Asbjoern Andersen

‘The Little Price’ by Kung-fu Panda director Mark Osborne – based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s timeless classic – is the biggest success of all time for a French animated film abroad, grossing $70 million worldwide so far.

In this in-depth A Sound Effect interview, Michal Fojcik speaks with supervising sound designer Tim Nielsen (‘Finding Dory’, ‘Avatar’, ‘LOTR’) about the sound for the film – a film that turned out to be one of Tim’s absolute favorite sound projects ever. Get the inspiring story below:

Update: Republished to celebrate that, as of today, ‘The Little Prince’ can now be seen on Netflix. Enjoy!

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How long did it take you to create the sound for The Little Prince? Were you involved in pre-production? When did you start working on the project?

I wasn’t involved in pre-production. I got involved last fall for a very short temp mix. The director, Mark Osborne, really wanted to begin exploring what the sounds of the different worlds of the film were. So I came on for just three days, did a very quick pass through the movie to really focus on some important areas of the sound design. Mark knew the importance that sound would play in the film, and so I think maybe he was a bit relieved to find some people who also recognized that right away as well. So after that quick week, Chris Barnett, who had done the temp mix with me, and I were invited to do the movie. Chris handled dialog editing, and in the final mix, he mixed the dialog and music, which I handled effects and foley. The bulk of the work started in January and we wrapped the mix by April. So it wasn’t a particularly long job.

There are a few visual aesthetics in the film. The most important are world of The Little Girl and her Mother which is 3D animation and the other one is stop motion animation of The Little Prince. I wanted to ask you about how visual styles affected the sound and how the process of finding individual tone for different visual worlds looked like.

That was very important and really the reason the film came to us in the beginning. There are two different worlds in the 3D animated sections of the world too: the world of the Little Girl, and the world of the Aviator. We knew that over the course of the film, those worlds would all be somewhat fluid, the sounds of the Aviator would slowly creep into the world of the Little Girl. So we had those three distinct worlds, and each needed their own sound. The sound of the stop-motion world we really wanted to be special, and those were some of my favorite parts of the movie to work on.

It’s the literal part of the book, so I wanted those sections to have a very beautiful sound; haunting, lonely, magical, to match the amazing work of the stop-motion crew. So for sure the visual styles of the film gave us some great opportunities to play with creating different sound worlds. And certainly we followed the cues of the visuals to help create those worlds.

I wanted those sections to have a very beautiful sound; haunting, lonely, magical, to match the amazing work of the stop-motion crew

The world of the Little Girl is one of straight lines, empty spaces, repetitive geometry… So the sounds in her world become very mechanical, the very rhythmic sound of a sprinkler, a single regimented cricket, clocks ticking.

The world of the Aviator is entirely different, his is a lush world, so everything in his world reflects that. His house, his yard, they are filled with homemade sculptures, chimes, wind in trees, lush birds. Even something as simple as room-tone was worked on quite a bit to differentiate their two worlds. His house creaks, and ticks and pops, the wind gently whistles through the windows. The home of the Little Girl and her mother is very stifled, very still with air, almost like the house is holding it’s breath.

We also have different places which have their own tone. For example corpo-world and home of The Little Girl is very well organized and focused on activity. Sound of this world is very often rhythmic and greatly complements the score, which is awesome by itself. I wanted to ask how your cooperation with composers (Richard Harvey and Hans Zimmer) looked like. There is a great short sequence of The Little Girl unpacking in new home, where music and sound effects create one coherent track. How was it made?

I didn’t actually have much back and forth with the composer. Early on, I sent down an FX Stem of what I was working on, and I’m not positive if they used it much at all or not. But even in the script phase, sound had been thought out, and the one thing I did make an effort to protect were some of the sound transitions of the film. Moving in and out of the stop motion world is often accompanied with a sound transition. So I remember writing Mark, just before he was going down to spot with the composers, to ask them to be careful in those moments, to allow us to explore!

I really felt we had a great chance there to do some beautiful work, I’m grateful that they were very gentle around those areas, either avoiding them entirely, or keeping orchestration very simple around those moments. I think the score came that was written for the film is amazing, and really there were very few times at all that I found what they were doing and what I wanted to do with the sound to conflict. I give a lot of credit to Mark, who had done a great job marking up where there would be score in the film early on, and mostly we stuck to that. In the scene that you’re talking about, the temp music that as there early on was very rhythmic, it has a very strong ‘metronome’ feel to it, so it was luckily picture was already built around sound in a lot of ways. The picture was really cut to have a lot of the those events line up with beats in the music, her putting the books on the shelf, etc.

You are also responsible for the mix of this film. There are a lot of great mix decisions, when music and sound effects help each other creating emotions. Like in the scene when The Little Girl takes off the plane and flies, where sound effects step back sometimes to leave space for music. When were this decisions made – during editing or during the mix? How do you communicate with composers when working on such complex scenes?

A lot of those decisions were made in the mix. In the take-off, we always knew that sound would play an important part in all the machinery and Rube Goldberg type machine that prepares the airplane for it’s launch. But at some point, you need the emotion of the music to just take over and carry you though the ‘soaring’ part of the scene, so we certainly experimented a bit with where that handoff would occur. I know that sometimes sound effects guys have a reputation for always wanting to remove music from a film or fight for the effects, but that shouldn’t be the case. There are times for each, and times for them to play together.

While mixing, we are always simply asking, what is the emotion of the film demanding right now, what is the storytelling demanding. I love great films score and have no problems with pulling all of the effects down at the right moment. And luckily we had a fantastic music editor, Bob Badami, who also recognized that it was OK to do the reverse sometimes too.

While mixing, we are always simply asking, what is the emotion of the film demanding right now, what is the storytelling demanding

That was such a treat of this movie, we all wanted to make a track as beautiful as the movie, and to that end, there were never really any battles, it was a very creative mix. We floated ideas, “Hey what if we pulled out this here, and pushed this”, and that’s the way a mix should be.

I really have to say that I loved the sound and the editing of the biplane. Could you explain us how it was created? We have two versions of it, the first one is in stop motion animation world, which is stylized and unreal and the second one is in “real” (3D) animation world. What was the process of designing it?

The biplane was a lot of fun to work on. We actually found an old 1937 Waco biplane near us, and recorded it idling and revving. That became the basis of the onboard plane, and we layered in some various metal rattles and squeaks that we had recorded to make it sound a bit dangerous. Heikki, our foley artist, also supplied us with a great variety of rattles for the plane, so we were well armed. For the bys, I’m grateful to a sound designer named Richard Beggs who lent me a set of biplane recordings he had made years ago of an amazing sounding plane called a Speedwing Ultra.

So between those two sets of recordings, the ‘real’ biplane was mostly covered. For the sound of the biplane in the paper world, our foley artist, Heikki Kossi, who lives and works in Finland, did some amazing paper propeller sounds for us. We also found and made some other paper airplane propeller sounds, and our FX Editor Jon Borland also found a really neat recording that just sort of ‘worked’ for the sound we wanted. There is a bit of real biplane also layered into that world just to sell a bit of reality.

There is also amazing foley in the film. It adds a lot of personality and works a bit different than in feature films. How for example doing footsteps for animation films differs from feature films?

We were so fortunate to work with Heikki Kossi, in Finland, and simply one of the best foley artists I’ve ever worked with. When we had discussions early on, we knew that foley could and would have to help sell these different worlds, and so we experimented back and forth a bit with sounds for the stop motion world. In both effects and in foley we spent a lot of time working with paper, including buying up different types of paper from around the world.

Heikki’s genius is also in how much ‘character’ he helped impart to these characters. While the sounds of the mother’s footsteps are very rigid and rhythmic, the sounds of the Aviator’s footsteps are much more ambling and shuffling. It might seem common sense, but it’s actually quite difficult to really impart character like that. Heikki has an amazing sense of comedy as well, and listening to something like the Mr. Prince character fumbling around trying to pick up a stack of brushes still makes me smile. I know this was as much a labor of love for him as it was for the rest of us working on it, and it really shows in his work. The sound of the film would have never been the same without him!

Too many people assume foley is about ‘coverage’, as in ‘we just need footsteps because they are missing in the production.’

I’m not sure if Hekki’s approach would be a lot different than for a live action film, my guess would be that he would say that certainly in an animated film, the sounds get exaggerated a bit more, they need to be focused and clean, but that his job is largely the same in both. Too many people assume foley is about ‘coverage’, as in ‘we just need footsteps because they are missing in the production.’ But good foley is so much more than that. It’s a true art form, and it’s a very important part of a good soundtrack.

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In animated films, there is always a lot of music. What is the difference in creating atmospheres/backgrounds for animations compared to feature films? When you had a chance to listen to the first mocaps of music?

We heard the music quite late actually, I don’t remember exactly when it came in, but because we had a short schedule, it was fairly late. I’m not sure there is a big difference between animation and live action, except that animated films offer you the chance to create a much cleaner track I think. Usually in live action, the production audio that you are working with, has a certain amount of noise, you’re using some layer of production effects.

In animation, you start with a clean slate, there is nothing but cleanly recorded dialog. While this is a challenge in that you have to create everything, it also give you carte blanche to build a complete track that you want. We had temp music from the start, it was a roadmap of where the music would be, and would give you the overall emotion of what they would be going for. But it was a real treat to hear the full score for the first time. I agree that animated films tend to have a lot of music, and Little Prince certainly has a fair share, but I actually think we came away with a lot less music than a lot of directors may have put in there. Again that credit goes to Mark, who clearly came into the film knowing the importance of not just music, but other sound as well. I think a lot of filmmakers would have looked at all the transitions in and out of the stop-motion storyline, and thought, “Well music will have to cover that.” But from the beginning, in the earliest cut we saw, it was clear that Mark had thought of those transitions with sound effects.

But from the beginning, in the earliest cut we saw, it was clear that Mark had thought of those transitions with sound effects

There’s even one transition that is purely a sound one, it takes place over black! That’s the mark of a very astute director in my book, to really have thought about, and recognized what sound can do long before arriving in the mix stage.

Stars play important role in The Little Prince. Again, I would like to ask about your cooperation with composers in creating their lovely sound. Was it only sound design or mix of it with music? How did you create all those layers and textures?

I’m glad you noticed, it was probably the biggest challenge, but such a fun thing to work on. The composers had also done something thematic for the stars, and in fact, they sounds that they used, while musical, were also in a similar style to what I was working with. So in the end, because that was one area we found the sounds sometimes conflicted, we used mostly the sounds from the effects side for the stars. The sounds really came from a few different sources, and a lot of experimentation. There’s the sort of ‘ringing’ sound of the stars overhead, for instance, when you see the stars descend on strings. These were largely created with some crystal candle holders I found at a local thrift shop. For the ‘tinkle’ of the sounds, I spent a lot of time trying out various sets of chimes. The book refers to the sound of the stars as a million little bells, and so I knew whatever sound I found had to be both bell like, and also crystalline.

Way back when I was working on Lord of the Rings, my friend and sound designer David Farmer had found and recorded these beautiful chimes that were made from obsidian, the black volcanic glass. In the end, I found on eBay a set of obsidian needles, that would have traditionally have been used for Native American leatherwork, things like that. They’re basically very narrow shards of obsidian. I took hours and strung up a set of chimes, and the sound was just magical. Slightly metallic, slightly crystal. That became the sound of stars more than anything.

I took hours and strung up a set of chimes, and the sound was just magical. Slightly metallic, slightly crystal.

I also somehow loved that the sound of the stars came from a volcano, since in the book, volcanoes are on the planet of the Little Prince. Somehow that helped me feel we had the right sound, that it somehow tied into the book. We used those sounds to nice subtle effect in the sound of the Aviators world as well. We gave him a series of chimes and bottles and things as if he surrounded himself with that sound to the best of his ability. There’s a moment where a star is crushed, and for that we took some light bulbs, and slowly crushed in the in a vase until they just cracked and shattered. We recorded it using a very high end preamp and high sampling rate microphone. Those cracks were also used when the large dome of stars cracks and collapses.

You use a lot of wind textures in the film, which beautifully enhances emotions and transitions. What was the sources for it and did you use a lot of pitch manipulation in creating it?

I tried to use as much natural wind as I could. I’ve always loved recording wind and have accumulated a fair number of recordings. But certainly the sound of the stop-motion world is one of wind and sand, as well as stars. So I was very fortunate that Ken Fischer, one of the best effects editors in the world, came on board to help with with the sound of the backgrounds. I gave him a lot of sounds, and really let him weave them into something beautiful.

I try not to do too much manipulation of any sounds, it’s just not the way I tend to work. I find that there is a very common ‘sound’ that accompanies too much manipulation. You can just ‘hear’ it. That might be fine doing a Sci-Fi movie, but in a movie like this, I wanted the sounds to feel as natural as possible. So I would much rather spend time finding or recording the right sound, than trying to manipulate sounds ‘into’ that. That isn’t to say no sounds were manipulated, and certainly pitching sounds down or up a bit once the final music is in, of course we do those things as well. But until that point, I try to keep the sounds as clean and pure as I can. For instance I love the sound of wind through trees, and wind through grass.

I try not to do too much manipulation of any sounds, it’s just not the way I tend to work.

It’s a difficult sound to record cleanly, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time gathering those sounds, so that when the time comes to work on that scene, I have at my disposal a fairly good set of recordings, and it becomes more about picking the right emotional sounds instead of trying to ‘make’ something.

In the end I wanted ask about emotional character of sounds. There are a lot of characterful sounds in the film. Sometimes they are funny, sometimes tiny and cute and sometimes ominous. How do you approach to creating those specific moods?

The first question to always ask is, what is going on in the film, and in the story, right at any given moment. The film should really give you all the information you need, and if there are any moments that are ambiguous, or the decision is to play something ‘against’ what you would think, those should come from the director. So that’s the first thing, how does this sound tie in with the story. At times the desert has to feel lonely and vast, you need the sound to sell that. But at other times, the desert is calm, almost a warming presence, for instance when they are looking for the well in the daytime. The same thing goes for something as simple as ambience work. I was able to sneak in a sound that I had recorded years ago, and never thought I’d find a film to use it in. While living in New Zealand, in the house I was saying, there was a rose bush, and during these wind storms, it would make this great sound as it scraped against the windows.

In the Little Girl’s room, you can see the shadows as if there are plants outside her window blowing in the wind. It was a enough of a cue to sneak in those sounds, and to me it because a very successful part of the ‘emotion’ of that storm. Maybe nobody else will notice it, but I do think it plays a part for sure. I wouldn’t tell Mark, our director, what the sound was until we finished the mix because I was afraid if I told him, he would have thought about it literally, and make me take it out. Because it’s not a literal sound, it’s an emotional sound, and it’s always important to think in those terms. It’s a tiny detail that probably nobody will notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective as well!

Could you explain a bit about the process of working with Mark Osborne? How was the collaboration, what was the process of working with him?

It was really a dream job in many ways. We got involved as I mentioned early on in a short temp mix. After we were hired to stay on the film, Mark came to the ranch a couple of times to hear what I was working on. He certainly had clear ideas on the sounds of the different worlds, but also really allowed me to experiment a lot as well. Not only allowed, he encouraged it. Working with Mark you really feel a part of the film, and a real and true collaborator.

All of us working on the film, we could ‘feel’ how passionate he was about the film, how he just wanted to do this amazing story justice. And when you work with someone like that, all you want to do is do justice to their passion and dedication. Mark had so many things going on trying to finish the film, my job as I see it is partly to try and make his life a easy as possible, at least with regards to the sound! Luckily, we seemed to have very similar taste in sound, so it was really a fun, and inspiring and smooth process. There were plenty of little hurdles along the way, schedules, and budgets, and all of the stuff that every film deals with. But more than anything, I have to say, we all had so much ‘fun’ on this movie. And I’m incredibly proud of the work that our team did, and incredibly appreciative that we got to be a part of this magical film.

What is your favorite sound moment in the film?

You know, it’s in a way something very simple. I think it would be the transition where the Aviator blows across the hands of the Little Girl, and we transition into the scene where we meet the Fox. That blowing fluidly moves into the sound of wind blowing in grass, and it’s for me just a really simple, and beautiful moment. It’s a very simple transition in a lot ways, but actually took a bit of experimenting to get it ‘right’.

And I remember that as the moment went by on screen, the director, Mark, turned to the producer and smiled

It sort of encapsulates for me the entire experience of the movie, simple and beautiful. I remember in our first little three day temp, I had laid in that sound. And I remember that as the moment went by on screen, the director, Mark, turned to the producer and smiled.

I think maybe that was the moment he knew that I got it, that our tastes and understandings of the film were aligned, and that I also understood how important it would be to get this sound job ‘right’ for this film. I still get goosebumps every time I play across that scene. Who knows, maybe it was that wind gust that got me the job!


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A big thanks to Tim Nielsen for the story behind The Little Prince, and to Michal Fojcik for his great questions! Find out more about the film here.

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