memories) that come down from over the top and project light, almost as if they are playing a movie. Since the sound was designed from the ground up in Atmos, Semanick was able to take individual sound elements for that scene and assign them to object panners on the AMS Neve DFC mixing console used in the Kurosawa Studio.

Another advantage to the Atmos set-up was it allowed re-recording mixer Johnson and director Docter to experiment with how they could treat the voices coming from inside Riley’s head. “We didn’t want it to be a standard voiceover. We wanted it to feel like we are inside of this girl’s mind,” says Semanick. “So in the Atmos mix, the first time Joy speaks, it really fills the room up all around you. Then eventually, as she keeps speaking, her voice starts to pull forward and it gets set in a place that is very comfortable, so you realize that this is Joy speaking.”

There are different areas inside the mind, such as the control room where the five emotions interact and decide Riley’s course of action, long-term memory: abstract thought, the subconscious, the memory dump of forgotten memories and the dream studio, which resembles a film stage. Semanick used a combination of stereo reverbs, such as the Lexicon 960 and the TC 6000, to help define those spaces. The control room, with its large windows, has a slight room reverb while the halls of long-term memory are vaster. The reverbs in the subconscious are dark to match the mood of the environment. “We match the reflections to the space,” says Semanick. “When we’re in the canyon of the memory dump area; it’s like an infinite abyss, so the sound has an echo. It’s like looking into the Grand Canyon but you can’t see the bottom. Sometimes I would hit the echo and then fade the reflections quickly, as if they just disappeared into that abyss and then there is no sound. You don’t know if an object is still falling or not.”

Semanick prefers to use several stereo reverbs together to build out the spaces for the Atmos set-up, as opposed to using pre-built multichannel reverbs. “With the stereo reverb or mono reverb, I know how I can place them. I can side-chain them. I can have the reflections build,” he explains. “I can use multiple stereo reverbs and have something different on the top, in the front and in the back. I can manipulate each one separately. I can push the rears louder than I push the fronts, so the reflection comes off a little quicker.”

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Semanick really enjoyed mixing the emotional scenes in Inside Out, particularly in the memory dump where Joy and Riley’s old imaginary friend, Bing Bong, are sitting among disintegrating memory balls. “There isn’t music or any other supporting sound, just the voices from the fading memory balls. Each sound that’s placed in there is so important — from the rewind sound of the memory to Joy turning the ball over and changing hands to the balls in the background that are just disintegrating. They are so lightly touched with a little bit of musical enhancement,” he says.

“There were really great sounds for that which I got to blend in, as each ball breaks and falls into this ash. I agonized over every little flake of those balls. That scene is just so delicate and we spent a lot of time on it. The sound can just help draw the audience in even more, and wrap up their hearts, then rip them out. Those are some of the hardest things to mix, those quiet emotional scenes where every little sound is like a pin drop. When you nail it, you can see the audience’s reaction,” concludes Semanick.

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