By Jennifer Walden
Pixar’s first feature-length film, 1995’s Toy Story, was a game-changer for animated movies. There was no going back after that blasted onto screens and into the hearts of millions. Fast-forward 24 years to the franchise’s fourth installment — Toy Story 4 — and it’s plain to see that Pixar’s approach to animated fare hasn’t changed.
Visually, Toy Story 4 brings so much to the screen, with its near-photorealistic imagery, interesting camera angles and variations in depth of field. “It’s a cartoon, but not really. It’s a film,” says Skywalker Sound’s Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Michael Semanick, who handled the effects/music alongside re-recording mixer Nathan Nance on dialogue/Foley.
Here, Semanick and Nance talk about their approach to mixing Toy Story 4, how they use reverb and Foley to bring the characters to life, and how they used the Dolby Atmos surround field to make the animated world feel immersive. They also talk about mixing the stunning rain scene, the challenges of mixing the emotional carnival scenes near the end and mixing the Bo Peep and Woody reunion scene.
Is your approach to mixing an animated film different from how you’d approach the mix on a live-action film? Mix-wise, what are some things you do to make an animated world feel like a real place?
Nathan Nance: The approach to the mix isn’t different. No matter if it’s an animated movie or a live-action movie, we are interested in trying to complement the story and direct the viewer’s attention to whatever the director wants their attention to be on.
With animation, you’re starting with just the ADR, and the approach to the whole sound job is different because you have to pick and choose every single sound and really create those environments. Even with the dialogue, we’re creating spaces with reverb (or lack of reverb) and helping the emotions of the story in the mix. You might not have the same options in a live-action movie.
Michael Semanick: I don’t approach a film differently. Live action or animated, it comes down to storytelling. In today’s world, some of these live-action movies are like animated films. And the animated films are like live-action. I’m not sure which is which anymore.
Whether it’s live action or animation, the sound team is creating the environments. For live-action, they’re often shooting on a soundstage or they’re shooting on greenscreen, and the sound team creates those environments. For live-action films, they try to get the location to be as quiet as it can be to get the dialogue as clean as possible. So, the sound team is only working with dialogue and ADR.
It’s like an animation in that they need to recreate the entire environment. The production sound mixer is trying to capture the dialogue and not the extraneous sounds. The production sound mixer is there to capture the performance from the actors on that day at that time. Sometimes there are production effects, but the post sound team still preps the scene with sound effects, Foley and loop group. Then on the dub stage, we choose how much of that to put in.
For an animated film, they do the same thing. They prep a whole bunch of sounds and then on the dub stage we decide how busy we want the scene to be.
How do you use reverb to help define the spaces and make the animated world feel believable?
Semanick: Nathan really sets the tone when he’s doing the dialogue, defining how the environments and different spaces are going to sound. That works in combination with the background ambiences. It’s really the voice bouncing off objects that gives you the sense of largeness and depth of field. So reverb is really important in establishing the size of the room and also outdoors — how your voice slaps off a building versus how it slaps off of trees or mountains. Reverb is a really essential tool for creating the environments and spaces that you want to put your actors or characters in.
Nance: You can use reverb to try and make the spaces sound “real” — whatever that means for cinema. Or, you can use it to create something that’s more emotional or has a certain vibe. Reverb is really important for making the dry dialogue sound believable, especially in these Pixar films. They are all in on the environments they’ve created. They want it to sound real and really put the viewer there. But then, there are moments when we use reverb creatively to push the moment further and add to the emotional experience.
What are some other things you do mix-wise to help make this animated world feel believable?
Semanick: The addition of Foley helps ground a lot of the animation. Those natural sounds, like footsteps and movements, we take for granted — just walking down the street or sitting in a restaurant. Those become a huge part of these films. The Foley helps to ground the animation. It gives it life, something to hold onto.
Foley is a big part of making the animated world feel believable. You have Foley artists performing to the actual picture, and the way they put a cup down or how they come to a stop adds character to the sound. It can make it sound more human, more real. Really good Foley artists can become the character. They pick up on the nuances — like how the character drags their feet or puts down a cup. All those little things we take for granted but they are all part of our character. Maybe the way you hold a wine glass and set it down is different from how I would do it. So good Foley artists tune into that right away, and they’ll match it with their performance. They’ll put one edge of the cup down and then the other if that’s how the character does it. So Foley helps to ground a lot of the animation and the VFX to reality. It adds realism. Give it up for the Foley artists!
Nance: So many times the sounds that are in Foley are the ones we recognize and take for granted. You hear those little sounds and think, yeah, that’s exactly what that sounds like. It’s because the Foley artists perform it and these are sounds that you recognize from everyday life. That adds to the realism, like Michael said.
Mix-wise, it must have been pretty difficult to push the subtle sounds through a full mix, like the sounds of the little spork named Forky. What are some techniques and sound tools that help you to get these character sounds to cut through?
Semanick: Director Josh Cooley was very particular about the sounds Forky was going to make. Supervising sound editors Ren Klyce and Coya Elliott and their team went out and got a big palette of sounds for different things.
We weeded through them here with Josh and narrowed it down. Josh then kind of left it up to me. He said he just wanted to hear Forky when he needed to hear him and then not ever have to think about it. The problem with Forky is that if there’s too much sound for him then you’re constantly watching what he’s doing as opposed to listening to what he’s saying. I was very diligent about weeding things out a lot of the time and adding sounds in for the eye movements and other tiny, specific sounds. But there’s not much sound in there for him. It’s just the voice because often his sounds were getting in the way of the dialogue and being distracting. We were very diligent about choosing what to hear and not to hear. Josh was very particular about what those sounds should be. He had been working with Ren on those for a couple months.
In balancing a film (and particularly Toy Story 4 with so many characters and so much going on), you have to really pick and choose sounds. You don’t want to pull the audience away in a direction you don’t want. That was one of the main things for Forky — getting his sounds right.
The opening rain scene was stunning! What was your approach to mixing that scene? How did you use the Dolby Atmos surround field to enhance it?
Semanick: That was a tough scene to mix. There is a lot of rain coming down and the challenge was how to get clarity out of the scene and make sure the audience can follow what was happening. So the scene starts out with rain sounds, but during the action sequence there’s actually no rain in the track.
Amazingly, your human ears and your brain fill in that information. I establish the rain and then when the action starts I literally pull all of the rain out. But your mind puts the rain there still. You think you hear it but it’s actually not there. When the track gets quiet all of a sudden, I bring the rain back up so you never miss the rain. No one has ever said anything about not hearing the rain.
I love the sound of rain; don’t get me wrong. I love the sound of rain on windows, rain on cars, rain on metals… Ren and his team did such an amazing job with that. We had a huge palette of rain. But there’s a certain point in the scene where we need the audience to focus on all of the action that’s happening, what’s really going on.
There’s Woody and Slinky Dog being stretched and RC in the gutter, and all this. So when I put all of the sounds up there you couldn’t make out anything. It was confusing. So I pulled all of the rain out. Then we put in all of the specific sounds. We made sure all of the dialogue, music and sounds worked together so the audience could follow the action. Then I went back through and added the rain back in. When we didn’t need it, I drifted it out. And when we needed it, I brought it back in. It took a lot of time to do that and some careful balancing to make it work.
That was a fun thing to do, but it took time. We’re working on a movie that kids and adults are going to see. We didn’t want to make it too loud. We wanted to make it comfortable. But it’s an action scene, so you want it to be exciting. And it had to work with the music. We were very careful about how loud we made things. When things started to hurt, we pulled it all back. We were diligent about keeping control of the volume and getting those balances was very difficult. We don’t want to make it too quiet, but it’s exciting. If we make it too loud then that pushes you away and you don’t pay attention.
That scene was fun in Dolby Atmos. I had the rain all around the theater, in the ceiling. But it does go away and comes back in when needed. It was a fun thing to do.
Did you have a favorite scene for mixing in Atmos?
Semanick: One of my favorite scenes for Atmos was when Bo Peep takes Woody to the top of the carousel and she asks why Woody would ever want to stay with one kid when you can have all of this. I do a subtle thing with the music — there are a few times in the film where I do this — where I pull the music forward as they’re climbing to the top of the carousel. There’s no music in the surrounds or the tops. I pull it so far forward that it’s almost mono.
Then, as they pop up from atop the carousel and the camera sweeps around, I let the music open up. I bloom it into the surrounds and into the overheads. I bloom it really hard with the camera moves. If you’re paying attention, you will feel the music sweep around you. You’re just supposed to feel it, not to really know that it happened. That’s one of the mixing techniques that I learned over the years. The picture editor, Axel Geddes, would ask me to make it “magical” and put more “magic” into it. I started to interpret that as: fill up the surrounds more.
One of the best parts of Atmos is that you have surrounds that are the same as the front speakers so the sound doesn’t fall off. It’s more full-range because it has bass management toward the back. That helps me, mix-wise, to really bring the sound into the room and fill the room out when I need to do that. There are a few scenes like that and Nathan would look at me funny and say, “Wow, I really hear it.”
We’re so concentrated on the sound. I’m just hoping that the audience will feel it wrap around them and give them a good sense of warmth. I’m trying to help push the emotional content. The music was so good. Randy Newman did a great job on a lot of the music. It really helped the story and I wanted to help that be the best it could be emotionally. It was already there, but I just wanted to give that little extra. Pulling the music into the front and then pushing out into the whole theater gave the music an emotional edge.
Nance: There are a couple of fun Atmos moments for effects. When they’re in the dark closet and the sound is happening all around. Also, when Woody wakes up from his voice box removal surgery. Michael was bringing the sewing machine right up into the overheads. We have the pull string floating around the room and into the ceiling. Those two moments were a pretty cool use of the point-source and the enveloping capability of Atmos.
What was the most challenging scene to mix? Why?
Nance: The whole scene with the lost girl and Gabby all the way through the toys’ goodbyes. That was two full sections, but we get so quiet even though there’s a huge carnival happening. It was a huge cheat. It took a lot of work to get into these quiet, delicate moments where we take everything out, all the backgrounds, and it’s very simple. Michael pulled the music forward in some of those spots and the whole mix becomes very simple and quiet. You’re almost holding your breath in these different moments with the goodbyes. Sometimes we think of the really loud, bombastic scenes as being tough. And they were! The escape from the antique store took quite a lot of work to balance and shape. But I think the quiet, delicate scenes take more work because they take more shaping.
Semanick: I agree. Those areas were very difficult. There was a whole carnival going on and I had to strip it all down. I had my moments. When they’re together above the carnival, it looks beautiful up there. The carnival rides behind them are blurry and we didn’t need to hear the sounds. We heard them before. We know what they sound like. Plus, that moment was with the toys. We were just with them. The whole world has dissolved, and the sound of the world too. You see the carnival back there, but you’re not really paying attention to it. You’re paying attention to Woody and Bo Peep or Gabby and the lost girl.
Another interesting scene was when Woody and Forky first walk through the antique store. It was interesting how the tones in each place change and the reverbs on the voices change in every single room. Those scenes were interesting. The challenge was how to establish the antique store. It’s very quiet, so we were very specific on each cut. Where are they? What’s around them? How high is the camera sitting? You start looking closely at the scene. I was able to do things with Atmos, put things in the ceiling.
What scene went through the most evolution mix-wise? What were some of the different ways you tried mixing it? Ultimately, why did you go with the way it’s mixed in the final?
Semanick: There’s a scene when Woody and Bo Peep reunite on the playground. A little girl picks up Woody and she has Bo Peep in her hands. They meet again for the first time. That scene went through changes musically and dialogue-wise. What do we hear? How much of the girl do we hear before we see Bo Peep and Woody looking at each other? We tried several different ways. There were many opinions that came in on that. When does the music bloom? When does it fill the room out? Is the score quite right? They recut the score. They had a different version.
That scene went through quite a bit of ups and downs. We weren’t sure which way to go. Ultimately, Josh was happy with it, and it plays well.
There was another version of Randy’s score that I liked. But, it’s not about what I like. It’s about how the overall room feels — if everybody feels like it’s the best that we can do. If that’s yes, then that’s the way it goes. I’ll always speak up if I have ideas. I’ll say, “Think about this. Think about that.”
That scene went through some changes, and I’m still on the fence. It works great, but I know there’s another version of the music that I preferred. I’ll just have to live with that.
Nance: We just kept trying things out on that scene until we had it feeling good, like it was hitting the right beats. We had to figure out what the timing was, what would have the most emotional impact. That’s why we tried out so many different versions.
Semanick: That’s a big moment in the film. It’s what starts the back half of the film. Woody gets reacquainted with Bo Peep and then we’re off to the races.
What console did you mix Toy Story 4 on and why?
Semanick: We both mixed on the Neve DFC. It’s my console of choice. I love the console; I love the way it sounds. I love that it has separate automation. There’s the editor’s automation that they did. I can change my automation and that doesn’t affect their automation. It’s the best of both worlds. It runs really smoothly. It’s one of the best sounding consoles around.
Nance: I really enjoy working on the Neve DFC. It’s my console of choice when there’s the option.
Semanick: There are a lot of different consoles and control surfaces you can use now, but I’m used to the DFC. I can really play the console as a musical instrument. It’s like a performance. I can perform these balances. I can grab knobs and change EQ or add reverb and pull things back. It’s like a performance and that console seems the most reliable one for me. I know it really well. It helps when you know your instrument.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share on mixing Toy Story 4?
Semanick: With these Pixar films, I get to benefit from the great storytelling and what they’ve done visually. All the aspects of these films Pixar does — the cinematography down to the lighting down to the character development, the costumes and set design — they spent so many hours debating how things are going to look and the design.
So, on the sound side, it’s about matching what they’ve done. How can I help support it? It’s amazing to me how much time they spend on these films. It’s hardcore filmmaking. It’s a cartoon, but not really. It’s a film. and it’s a really good film. You look at all the aspects of it, like how the camera moves. It’s not a real camera but you’re watching through the lens, seeing the camera angles, where and how they place the camera. They have to debate all that.
One of the hardest scenes for them must have been when Bo Peep and Woody are in the antique store and they turn and look at all the chandeliers. It was gorgeous, a beautiful shot. I bloom the music out there, around the theater. That was a delicate scene. When you look at the filmmaking they’re doing there and the reflections of the lights, you know they’re good. They’re really good.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.