By Jennifer Walden
For many sound enthusiasts, Tarzan’s iconic yell is the true legend of that story. Was it actually actor Johnny Weissmuller performing the yell? Or was it a product of post sound magic involving an opera singer, a dog, a violin and a hyena played backwards as MGM Studios claims? Whatever the origin, it doesn’t impact how recognizable that yell is, and this fact wasn’t lost on the filmmakers behind the new Warner Bros. movie The Legend of Tarzan.
The updated version is not a far cry from the original, but it is more guttural and throaty, and less like a yodel. It has an unmistakable animalistic quality. While we may never know the true story behind the original Tarzan yell, postPerspective went behind the scenes to learn how the new one was created.
Supervising sound editor/sound designer Glenn Freemantle and sound designer/re-recording mixer Niv Adiri at Sound24, a multi-award winning audio post company located on the lot of Pinewood Film Studios in Buckinghamshire, UK, reveal that they went through numerous iterations of the new Tarzan yell. “We had quite a few tries on that but in the end it’s quite a simple sound. It’s actor Alexander Skarsgård’s voice and there are some human and animal elements, like gorillas, all blended together in it,” explains Freemantle.
Since the new yell always plays in the distance, it needed to feel powerful and raw, as though Tarzan is waking up the jungle. To emphasize this, Freemantle says, “We have animal sounds rushing around the jungle after the Tarzan yell, as if he is taking control of it.”
The jungle itself is a marvel of sight and sound. Freemantle notes that everything in the film, apart from the actors on screen, was generated afterward — the Congo, the animals, even the villages and people, a harbor with ships and an action sequence involving a train. Everything.
The film was shot on a back lot of Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden, UK, so making the CGI-created Congo feel like the real deal was essential. They wanted the Congo to feel alive, and have the sound change as the characters moved through the space. Another challenge was grounding all the CG animals — the apes, wildebeests, ostriches, elephants, lions, tigers, and other animals — in that world.
When Sound24 first started on the film, a year and a half before its theatrical release, Freemantle says there was very little to work with visually. “Basically it was right from the nuts and bolts up. There was nothing there, nothing to see in the beginning apart from still pictures and previz. Then all the apes, animals and jungles were put in and gradually the visuals were built up. We were building temp mixes for the editors to use in their cut, so it was like a progression of sound over time,” he says.
Sound24’s sound design got increasingly detailed as the visuals presented more details. They went from building ambient background for different parts of Africa — from the deep jungle to the open plains — at different times of the day and night to covering footsteps for the CG gorillas. The sound design team included Ben Barker, Tom Sayers, and Eilam Hoffman, with sound effects editing by Dan Freemantle and Robert Malone. Editing dialogue and ADR was Gillian Dodders. Foley was recorded at Shepperton Studios by Foley mixer Glen Gathard.
Since capturing their own field recordings in the Congo would have proved too challenging, Sound 24 opted to source sound recordings authentic to that area. They also researched and collected the best animal sounds they could find, which were particularly useful for the gorilla design.
Sound24’s sound design team designed the gorillas to have a range of reactions, from massive roars and growls to smaller grunts and snorts. They cut and layered different animal sounds, including processed human vocalizations, to create a wide range of gorilla sounds.
There were three main gorillas, and each sounds a bit different, but the most domineering of all was Akut. During a fight between Akut and Tarzan, Adiri notes that in the mix, they wanted to communicate Akut’s presence and power through sound. “We tried to create dynamics within Akut’s voice so that you feel that he is putting in a lot of effort into the fight. You see him breathing hard and moving, so his voice had to have his movement in it. We had to make it dynamic and make sure that there was space for the hits, and the falls, and whatever is happening visually. We had to make sure that all of the sounds are really tied to the animal and you feel that he’s not some super ape, but he’s real,” Adiri says. They also designed sounds for the gang of gorillas that came to egg on Akut in his fight.
All the effects, Foley and backgrounds were edited and premixed in Avid Pro Tools 11. Since Sound24 had been working on The Legend of Tarzan for over a year, keeping everything in the box allowed them to update their session over time and still have access to previous elements and temp mixes. “The mix was evolving throughout the sound editorial process. Once we had that first temp mix we just kept working with that, remixing sounds and reworking scenes but it was all done in the box up until the final mix. We never started the mix from scratch on the dub stage,” says Adiri.
For the final Dolby Atmos mix at Warner Bros. De Lane Lea Studios in London, Adiri and Freemantle brought in their Avid S6 console to studio. “That surface was brilliant for us,” says Adiri, who mixed the effects/Foley/backgrounds. He shared the board with re-recording mixer Ian Tapp, on dialogue/music.
Adiri feels the Atmos surround field worked best for quiet moments, like during a wide aerial shot of the jungle where the camera moves down through the canopy to the jungle floor. There he was able to move through layers of sounds, from the top speakers down, and have the ambience change as the camera’s position changed. Throughout the jungle scenes, he used the Atmos surrounds to place birds and distant animal cries, slowly panning them around the theater to make the audience feel as though they are surrounded by a living jungle.
He also likes to use the overhead speakers for rain ambience. “It’s nice to use them in quieter scenes when you can really feel the space, moving sounds around in a more subliminal way, rather than using them to be in-your-face. Rain is always good because it’s a bright sound. You know that it is coming from above you. It’s good for that very directional sort of sound.”
Ambience wasn’t the only sound that Adiri worked with in Atmos. He also used it to pan the sounds of monkeys swinging through the trees and soaring overhead, and for Tarzan’s swinging. “We used it for these dynamic moments in the storytelling rather than filling up those speakers all the time. For the moments when we do use the Atmos field, it’s striking and that becomes a moment to remember, rather than just sound all the time,” concludes Freemantle.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer.