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Introducing Stuart Little

Columbia's Christmas spectacular movie, Stuart Little, grew a big sound from a little voice. Mel Lambert explores audio production in an American children's playground

EB WHITE'S POPULAR 1945 novel, Stuart Little, is Columbia Pictures' 1999 Christmas major-cinema release. It combines live action, digital character animation and effects presenting director Rob Minkoff with the challenge of merging Sony Pictures Imageworks visual effects (Godzilla, City of Angels, Contact) with live action. The story chronicles the experiences of a mouse adopted by a human family, and who embarks on adventures with a variety of characters, including his nemesis, Snowbell the cat (voiced by The Lion King's Nathan Lane). Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie play Little's adopted parents, while Michael J Fox supplies the voice for a coming-of-age tale that focuses on a small, yet intimate portrait of contemporary middle-class New York.

In essence, this big-screen adaptation of America's beloved children's story can be compared to such films as Babe, Toy Story and A Bug's Life in that the world is seen from a decidedly different point of view. The chief difference between these films and Stuart Little is in the dimension of performance-based, photo-realistic digital character creation. Where Toy Story and A Bug's Life created digital characters, they were synthetic characters populating a synthetic world. In Babe, a combination of techniques including photographing real animals, animatronic animals and digital facial replacement were employed to create the talking animals. In contrast, the character of Stuart Little was created by entirely synthetic means and integrated into a real world. From both the visual effects and sound points of view, both sets of artists began with the same basic elements--the sound of the voice actor and nothing else. What the finished movies contain reflects the collective effort of a team charged with creating something big from very little.

Supervising Sound Editor on the project was Larry Mann, an LA-based freelance editor who assembled his editorial crew at Sony Picture Entertainment's multiroomed postproduction lot in Culver City, to work on the intricate sound design required to create the intimate world of Stuart Little. The supervisor has worked in the past on such films as The Quick and the Dead with director Sam Raimi, Soul Food, with George Tillman, Jr, and Extreme Measures, with Michael Apted; sound editing chores have included Meet Joe Black, Anaconda, Con Air, The Rock, Waterworld, The Shadow and Patriot Games. (He has also worked on a number of TV shows, including Chicago Hope, and several Movies of the Week for TNT, and Disney.)

Mann says that he worked closely with picture editor Tom Finan, to determine the basic pacing of the film, but was left pretty much on his own to develop the individual 'sound signatures' and overall 'sonic theme' for the picture. (Mann had worked previously with Finan on Pet Sematary, and Problem Child.) 'Our biggest challenge,' he considers, 'was to create such a convincing sound environment for the CGI character of Stuart Little, that audiences would forget that he was, in fact, computer generated, and treat him just as if he was a... mouse that was confused about being human.

'We also focused on creating a larger-that-life sonic signature that we could transition into when the action entered Stuart's World, as we referred to it. Being small we wanted to capture that essential feeling of experiencing the world from Stuart's perspective.

'So whenever we were seeing or experiencing the action through Stuart's eyes--and there are several high-energy chases sequences where this approach became particularly appropriate, including a journey in a boat through the lake in [New York's] Central Park--the large objects around Stuart needed to be 'amplified' and enlarged to make it obvious that not only were we now in Stuart's inner world but that we were kind of overawed by it, just as children are when they first experience the big city, for example.

'In contrast, the family world that Stuart enjoys--the kitchen and the other rooms within the Little household --were to be treated as 'normal' environments, with all of the sonic details that audiences expect from a big-time movie soundtrack. We styled the Little home--a small house situated between high-rise skyscrapers close to Central Park--like a mid-west location, to emphasise the tranquillity and safety aspect for Stuart. But there were exceptions within the house; the washing machine, for example, in which Stuart becomes trapped, needed to be made more threatening and bigger than life.'

Assisting Mann in handling the complex task of editing the various dialogue, effects, Foley, ADR, backgrounds and related elements, and providing sound design input, were a seasoned crew, several of whom he had worked as the Supervising Sound Editor on past movies. The majority were hired by Mann as freelancers, working within Sony Picture's well-equipped editing rooms; predubs, rerecording and print mastering of the final multichannel soundtrack took place in Sony's William Holden Theatre, with rerecording mixer Paul Massey as gaffer, handling dialogue and music, with Doug Hemphill handling effects and Foley. (Mann had worked previously with the mixing team on Extreme Measures. In early January 2000, Massey and Hemphill moved across town to the John Ford Theatre at Fox Studios' new dubbing complex.)

Mann's first assistant editor was Ann Ducommun, who also functioned as 'Information Central' as the supervising sound editor put it; Suhail Kafity handled FX editing, with Steve Ticknor (who also handled several Temp Dubs); Cindy Marty supervised ADR editing, plus prerecords; Fred Stafford was an ADR editor; Linda Folk handled ADR editing; Dave Arnold and Duke Brown handled dialogue and ADR editing, plus prerecords; Mark Pappas was Foley supervisor, working with Foley editor Gary Wright while Chris Winter oversaw the inloading of production dialogue and related files into the Pro Tools workstations from OMF files created by the picture editors. Wright was also responsible for managing hard drives, co-ordination the inload of sound effects, predubs, laybacks, assisting the editors and Pro Tools management, troubleshooting, and so on.

All sound editing was handled on individual Digidesign Pro Tools systems, working from production dialogue recorded onto time-code DAT machines plus effects pulled from Mann's extensive library of analogue and digital elements. 'We were also able to playback our edited Pro Tools session projects on the [rerecording] stage via removable hard drives loaded into the new Sony DADR-5000 [16-channel] digital dubbers,' which are now fully file-compatible. 'That way we could playback elements directly from the Sony drives featured on the William Holden stage used to remix Stuart Little. Extensive Foley elements and ADR were also recorded directly to DADR-5000 hard drives that were loaded into Pro Tools for editing.

Because of the CGI nature of the film's main character, all that the editorial team had in the way of production sound was the prerecorded voice of Michael J. Fox. As Supervising Foley Artist Gary Hecker explains, 'We had to create everything else in Stuart's world, including all of his footsteps, clothing rustles, movements, slides and the myriad other 'sonic seasonings' that a mouse makes as it moves around. I placed myself
--quite literally--in Stuart's shoes, and created his whole environment on the Foley stage, [to make] the CGI character appear real and totally believable on the screen. Our intention was to bring life to this charming, computer-generated character.'

Creating all of the Foley elements for the boat race through New York's Central Park was particularly demanding, Hecker recalls. 'Rather than pull sound-effect elements, we created all of the dynamic sounds of the wind, water, sails here on the Foley stage. We recorded stereo sails slaps--so that the mixer could establish a very realistic-sounding perspective--plus mono water splashes, waves, winds, and a whole slew of 'detailing' elements that [Larry Mann] thought would be required to convince the audience that Stuart Little--in his inner world--was really in trouble on this "Sea in Central Park," and join him in his anxiety and excitement.' Assisting Hecker on the Foley stage at Sony Pictures was Michael Broomberg, working with engineer Richard Duarte

'Normally, an editor will pull standard effects for water, winds and one or two other elements,' Hecker says. 'We wanted to create a total environment; and the only way we concluded we could do that was to actually recreate the Central Park lake on the Foley stage.' An added bonus, Hecker offers, was that all sounds were in hard sync with picture, thus saving the sound effects editors many man-hours of resyncing effects from a library, or recorded specifically for an action sequence. On these busy reels, Foley Elements were recorded across 16 tracks of Pro Tools for editing by the editorial team ready for the temp mixes and predubs. 'Foley is used to compliment the library of sound effects,' Mann offers.

In late October, the series of predubs were going extremely well, Mann reports. 'But we are already four revisions behind the picture changes,' he offers, with a grin. 'And we need to reconform those predubbed tracks once we see the latest batch of opticals and picture changes. It's a continual "catch-up" we always play with films like Stuart Little, where there are a lot of last-minute changes being made in the visuals. So we need to be very flexible--and prepared to put in late hours--reworking tracks and pulling new effects as we secure the latest picture changes.'

By this stage, Mann reports, 'we are premixing in full 8-channel SDDS which really does sound great. We mixed a lot of the important boat-chase sequence in Central Park using 8-track predubs of water, wind and other boat sounds. The two additional behind-the-screen [inner-left and inner-right] channels offered by SDDS meant that we could build more layers of effects, without blocking out or being masked by the score, which is also quite dynamic at that point in the action sequence. For me, SDDS offers an great deal more creativity--and sound-design options--than conventional [6-channel release] formats.'

The process of temp mixes began, Mann recalls, started way back in December 1998, a year before the film's scheduled release, and a month after the completion of principal photography.

'We knew that we had a studio screening of some of the early computer-generated scenes in January of this year. Laying up elements for the first temp dub, Mann recalls, was greatly simplified by the fact that he could import OMFI (Open Media Framework Interchange) files from the Avid Film Composer system used to edit the visuals. 'We used a 24-bit Pro Tools system running at 29.97Hz [video colour-reference, rather that 30Hz/film], but for the subsequent temps and the Finals, we down-sampled to 16-bit. We did this for two reasons. Firstly, to save disk space, but secondly because we wanted to stay compatible--bit for bit--with the 16-bit Avid system, so that we could take [SDII or AAIF] files [as well as OMFI data] from the picture editors, and save time during reconfirming between different temp dubs.'

'So I worked on a rough temp dub using effects from my library,' the editor continues, 'which we mixed in just two days. The sound crew were put on hiatus from February 1999 through June, and brought back for a second Temp Dub in June. For that second temp --when we need to see how the soundtrack played against more advanced CGI scenes--I kept everything I had from Temp No.1, and worked on refining the sound design and overall detailing. We did another Temp Dub in early August, to see how certain key scenes were playing with the gradually developing graphics and other visuals. In reality, the Temp Dubs simply transitioned into the predubs that we were continually refining for the Finals and SDDS Print Mastering from late November until early December of this year.

A key contributor to the various temp dubs was Steve Ticknor, who was able to use Sony Pictures custom-developed mix-to-picture suite to quickly create a more realistic sounding temporary mix than might be possible on a conventional dubbing stage. Ticknor also handled sound-effects editing.

'Because of the integration offered by the Pro Control system we have here, Larry and Rob Minkoff were able to refine the mix more quickly, because I could replace elements real fast, and move sync markers for anything that we wanted to slip on the track.'

Ticknor's room features a 32-channel /4-layer Pro Control system, linked to a full-loaded Pro Tools DAW equipped with three 8:8:8 convertors for 24-channel I-O and capable of 128-track internal playback. An Otari PicMix System built into the control surface handles multichannel monitoring and loudspeaker re-assignments. PEC-DIR control switches for the suite's pair of DADR-5000 dubbers is also featured. Other recorders include Tascam 24-bit DAT decks and a pair of DA-88 digital 8-tracks. Monitoring is via a 5.1-channel Event Electronics 20/20 bi-amplified system with Ashley 24-bit Protea room equalisation and subwoofer. Outboard includes an Eventide DSP 4500, a new Drawmer Master Flow DC2476, tc electronic Fireworks, Yamaha YDP2006, two dbx DDP Digital Dynamics Processors, tc electronic M3000, and Lexicon PCM-91 and PCM-300 units. Two flat-screen monitors provide display of system data, and flank a central large -format video monitor for the work print.

'Because of the speed and flexibility offered by this configuration,' Ticknor reasons, 'I could offer the director different ideas about the way we might realise his wish for the "inner" and "outer" worlds of Stuart Little, and how these might be achieved in a realistic and meticulous way. We needed to 'Make the familiar sound unfamiliar.' For example, I was able to sweeten the sounds of water with underwater sounds to enrich the track, and make it more enveloping for the audience. I also processed the sound of bubbles for one scene to make the texture more defined and edgy.'

Ticknor also reports that a number of ADR lines were recorded in a small vocal booth in the rear of his mix suite. Prior to a screening for studio personnel, 'Rob [Minkoff] wanted to see how one or two scenes played with different dialogue lines [for the principal actors]. So, rather than move into an ADR Studio, we simply recorded the tracks in the voice-over booth directly to Pro Tools, synchronised them to the work print, and could hear the results in couple of seconds.

'Rob says that he felt right at home in this room. Our mixes translate extremely well to the large stages here at Sony [the William Holden and Kim Novak Stages, plus the Cary Grant], yet retain the intimacy of a smaller suite. I believe when Rob first came here [for the Temp Dub], he'd never used a room like this.

'But, having screened the first mixes to 20 or 30 studio executives--at which meeting they needed to make some critical decisions about the film--the sound we produced here was totally on. It translated in a predictable, totally realistic way, and it proved to be a good experience. Having worked to 2:00am to complete this mix, I'm real glad that we could make such a good job of the temp tracks.'

'For example, when Stuart's model car is being driven through a large tunnel in Central Park, and goes over a cliff,' Mann recalls, 'we needed to add a dramatic sense with a big impact--Steve could do that quickly using the array of [digital ambience and reverb] outboards in his room.'

'And the quality of Foley elements that we received for the final Temp Mixes was outstanding,' Ticknor says. 'Gary [Hecker] and his crew prepared some great tracks for us--he's one of the top three Foley artists in the industry. We had wonderfully detailed tracks for the chase and other sequences. For me, there are two key factors in Foley recording: sound quality, which had to be meticulous on Stuart Little, so that we can blend up to a dozen or more tracks without worrying about noise or other parameters; and frame-accurate synchronisation, which saves us a lot of time on a mix. Gary was able to give us that, and more.'

For the predubs and finals, the project moved into Sony's William Holden Rerecording Theatre, equipped with a fully-automated 240-input/72-bus GLW Harrison MPC digitally controlled analogue console. Rerecording mixer Paul Massey was responsible for dialogue and music, while Doug Hemphill mixed special effects and Foley. Mann says that the predubs prepared on removable Pro Tools drive arrays comprised 32 channels of backgrounds, 32 channels of hard effects--'aside from the boat effects, which were 64 channels wide' --plus eight channels of Foley per reel, and eight channels of dialogue per reel. The music for Stuart Little was mixed in 6-channel SDDS. The film's score was composed by Alan Silvestri.

'With more on-screen playback channels available than are offered by other replay formats,' Mann considers, 'I could provide more sonic 'detailing' on the soundtrack. Those extra inner loudspeakers were used primarily for sound effects, including Stuart's movements. The sense of being totally enveloped in high-detail sound was particularly noticeable on this soundtrack.'

As Mann points out, 'In a big movie theatre, with a 65-foot screen, SDDS provides us with five, full-range loudspeakers. We can use those speaker channels to enhance an audience's sonic experience by providing highly realistic pan movement from right to left. And the additional inner pair means we have more options for effects tracks.'   
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