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The sound of fire, tires and more for Disney’s ‘Planes: Fire and Rescue’

By Jennifer Walden

Disney’s follow-up to Planes, Planes: Fire and Rescue, like many Disney offerings, has a message — this one involves overcoming a handicap and finding another path in life. But if you think it’s a film for very young children, you’d be mistaken. It’s a family action-adventure film, complete with intense visuals, situations and sound to match.

There was no holding back on the native Dolby Atmos mix. With full-range surround speakers in a 62.2 configuration, the mix team of David E. Fluhr (dialogue and music) and Dean Zupancic (sound effects) had all the sonic real estate they needed to immerse the audience in the action. According to Formosa Group supervising sound editor/sound designer Todd Toon, “Director Roberts Gannaway not only gave us permission, but demanded that we deliver a big action-adventure movie track, and not hold back just because it’s animated.”

Formosa Group, in West Hollywood, is a full-service audio post company that works with independent and studio filmmakers. Toon joined Formosa’s team last September and has been busy supervising Foley and sound on Disney’s Frozen and The Pirate Fairy.

Todd Toon fullsmall

Todd Toon

The aptly named Toon was the supervising sound editor/sound designer on both Planes films, which were mixed natively in Dolby Atmos. “For Planes (2013), there was a lot of research done to find the best way to deliver object based content to the mixing stage,” he says.

Having the capability to both edit and playback in the Atmos format at Formosa Group gave Toon and his team the ability to decide whether the sound design and effects were going to be effective as an object in Atmos, or if it would be too distracting. While the first Planes was built in Atoms, Toon decided that the sound edit for Fire and Rescue would be mainly in 7.1, allowing the sound editors to focus on creating and building the sounds rather than get bogged down with the Atmos format.

“I made it less about the Atmos format during the edit because the re-recording mixers would handle how it would be panned in the mix,” he explains. Having Atmos set up at Formosa allowed us to reference how the sound design would playback in that format.”  

PLANES FIRE & RESCUE

Capturing the Right Sounds
Substantial research went into creating the sound for Planes: Fire and Rescue. Since the characters are modeled after real vehicles and planes, Toon wanted to create character sounds that were rooted in reality but modified to fit the context of the animated world. He feels research is a key ingredient for the overall sound design on this film. “It’s as important as the editing or mixing. Getting out and talking to the pilots and the firefighters… you just listen to their stories and search for adjectives that you can indirectly translate into sound.”

Starting in January, Toon and Charlie Campagna, Formosa Group’s resident sound recordist, captured field recordings of planes, helicopters, tractors and forklifts. They recorded sounds from a Bobcat, an ATV and even a fire truck at Burbank airport. Toon and Campagna flew to the Erickson Air-Crane maintenance facility in Central Point, OR, to capture the sounds for a character based on their Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane. Prior to recording, Erickson Air-Crane showed the two audio pros training videos and provided them access to the maintenance yard and pilot testing facility where routine maneuvers are performed. Toon and Campagna worked directly with a mechanic to figure out the safest microphone placements that would best capture the helicopter’s unique range of sounds. “They were really helpful up there,” reports Toon. “They were willing to tell all of their stories, and we learned so much about how to assemble the material and what mechanics are hearing and listening for. It helped us, as the sound crew, to follow their lead.”

With a lot of material to cover in a short amount of time, Toon left Campagna to finish recording the Skycrane while he went to Washington to record more vehicles. “At one point I was in Washington recording, Charlie [Campagna] was in Oregon, and there was a third recordist in California doing an airplane. We tried to assemble the material as quickly as possible so we could pass it on to our editorial team and get things rolling,” Toon says.

PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE

The Sound of Fire
Another key character in Fire and Rescue is the fire itself. A lot of attention and care went into creating the fire sound. Producer Ferrell Barron introduced Toon to Josh Mathiesen, the Base Manager for California Smokejumpers, a division of the US Forest Service based in Redding, California. “It was really key to have access to somebody who had first-hand boots on the ground experience with parachuting into wildfire zones,” says Toon.

Mathiesen invaluably assisted with the creation of appropriate fire sounds, as well as advised on the sound of the water and fire retardant drops from a ground perspective. Toon sent fire sound files, both individual recordings and layered composites, to Mathiesen via email. Mathiesen would analyze them and described their best application. “It was a good way to learn about what he’s actually listening for,” says Toon. “He can tell what type of tree is burning just by hearing it, and how close the fire is, and how it’s reacting. He gave us specific detail on how to use the fire. He kept us honest too. We are always trying to be authentic and then build from there to make it movie-like.”

Lead sound effects editor Martyn Zub was instrumental in giving the fire its voice. Toon used Mathiesen’s fire descriptions to pull material for Zub to assemble. “That’s when it really came to life,” says Toon. He notes the film’s theme is “man versus nature,” so the fire was the villain. “The ultimate goal was to make the fire as intense as possible and still remain as true to the actual fire sounds as possible,” notes Toon. The majority of the fire sounds were pulled from proprietary library sources and sweetened with new close-up campfire recordings. They layered the sounds based on Mathiesen’s suggestions about how to create the composites to best suit the scene.

PLANES FIRE & RESCUE

Creating Sounds in Foley
Without footsteps or clothing rustles in the film, you’d think the Foley team had it easy. But actually, Foley artists Dan O’Connell and John T. Cucci at Foley soundstage One Step Up in Los Angeles had to create “footsteps” and other signature sounds for the film’s characters using tires, plane parts and truck doors. “It was a completely different headspace for this film, which was great because it was kind of a crazy challenge giving personality to the characters by using inanimate objects,” says O’Connell.

Every character needed to have its own signature sound, indicative to who they are. When protagonist Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook) tips his wings or makes a move, O’Connell and Cucci had to create a sound to match Dusty’s personality and his mood at the time. Since Dusty looks new and polished, O’Connell created “happy” creaks by manipulating the flap of an airplane wing. “We got to the point where we could watch the character on the screen and manipulate the wing according to what his move would be,” he notes.

In contrast, the character Mayday (voiced by Hal Holbrook) is an old, rusty truck. For his sounds, O’Connell and Cucci chose an old creaky truck door. By leaning against it, and rubbing things on it, they could perform a variety of sounds for Mayday, especially for his suspension. “When he comes in, and his suspension goes up and down, we could really have some fun with that,” says O’Connell.

One Set Up's Foley team.

One Step Up’s Foley team.

O’Connell notes the tires were a big storyteller, contributing several sounds to a character’s personality in addition to acting as footsteps. O’Connell and Cucci manipulated various sized tires, by turning them on wet ground or rubbing them together to create little squeaks for when a character would raise an eyebrow. As “footsteps,” the tires needed to communicate the weight of each character, from gigantic planes to tiny carts. Also, the tires needed to sound like they were continuously rolling, on a range of surfaces, from concert, to dirt, to wood floors, even carpet. “On the Foley stage, you’re limited in your space. You’re limited in what you can roll and how long you can roll it. So we had to figure out ways to create that sound on the stage,” explains O’Connell.

Now that O’Connell and Cucci have mastered the tire challenges on Planes: Fire and Rescue, O’Connell jokes, “Bring us your tire movies. We’ll do everybody’s tires.” He explains that once they conquer a particular challenge, like tires, they develop a skill for creating those sounds. It’s no longer a question of how to do something, but rather how to be creative with it. “Once we figured out how to manipulate the tires to make the squeaks and creaks, the next thing was to figure out how to make them sound huge, or small. Each character had its own tire sound.”

Toon feels O’Connell and Cucci did an amazing job communicating the size and weight of the characters. “I think that’s always been a problem, where you identify with the characters as toys or something small, but One Step Up just really got it,” says Toon, who sent a rough track of hard effects to O’Connell and Cucci as a roadmap for the Foley. By hearing what sounds were already there, the Foley team was able to create elements to complement the hard effects. Though Toon used a combination of Foley and hard effects in the film, he notes that often the Foley would stand out on its own merit without the need for support from hard effects.

PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE

Once sound editorial was complete, all the material was reviewed on the dub stage at Formosa Group, in Dolby Atmos, before being delivered to re-recording mixers Fluhr and Zupancic for the final mix on Stage A at Disney Digital Studios. “We always review everything with the director, the editor and all the creatives on the dub stage here as opposed to in the editorial suite,” concludes Toon. “It’s really a nice way to work and it gives everybody a full experience of what the sound design may sound like in the mix.”

Jennifer Walden is an audio engineer and freelance writer based in New Jersey.

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