Tag Archives: Pixar

Coco’s sound story — music, guitars and bones

By Jennifer Walden

Pixar’s animated Coco is a celebration of music, family and death. In the film, a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of being a musician just like his great-grandfather, even though his family is dead-set against it. On the evening of Día de los Muertos (the Mexican holiday called Day of the Dead), Miguel breaks into the tomb of legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) and tries to steal his guitar. The attempted theft transforms Miguel into a spirit, and as he flees the tomb he meets his deceased ancestors in the cemetery.

Together they travel to the Land of the Dead where Miguel discovers that in order to return to life he must have the blessing of his family. The matriarch, great-grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) gives her blessing with one stipulation, that Miguel can never be a musician. Feeling as though he cannot live without music, Miguel decides to seek out the blessing of his musician great-grandfather.

Music is intrinsically tied to the film’s story, and therefore to the film’s soundtrack. Ernesto de la Cruz’s guitar is like another character in the film. The Skywalker Sound team handled all the physical guitar effects, from subtle to destructive. Although they didn’t handle any of the music, they covered everything from fret handling and body thumps to string breaks and smashing sounds. “There was a lot of interaction between music and effects, and a fine balance between them, given that the guitar played two roles,” says supervising sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer Christopher Boyes, who was just nominated for a CAS award for his mixing work on Coco. His Skywalker team on the film included co-supervising sound editor J.R. Grubbs, sound effects editors Justin Doyle and Jack Whittaker, and sound design assistant Lucas Miller.

Boyes bought a beautiful guitar from a pawn shop in Petaluma near their Northern California location, and he and his assistant Miller spent a day recording string sounds and handling sounds. “Lucas said that one of the editors wanted us to cut the guitar strings,” says Boyes. “I was reluctant to cut the strings on this beautiful guitar, but we finally decided to do it to get the twang sound effects. Then Lucas said that we needed to go outside and smash the guitar. This was not an inexpensive guitar. I told him there was no way we were going to smash this guitar, and we didn’t! That was not a sound we were going to create by smashing the actual guitar! But we did give it a couple of solid hits just to get a nice rhythmic sound.”

To capture the true essence of Día de los Muertos in Mexico, Boyes and Grubbs sent effects recordists Daniel Boyes, Scott Guitteau, and John Fasal to Oaxaca to get field recordings of the real 2016 Día de los Muertos celebrations. “These recordings were essential to us and director Lee Unkrich, as well as to Pixar, for documenting and honoring the holiday. As such, the recordings formed the backbone of the ambience depicted in the track. I think this was a crucial element of our journey,” says Boyes.

Just as the celebration sound of Día de los Muertos was important, so too was the sound of Miguel’s town. The team needed to provide a realistic sense of a small Mexican town to contrast with the phantasmagorical Land of the Dead, and the recordings that were captured in Mexico were a key building block for that environment. Co-supervising sound editor Grubbs says, “Those recordings were invaluable when we began to lay the background tracks for locations like the plaza, the family compound, the workshop, and the cemetery. They allowed us to create a truly rich and authentic ambiance for Miguel’s home town.”

Bone Collecting
Another prominent set of sounds in Coco are the bones. Boyes notes that director Unkrich had specific guidelines for how the bones should sound. Characters like Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who are stuck in the Land of the Dead and are being forgotten by those still alive, needed to have more rattle-y sounding bones, as if the skeleton could come apart easily. “Héctor’s life is about to dissipate away, just as we saw with his friend Chicharrón [Edward James Olmos] on the docks, so their skeletal structure is looser. Héctor’s bones demonstrated that right from the get-go,” he explains.

In contrast, if someone is well remembered, such as de la Cruz, then the skeletal structure should sound tight. “In Miguel’s family, Papá Julio [Alfonso Arau] comically bursts apart many times, but he goes back together as a pretty solid structure,” explains Boyes. “Lee [Unkrich] wanted to dig into that dynamic first of all, to have that be part of the fabric that tells the story. Certain characters are going to be loose because nobody remembers them and they’re being forgotten.”

Creating the bone sounds was the biggest challenge for Boyes as a sound designer. Unkrich wanted to hear the complexity of the bones, from the clatter and movement down to the detail of cartilage. “I was really nervous about the bones challenge because it’s a sound that’s not easily embedded into a track without calling attention to itself, especially if it’s not done well,” admits Boyes.

Boyes started his bone sound collection by recording a mobile he built using different elements, like real bones, wooden dowels, little stone chips and other things that would clatter and rattle. Then one day Boyes stumbled onto an interesting bone sound while making a coconut smoothie. “I cracked an egg into the smoothie and threw the eggshell into the empty coconut hull and it made a cool sound. So I played with that. Then I was hitting the coconut on concrete, and from all of those sources I created a library of bone sounds.” Foley also contributed to the bone sounds, particularly for the literal, physical movements, like walking.

According to Grubbs, the bone sounds were designed and edited by the Skywalker team and then presented to the directors over several playbacks. The final sound of the skeletons is a product of many design passes, which were carefully edited in conjunction with the Foley bone recordings and sometimes used in combination with the Foley.

L-R: J.R. Grubbs and Chris Boyes

Because the film is so musical, the bone tracks needed to have a sense of rhythm and timing. To hit moments in a musical way, Boyes loaded bone sounds and other elements into Native Instruments’ Kontakt and played them via a MIDI keyboard. “One place for the bones that was really fun was when Héctor went into the security office at the train station,” says Boyes.

Héctor comes apart and his fingers do a little tap dance. That kind of stuff really lent to the playfulness of his character and it demonstrated the looseness of his skeletal structure.”

From a sound perspective, Boyes feels that Coco is a great example of how movies should be made. During editorial, he and Grubbs took numerous trips to Pixar to sit down with the directors and the picture department. For several months before the final mix, they played sequences for Unkrich that they wanted to get direction on. “We would play long sections of just sound effects, and Lee — being such a student of filmmaking and being an animator — is quite comfortable with diving down into the nitty-gritty of just simple elements. It was really a collaborative and healthy experience. We wanted to create the track that Lee wanted and wanted to make sure that he knew what we were up to. He was giving us direction the whole way.”

The Mix
Boyes mixed alongside re-recording mixer Michael Semanick (music/dialogue) on Skywalker’s Kurosawa Stage. They mixed in native Dolby Atmos on a DFC console. While Boyes mixed, effects editor Doyle handled last-minute sound effects needs on the stage, and Grubbs ran the logistics of the show. Grubbs notes that although he and Boyes have worked together for a long time this was the first time they’ve shared a supervising credit.

“J.R. [Grubbs] and I have been working together for probably 30 years now.” Says Boyes. “He always helped to run the show in a very supervisory way, so I just felt it was time he started getting credit for that. He’s really kept us on track, and I’m super grateful to him.”

One helpful audio tool for Boyes during the mix was the Valhalla Room reverb, which he used on Miguel’s footsteps inside de la Cruz’s tomb. “Normally, I don’t use plug-ins at all when I’m mixing. I’m a traditional mixer who likes to use a console and TC Electronic’s TC 6000 and the Leixcon 480 reverb as outboard gear. But in this one case, the Valhalla Room plug-in had a preset that really gave me a feeling of the stone tomb.”

Unkrich allowed Semanick and Boyes to have a first pass at the soundtrack to get it to a place they felt was playable, and then he took part in the final mix process with them. “I just love Lee’s respect for us; he gives us time to get the soundtrack into shape. Then, he sat there with us for 9 to 10 hours a day, going back and forth, frame by frame at times and section by section. Lee could hear everything, and he was able to give us definitive direction throughout. The mix was achieved by and directed by Lee, every frame. I love that collaboration because we’re here to bring his vision and Pixar’s vision to the screen. And the best way to do that is to do it in the collaborative way that we did,” concludes Boyes.

Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.

More speakers added for Italy’s upcoming View Conference

More than 50 speakers are confirmed for 2017’s View Conference, a digital media conference that takes place in Turin, Italy, from October 23-27. Those speakers include six visual effects Oscar winners, two Academy Sci-Tech award winners, animated feature film directors, virtual reality pioneers, computer graphics researchers, game developers, photographers, writers and studio executives.

“One of the special reasons to attend View is that our speakers like to stay for the entire week and attend talks given by the other speakers, so our attendees have many opportunities to interact with them,” says conference director Dr. Maria Elena Gutierrez. “View brings together the world’s best and brightest minds across multiple disciplines, in an intimate and collaborative place where creatives can incubate and celebrate.”

Newly confirmed speakers include:

Scott Stokdyk- This Academy Award winner (VFX supervisor, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) will showcase VFX from the film – from concept, design and inspiration to final color timing.

Paul Debevec – This Academy Award winner (senior staff engineer, Google VR, ICT) will give attendees a glimpse inside the latest work from Google VR and ICT.

Martyn Culpitt – A VFX supervisor on Logan and at Image Engine company, he will breakdown the film Logan, highlighting the visual effects behind Wolverine’s gripping final chapter.

Jan-Bart Van Beek – This studio art director at Guerrilla Games will take attendees through the journey that Guerrilla Games underwent to design the post-apocalyptic world of the game franchise, Horizon Zero Dawn.

David Rosenbaum – This chief creative officer at Cinesite Studios along with Cinesite EP Warren Franklin will present at talk titled, “It’s All Just Funny Business: Looking for IP, Talent ad Audiences.”

Elisabeth Morant – This product manager for Google’s Tilt Brush will discusses the company’s VR painting application in a talk called, “Real Decisions, Virtual Space: Designing for VR.”

Donald Greenberg – This professor of computer graphics at Cornell University will be discussing the “Next-gen of Virtual Reality”

Steve Muench – He will present “The Labor of Loving Vincent: Animating Van Gogh to Solve a Mystery.”

Deborah Fowler – This professor of visual effects at Savannah College of Art and Design/SCAD will showcase “Procedural and Production Techniques using Houdini.”

Daniele Federico: This co-founder and developer at Toolchefs will present “Make us Alive. An In-Depth Look at Atoms Crowd Software.”

Jason Bickerstaff – This character artist from Pixar Animation Studios) will present “Crossing The Dimensional Rift.”

Steve Beck – This VFX art director from ILM will discuss “The Future of Storytelling.”

Nancy Basi – She is executive director of the Film and Media Centre – Vancouver Economic Commission.

For a complete listing of speakers visit http://www.viewconference.it/speakers


Pixar to make Universal Scene Description open-sourced

Pixar Animation Studios, whose latest feature film is Inside Out,  will release Universal Scene Description software (USD) as an open-source project by summer 2016. USD addresses the growing need in the CG film and game industries for an effective way to describe, assemble, interchange and modify high-complexity virtual scenes between digital content creation tools employed by studios.

At the core of USD are Pixar’s techniques for composing and non-destructively editing graphics “scene graphs,” techniques that Pixar has been cultivating for close to 20 years, dating back to A Bug’s Life. These techniques, such as file-referencing, layered overrides, variation and inheritance, were completely overhauled into a robust and uniform design for Pixar’s next-generation animation system, Presto.

Although it is still under active development and optimization, USD has been in use for nearly a year in the making of Pixar’s production Finding Dory.

The open-source Alembic project brought standardization of cached geometry interchange to the VFX industry. USD hopes to build on Alembic’s success, taking the next step of standardizing the “algebra” by which assets are aggregated and refined in-context.

The USD distribution will include embeddable direct 3D visualization provided by Pixar’s modern GPU renderer, Hydra, as well as plug-ins for several key VFX DCCs, comprehensive documentation, tutorials and complete python bindings.

Pixar has already been sharing early USD snapshots with a number of industry vendors and studios for evaluation, feedback and advance incorporation. Among the vendors helping to evaluate USD are The Foundry and Fabric Software.


In related news, to accelerate production of its computer-animated feature films and short film content, Pixar Animation Studios is licensing a suite of Nvidia technologies related to image rendering.

The multiyear strategic licensing agreement gives Pixar access to Nvidia’s quasi-Monte Carlo (QMC) rendering methods. These methods can make rendering more efficient, especially when powered by GPUs and other massively parallel computing architectures.

As part of the agreement, Nvidia will also contribute raytracing technology to Pixar’s OpenSubdiv Project, an open-source initiative to promote high-performance subdivision surface evaluation on massively parallel CPU and GPU architectures. The OpenSubdiv technology will enable rendering of complex Catmull-Clark subdivision surfaces in animation with incredible precision.

‘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.”


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.

Meet Pixar media systems manager M.T. Silvia

NAME: M.T. Silvia

COMPANY: Emeryville, California-based Pixar Animation Studios (@DisneyPixar)

Pixar Animation Studios has created award-winning animated feature and short films for over 25 years.

Media Systems Manager

I manage Media Systems at Pixar; we are embedded in the IT Systems Department. We are the audio/video engineering team and are known as the “AVengers” throughout the studio. We are Continue reading

Quick Chat: Nvidia’s Greg Estes

By Randi Altman

Greg Estes, Nvidia’s VP of marketing, recently took a few minutes out of his schedule to discuss the industry, trends and how the company goes about creating new products that target the needs of users.

The short answer is listening to what studios and broadcasters need. The long answer is… well give it a read and see for yourself.

Continue reading