For the first time in the history of the sound bake-off—the selection process that determines the sound editing Academy Award nominations—two animated films have made the shortlist. Interestingly, both of were edited and mixed by Skywalker Sound’s Randy Thom: producer Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express and writer/director Brad Bird’s The Incredibles.For The Polar Express, Thom had both a magical script—from the classic Christmas tale by Chris Van Allsburg—and a director with a strong vision plus a true understanding of the emotional power of sound. To create the story’s central “character,” Thom used everything from real steam train sounds to running a violin bow over pieces of sheet metal to create layers of metallic ringing that could be stacked up to form new sounds. Because Zemeckis wanted the train to sound alive, Thom even slipped in human breathing, layered beneath the real steam.“The train had to be a central character,” says Thom. “It had to sound like a real steam train, but it also had to be much larger than life and in some ways, more interesting and varied than a real train would be.”Thom made isolated, close-up recordings of all the various train elements, loading them into a piano-style keyboard so he could match to picture with tempo changes for the chugs, steam and rail clacks.In contrast to action pictures, in animation all the sound is invented in post. To give the illusion of reality in The Incredibles, Thom grounded the sound in a realistic, naturalistic style. The sound effects were all real recorded sounds; none were electronically synthesized.“Real sounds have a complexity that makes people feel like they’re really there,” says Thom. “The more real sounds you have, the more real it will sound.”Writer/director Brad Bird was a fan of the early James Bond movies and he wanted to pay homage to those films visually, in the score and with the sound. “He wanted it [the sound design] to be future retro,” says Thom.
Written by Mary Ann Skweres