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Wonder Park’s whimsical sound

By Jennifer Walden

The imagination of a young girl comes to life in the animated feature Wonder Park. A Paramount Animation and Nickelodeon Movies film, the story follows June (Brianna Denski) and her mother (Jennifer Garner) as they build a pretend amusement park in June’s bedroom. There are rides that defy the laws of physics — like a merry-go-round with flying fish that can leave the carousel and travel all over the park; a Zero-G-Land where there’s no gravity; a waterfall made of firework sparks; a super tube slide made from bendy straws; and other wild creations.

But when her mom gets sick and leaves for treatment, June’s creative spark fizzles out. She disassembles the park and packs it away. Then one day as June heads home through the woods, she stumbles onto a real-life Wonderland that mirrors her make-believe one. Only this Wonderland is falling apart and being consumed by the mysterious Darkness. June and the park’s mascots work together to restore Wonderland by stopping the Darkness.

Even in its more tense moments — like June and her friend Banky (Oev Michael Urbas) riding a homemade rollercoaster cart down their suburban street and nearly missing an on-coming truck — the sound isn’t intense. The cart doesn’t feel rickety or squeaky, like it’s about to fly apart (even though the brake handle breaks off). There’s the sense of danger that could result in non-serious injury, but never death. And that’s perfect for the target audience of this film — young children. Wonder Park is meant to be sweet and fun, and supervising sound editor John Marquis captures that masterfully.

Marquis and his core team — sound effects editor Diego Perez, sound assistant Emma Present, dialogue/ADR editor Michele Perrone and Foley supervisor Jonathan Klein — handled sound design, sound editorial and pre-mixing at E² Sound on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.

Marquis was first introduced to Wonder Park back in 2013, but the team’s real work began in January 2017. The animated sequences steadily poured in for 17 months. “We had a really long time to work the track, to get some of the conceptual sounds nailed down before going into the first preview. We had two previews with temp score and then two more with mockups of composer Steven Price’s score. It was a real luxury to spend that much time massaging and nitpicking the track before getting to the dub stage. This made the final mix fun; we were having fun mixing and not making editorial choices at that point.”

The final mix was done at Technicolor’s Stage 1, with re-recording mixers Anna Behlmer (effects) and Terry Porter (dialogue/music).

Here, Marquis shares insight on how he created the whimsical sound of Wonder Park, from the adorable yet naughty chimpanzombies to the tonally pleasing, rhythmic and resonant bendy-straw slide.

The film’s sound never felt intense even in tense situations. That approach felt perfectly in-tune with the sensibilities of the intended audience. Was that the initial overall goal for this soundtrack?
When something was intense, we didn’t want it to be painful. We were always in search of having a nice round sound that had the power to communicate the energy and intensity we wanted without having the pointy, sharp edges that hurt. This film is geared toward a younger audience and we were supersensitive about that right out of the gate, even without having that direction from anyone outside of ourselves.

I have two kids — one 10 and one five. Often, they will pop by the studio and listen to what we’re doing. I can get a pretty good gauge right off the bat if we’re doing something that is not resonating with them. Then, we can redirect more toward the intended audience. I pretty much previewed every scene for my kids, and they were having a blast. I bounced ideas off of them so the soundtrack evolved easily toward their demographic. They were at the forefront of our thoughts when designing these sequences.

John Marquis recording the bendy straw sound.

There were numerous opportunities to create fun, unique palettes of sound for this park and these rides that stem from this little girl’s imagination. If I’m a little kid and I’m playing with a toy fish and I’m zipping it around the room, what kind of sound am I making? What kind of sounds am I imagining it making?

This film reminded me of being a kid and playing with toys. So, for the merry-go-round sequence with the flying fish, I asked my kids, “What do you think that would sound like?” And they’d make some sound with their mouths and start playing, and I’d just riff off of that.

I loved the sound of the bendy-straw slide — from the sound of it being built, to the characters traveling through it, and even the reverb on their voices while inside of it. How did you create those sounds?
Before that scene came to us, before we talked about it or saw it, I had the perfect sound for it. We had been having a lot of rain, so I needed to get an expandable gutter for my house. It starts at about one-foot long but can be pulled out to three-feet long if needed. It works exactly like a bendy-straw, but it’s huge. So when I saw the scene in the film, I knew I had the exact, perfect sound for it.

We mic’d it with a Sanken CO-100k, inside and out. We pulled the tube apart and closed it, and got this great, ribbed, rippling, zuzzy sound. We also captured impulse responses inside the tube so we could create custom reverbs. It was one of those magical things that I didn’t even have to think about or go hunting for. This one just fell in my lap. It’s a really fun and tonal sound. It’s musical and has a rhythm to it. You can really play with the Doppler effect to create interesting pass-bys for the building sequences.

Another fun sequence for sound was inside Zero-G-Land. How did you come up with those sounds?
That’s a huge, open space. Our first instinct was to go with a very reverberant sound to showcase the size of the space and the fact that June is in there alone. But as we discussed it further, we came to the conclusion that since this is a zero-gravity environment there would be no air for the sound waves to travel through. So, we decided to treat it like space. That approach really worked out because in the scene proceeding Zero-G-Land, June is walking through a chasm and there are huge echoes. So the contrast between that and the air-less Zero-G-Land worked out perfectly.

Inside Zero-G-Land’s tight, quiet environment we have the sound of these giant balls that June is bouncing off of. They look like balloons so we had balloon bounce sounds, but it wasn’t whimsical enough. It was too predictable. This is a land of imagination, so we were looking for another sound to use.

John Marquis with the Wind Wand.

My friend has an instrument called a Wind Wand, which combines the sound of a didgeridoo with a bullroarer. The Wind Wand is about three feet long and has a gigantic rubber band that goes around it. When you swing the instrument around in the air, the rubber band vibrates. It almost sounds like an organic lightsaber-like sound. I had been playing around with that for another film and thought the rubbery, resonant quality of its vibration could work for these gigantic ball bounces. So we recorded it and applied mild processing to get some shape and movement. It was just a bit of pitching and Doppler effect; we didn’t have to do much to it because the actual sound itself was so expressive and rich and it just fell into place. Once we heard it in the cut, we knew it was the right sound.

How did you approach the sound of the chimpanzombies? Again, this could have been an intense sound, but it was cute! How did you create their sounds?
The key was to make them sound exciting and mischievous instead of scary. It can’t ever feel like June is going to die. There is danger. There is confusion. But there is never a fear of death.

The chimpanzombies are actually these Wonder Chimp dolls gone crazy. So they were all supposed to have the same voice — this pre-recorded voice that is in every Wonder Chimp doll. So, you see this horde of chimpanzombies coming toward you and you think something really threatening is happening but then you start to hear them and all they are saying is, “Welcome to Wonderland!” or something sweet like that. It’s all in a big cacophony of high-pitched voices, and they have these little squeaky dog-toy feet. So there’s this contrast between what you anticipate will be scary but it turns out these things are super-cute.

The big challenge was that they were all supposed to sound the same, just this one pre-recorded voice that’s in each one of these dolls. I was afraid it was going to sound like a wall of noise that was indecipherable, and a big, looping mess. There’s a software program that I ended up using a lot on this film. It’s called Sound Particles. It’s really cool, and I’ve been finding a reason to use it on every movie now. So, I loaded this pre-recorded snippet from the Wonder Chimp doll into Sound Particles and then changed different parameters — I wanted a crowd of 20 dolls that could vary in pitch by 10%, and they’re going to walk by at a medium pace.

Changing the parameters will change the results, and I was able to make a mass of different voices based off of this one, individual audio file. It worked perfectly once I came up with a recipe for it. What would have taken me a day or more — to individually pitch a copy of a file numerous times to create a crowd of unique voices — only took me a few minutes. I just did a bunch of varieties of that, with smaller groups and bigger groups, and I did that with their feet as well. The key was that the chimpanzombies were all one thing, but in the context of music and dialogue, you had to be able to discern the individuality of each little one.

There’s a fun scene where the chimpanzombies are using little pickaxes and hitting the underside of the glass walkway that June and the Wonderland mascots are traversing. How did you make that?
That was for Fireworks Falls; one of the big scenes that we had waited a long time for. We weren’t really sure how that was going to look — if the waterfall would be more fiery or more sparkly.

The little pickaxes were a blacksmith’s hammer beating an iron bar on an anvil. Those “tink” sounds were pitched up and resonated just a little bit to give it a glass feel. The key with that, again, was to try to make it cute. You have these mischievous chimpanzombies all pecking away at the glass. It had to sound like they were being naughty, not malicious.

When the glass shatters and they all fall down, we had these little pinball bell sounds that would pop in from time to time. It kept the scene feeling mildly whimsical as the debris is falling and hitting the patio umbrellas and tables in the background.

Here again, it could have sounded intense as June makes her escape using the patio umbrella, but it didn’t. It sounded fun!
I grew up in the Midwest and every July 4th we would shoot off fireworks on the front lawn and on the sidewalk. I was thinking about the fun fireworks that I remembered, like sparklers, and these whistling spinning fireworks that had a fun acceleration sound. Then there were bottle rockets. When I hear those sounds now I remember the fun time of being a kid on July 4th.

So, for the Fireworks Falls, I wanted to use those sounds as the fun details, the top notes that poke through. There are rocket crackles and whistles that support the low-end, powerful portion of the rapids. As June is escaping, she’s saying, “This is so amazing! This is so cool!” She’s a kid exploring something really amazing and realizing that this is all of the stuff that she was imagining and is now experiencing for real. We didn’t want her to feel scared, but rather to be overtaken by the joy and awesomeness of what she’s experiencing.

The most ominous element in the park is the Darkness. What was your approach to the sound in there?
It needed to be something that was more mysterious than ominous. It’s only scary because of the unknown factor. At first, we played around with storm elements, but that wasn’t right. So I played around with a recording of my son as a baby; he’s cooing. I pitched that sound down a ton, so it has this natural, organic, undulating, human spine to it. I mixed in some dissonant windchimes. I have a nice set of windchimes at home and I arranged them so they wouldn’t hit in a pleasing way. I pitched those way down, and it added a magical/mystical feel to the sound. It’s almost enticing June to come and check it out.

The Darkness is the thing that is eating up June’s creativity and imagination. It’s eating up all of the joy. It’s never entirely clear what it is though. When June gets inside the Darkness, everything is silent. The things in there get picked up and rearranged and dropped. As with the Zero-G-Land moment, we bring everything to a head. We go from a full-spectrum sound, with the score and June yelling and the sound design, to a quiet moment where we only hear her breathing. For there, it opens up and blossoms with the pulse of her creativity returning and her memories returning. It’s a very subjective moment that’s hard to put into words.

When June whispers into Peanut’s ear, his marker comes alive again. How did you make the sound of Peanut’s marker? And how did you give it movement?
The sound was primarily this ceramic, water-based bird whistle, which gave it a whimsical element. It reminded me of a show I watched when I was little where the host would draw with his marker and it would make a little whistling, musical sound. So anytime the marker was moving, it would make this really fun sound. This marker needed to feel like something you would pick up and wave around. It had to feel like something that would inspire you to draw and create with it.

To get the movement, it was partially performance based and partially done by adding in a Doppler effect. I used variations in the Waves Doppler plug-in. This was another sound that I also used Sound Particles for, but I didn’t use it to generate particles. I used it to generate varied movement for a single source, to give it shape and speed.

Did you use Sound Particles on the paper flying sound too? That one also had a lot of movement, with lots of twists and turns.
No, that one was an old-fashioned fader move. What gave that sound its interesting quality — this soft, almost ethereal and inviting feel — was the practical element we used to create the sound. It was a piece of paper bag that was super-crumpled up, so it felt fluttery and soft. Then, every time it moved, it had a vocally whoosh element that gave it personality. So once we got that practical element nailed down, the key was to accentuate it with a little wispy whoosh to make it feel like the paper was whispering to June, saying, “Come follow me!”

Wonder Park is in theaters now. Go see it!


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.


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