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PP-Polar Express sidebar-Randy Thom


By Mary Ann SkweresRandy Thom’s pedigree in the business is first-rate. He began working for Lucasfilm in 1979, won an Academy Award for The Right Stuff and has been nominated for nine Academy Awards in all. Thom may want to call 2004 his year of animation. He worked on The Polar Express, The Incredibles, Shrek 2 and The Ghost in the Shell.For The Polar Express, nearly all of the sounds were invented in post, except for bits and pieces of the dialog and production effects recorded during the motion-capture shoot. Even though it was a bit noisy, the sounds of Tom Hanks and the other actors moving around on a real stage adds a gritty realism and a live-action feel that is very difficult to create artificially. Because most dialog was ADR, it was treated to make to make it more believable. For instance, when the conductor is in the metal engine compartment everything is quiet except for the dialog that has a metallic ringing. Thom used an artificial reverberation to simulate the inside of an oil drum and expanded it to sound like a larger space.“The sounds of the train were the biggest challenge in the film,” says Thom. “It has to sound like a real steam train, but it also has to be much larger than life and more interesting and varied than a real train would be. [Director Robert] Zemeckis encouraged me from the beginning to make the train as much of a character as possible and to feel free to make it musical.” The audience never hears an unaltered recording of a train. The sound is manufactured out of raw materials. From the beginning they wanted the train to sound alive. One of the elements is breathing, hidden under real stream. To make it musical Thom used the idea that cooling hot metal vibrates, rings and ticks. He ran a violin bow over big pieces of sheet metal to create the metallic ringing sounds as the boy stands next to the train in the snow.Picture changes are always a challenge. Thom knew if they would be in trouble if they only cut in actual train sounds. There are three main parts to the steam train sound—chugging, steam and the clickity-clack of wheels on the rails. If picture changes affected the speed of the train, Thom had two options: to hire an army of editors to re-cut each individual chug to make it match the action, or to use MIDI. Thom chose the second solution. Using a real steam train, he made isolated, close-up recording of the specific elements. These were loaded into a piano-style keyboard. “We could perform the train, perform the chugs, perform the steam, perform the rail clacks,” Thom explains. “All you have to do when the picture changes—and suddenly the train is accelerating faster—is one little step of altering the tempo map in MIDI and you’re done.”The beginning of sound design is always in the script and in the director’s vision of the movie. There are different moments to focus on the dialog, effects and music. “One of the great things about Zemeckis, he thinks in terms of sound when he is writing the script and directing the film. Another great thing is that he’s confident enough in the story that he’s telling that he doesn’t feel that he has to fire all his sound ammunition at once.”

Written by Mary Ann Skweres

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