Here, he covers everything from creating the sound of Moana’s rich, watery world, inventive sound design approaches and intense Foley sessions, to lava god vocalizations, comedic chickens — and the challenges of creating (sufficiently) festive wooden impact sounds:
Interview by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Disney & Skywalker Sound
Disney’s latest animated feature Moana presented award-winning supervising sound editor Tim Nielsen at Skywalker Sound with a big, wet challenge: the ocean. The ocean is not only ever present in the film, but it also comes to life, and interacts with and protects the heroine Moana. Working with water is always a challenge, but giving water a personality is much more so. If anyone is well-suited for the task, it’s Nielsen. He recently helped supervise the sound on Finding Dory, and has also contributed to the sound on the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Another challenge on Moana was designing sound for a range of creatures, from the comedic chicken Hei Hei to a monstrous lava god named Te Ka. Nielsen even designed for an entire ‘Realm of Monsters.’ Here he shares details of how he and his sound team brought the computer-generated world of Moana to life.
How did you get involved with Moana?
Tim Nielsen (TN): I got a call about 10 months ago from Disney asking if I would come down and meet the directors Ron Clements and John Musker. A couple of colleagues of mine, Addison Teague and Shannon Mills, had done Big Hero 6 and Zootopia but they weren’t available to do Moana. So I was asked to meet with the directors, the picture editor (Jeff Draheim), and the producers. We talked about workflows and how we like to work. There wasn’t much to show me of the movie at that point. They showed me some production artwork and talked about the big challenges of the film. We brainstormed about how I would approach them and what we could do. Then about a month later I got a call asking if I would like to do the film with them. I was very excited to get to work with these directors. They are Disney royalty, having done The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, and all of these amazing films. It was very exciting to get to meet them, let alone being invited to work on their film.
‘Moana’ supervising sound editor Tim Nielsen
What were some of the challenges they were thinking about initially?
TN: There are quite a few creatures in Moana, more so than most things they’ve done. There was a huge lava demon and other monsters at various points in the movie, and little creatures, too. One big concern was getting someone who felt comfortable doing creature vocals.
One of their big concerns was how to give the ocean character and make it come to life but still make it feel very much like water
Another consideration was water. The ocean is a character that comes to life, and that is a recurring event. One of their big concerns was how to give the ocean character and make it come to life but still make it feel very much like water. It couldn’t be too overly magical, but it needed to have a voice. Also, we spend a lot of time on rafts because they are traveling across the ocean. The filmmakers wanted the experience of being on a raft in the open ocean to feel authentic, with all the various different details. So those are some of the main challenges. We are almost never away from the water in this movie. Everyone knew that was going to be a big challenge.
Water is always challenging because it can sound like white noise. Can you tell me about your approach to the water sounds? How did you give it character?
TN: I had just come off of Finding Dory, which has quite a bit of water as well. Unfortunately, most of that water was underwater and most of the water in Moana was above water. I had been playing a lot with water for Dory so I had some ideas and some sounds that we recorded that were going to be useful. First, we went to the Foley stage at Skywalker. John Roesch (lead Foley artist), his Foley partner Shelley Roden, and I spent a day doing wild recordings in the water tank. We did tons of splashes and bubbles and water lapping on various objects. I was able to take all of those recordings and work them up into a set of files for the sound of the water lapping against the different canoes and things like that. We had different splashes for certain characters. We tried to record sounds that would work for the living water. At that point we were recording as much variety as we could because we didn’t know yet how it would work. We were just experimenting and playing around. It was really tricky. In the end it turned out to be just a lot of editing.
It was a big editing job because every time the ocean came to life it was very different in the movie. Sometimes it would be huge water explosions and sometimes it would do these very gentle little moves, like grabbing objects and moving them around. There wasn’t a singular sound that we ever came up with to accompany the living water every single time.
It was a big editing job because every time the ocean came to life it was very different in the movie
They were more like one-offs. We ended up using a huge variety of sounds from things slicing through water, like whisks, and fishing rods, and things like that to give us a bit of movement through the water. Then we layered that with splashes and continuous bubbling sounds to give it presence when it’s idling, or just sitting there.
We recorded as much as we could and then every single scene had to be edited with its own little sequence. We ended up adding in a very slight magical element just to unify the sound together and remind people that when they hear that sound the ocean is now alive. Although it’s pretty obvious when you see it. The living water was quite a challenge and probably the hardest thing in the whole movie. At various times the ocean has to nod or shake its head and you have to convey that through the sound — what the water is doing emotionally not just what you see on the screen physically. At times the emotion is playful. There are times that it is quite angry. So that was a big challenge.
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Were you recording water sounds throughout the entire editorial process?
TN: Yes, we went back to Foley a few times. As the images became more refined, you get ideas based on what you recorded before, like, ‘That sound was close but what if I tried to do this?’ We tried to record with hydrophones but ended up using almost nothing of those hydrophone recordings. They have a very peculiar sound to them. I find them to be thin sounding and unnatural. Your ear has a sound that you think for water and to me hydrophones don’t really give you that sound. So we recorded a lot of material with some high sampling rate microphones and pitched it down, which is a nice way to take a bubbling sound and get it to sound bigger and slower. A lot of the pitched down water sounds were very useful for the water movement. We did about three different recording sessions for the water as it was evolving.
One of the great things nowadays is that there are so many people offering these micro-libraries of sounds. We found some really nice wave and water sounds from around the world that we ended up buying and using in the movie as well. That gave us such a huge palette to work with.
I also got Skywalker to buy some small libraries that other people had recorded of water, particularly for the water laps and general water use — not too much for the living water. One of the great things nowadays is that there are so many people offering these micro-libraries of sounds. We found some really nice wave and water sounds from around the world that we ended up buying and using in the movie as well. That gave us such a huge palette to work with.
The high-frequency microphone, was that the Sanken CO-100k?
TN: Yes, exactly. I’ve owned one for quite a long time and they’re starting to get more and more popular. It’s a pretty amazing microphone.
Another ‘Moana’ trailer that lets you hear some of the many watery sounds
Did you capture any field recordings of water as well?
TN: I didn’t end up going field recording just because of the time constraints and partly because I was able to find such great material. Some of my friends in New Zealand, for example, had great stuff that they were able to trade with me. We had an ongoing joke that this project would send me to Fiji for a couple of weeks to record water but we never ended up quite getting there ☺. There’s so much stuff out there and available these days. Also, I had recorded so much water over the years. It’s one of my favorite things to record. So I had already established quite a big library of water laps from around the world, various places I’ve lived like Vancouver and New Zealand.
Since the water isn’t lapping on shore, what does it sound like to be in the middle of the ocean?
Combined with the other material that I found, we were able to cover most of the water. Most of the water in the film is out in the middle of the ocean. And there aren’t very many good recordings of that anyway. Since the water isn’t lapping on shore, what does it sound like to be in the middle of the ocean? We had done some water work on the Pirates of the Caribbean film and I was able to use that too, along with the new recordings we were making. For this film, the question was, “What is the sound of the ocean when you’re sitting out in the middle of it without any shore around?” The ocean goes from very calm, almost glasslike water to big storms. We built up a whole set of files for that, using various water sounds we found and sounds we recorded in the water tank as well.
What’s the biggest thing you threw into the water tank?
TN: We threw some huge trunks and wooden objects in and got some huge splash sounds for when these large boats are cresting these waves and crashing back down into the water. We took these big old steamer trunk that Shelley and John were slamming down while in the water tank and making a big old mess. Many of those sounds were slowed down even more to add weight and make it sound even bigger. It was a lot of fun but the water was pretty cold. John and Shelley were in their wetsuits and we tried to heat the tank but it was still pretty cold in there. I put them through hell that day but it was worth it.
What was the most challenging scene for water in the film and how did you handle it?
TN: All of the living water scenes were challenging. Probably the most tricky was a sequence where Moana keeps getting thrown off the raft and the water keeps picking her up and setting her back down on the boat. It happens a few times in a row. A couple of the movements happen and then one happens off-screen. Even though the events were different lengths, we had to make sure that it was clear to the audience from the sound what was happening because the last one happens off-screen and it’s purely a sound moment. It had to be very clear that the ocean was yet again picking her up and setting her down.
It’s tricky with water because, once you get the weight, a lot of times you don’t have any room for the little details
We ended up finding a particular sound for when it would pick her up out of the water and then another particular sound for when it would set her down on the deck of the boat. They were very distinctive plops and wet kerplunk sounds that were very similar each time so that was very clear what was happening.
There’s a huge volume of water being dropped on top of this boat and splashing all around, and that’s happening at the same time so it was tricky to find distinction in that sequence. We wanted to have certain details poke out as well. It’s tricky with water because, once you get the weight, a lot of times you don’t have any room for the little details. That balancing act can be really tricky.
One challenge for the Foley team was to create distinction between all of the organic sounds, such as the sand, grass, and leaves…
TN: I pressured the Foley team on the footsteps to work back and forth with us to try and get the sound of those just right. It can be really tricky because the sand can sound too fine or too wet or too hard. I would say their challenge was the on-land sounds and ours were more of the water sounds. For Foley, they had the natural sounds to deal with, in particular the footsteps on grass and gravel and sand and rock and all of these natural surfaces which can be really tricky to do, especially rock.
I think I tortured them slightly by sending back the rock footsteps several times before we came up with a sound that we felt was right. We wanted a sound that felt natural for what’s happening on screen. That’s what we are always trying to do, even with creatures. What you come up with has to be believable for what you see. We don’t process sounds too much, but instead find the right sound. And that’s the same with Foley I feel. We spent a lot of time searching for the right sounds rather than hammering some sound into the sound we want.
Wind and water typically occupy the same band of frequencies, so how did you balance those two elements when the characters are on an island?
It turns out, with the water you don’t really feel the wind missing. The water conveys to you all of the energy that you need for the most part.
TN: When we are on the water we’re not playing much in terms of wind. Typically you cut an air track, be it wind or room tone, but there was no bandwidth for that. There was no room for that. Often times when we are on the water we didn’t even bother to cut wind. The activity of the water conveys to you that there must be wind and so you don’t really miss it. There are several times when they come off the water and are climbing rocks, for instance, and there we were able to play with the wind. There that balance is much more important. Even in the big storm sequence, we’re not playing a lot of wind throughout. We look for shots where we can sneak a wind gust through. To play wind in every shot would just take up way too much of the track. And it turns out, with the water you don’t really feel the wind missing. The water conveys to you all of the energy that you need for the most part. The water takes up so much of the track any way that we just didn’t put a lot of wind in the movie except at times when we come out of the water.
There were numerous creatures in Moana. Let’s start with a small one. Can you tell me about the design for Moana’s rooster Hei Hei?
TN: Hei Hei is the comedic sidekick. They worked hard to find a place for Hei Hei in the movie, like what can Hei Hei do and how can Hei Hei fit into the story. They came up with a great way to include Hei Hei as a comedic element. I heard that people who saw the movie felt that Hei Hei was one of their favorite parts. Jeff Draheim the picture editor cuts a very elaborate track in his AVID. He pretty much covers the sound for everything, including footsteps and arm grabs. He has a temp sound for everything. Much of Hei Hei vocals, I would say 30%, came from his AVID track. He picked sounds from some very old cartoon libraries that just work perfectly for part of Hei Hei, like when Hei Hei does these simple little clucks, these ‘bouck bouck’ sounds. Jeff’s sounds work perfectly and they animated to it so it was something that we never really improved on.
Before I started my edit, I knew we were going to have this chicken and so I spent a lot of time culling the library for every chicken vocal I could find. I built little phrase packs and clucks, and big rooster crows. I built a pretty big palette of chicken sounds, and just had it at the ready. Then actor Alan Tudyk, who’s done a lot of work for Disney, was hired to also lend some vocals to Hei Hei.
I spent a lot of time culling the library for every chicken vocal I could find
He did a recording session where he improvised a whole palette of sounds as well. We relied on those for when the chicken goes particularly crazy, like when it’s being shaken all around. So in the end Hei Hei was a mix of those three things: the original clucks that Jeff had found, the Alan Tudyk vocals, and then the big palette of other chicken sounds that I cut strategically to try to match animation. There aren’t a lot of great chicken recordings and chickens don’t do a huge range of sound anyway. So we had to construct funny phrases for Hei Hei to make. I think they had this idea originally that Alan Tudyk could provide all of the vocals for the chicken — and he did provide us with a full palette of stuff, but in the end we had to pick and choose what sound was the funniest at any given moment.
We spent a lot of time in the final mix pulling vocals out because I cut in a chicken vocal for every place that I felt one might fit. We sorted through them in the final mix and decided which ones were funny and made us laugh, and which ones we didn’t need. We determined where they were really adding a comedic element to the film. The final sound for Hei Hei was a compilation of those three elements. For certain scenes, the funniest sounds were the original clucks that they animated to. So we had a lot of options and we always went with what worked best for the film.
Who was the sound effects re-recording mixer on Moana?
TN: It was Gabriel Guy, who along with David Fluhr, has mixed some big films like Big Hero 6 and Zootopia. They’ve mixed quite a few of the Disney animated films. Actually, Gabe (Guy) used to be a mix tech here at Skywalker for a few years. He started here about the same time I did, back in 1999. He moved to Los Angeles some years later and ended up at Disney where he worked his way up to be David Fluhr’s mixing partner on these films. Moana was mixed here at Skywalker Sound and so it was fun to have Gabe back up here for awhile.
What were some sounds you created for the villain mega-crab, Tamatoa?
TN: Tamatoa is really just in one big scene and he sings a song. While the song is happening there isn’t a lot of sound. Tamatoa is a giant crab and so we had to come up with two sets of sounds: his footsteps since he has these very sharp feet that he digs into the ground as he runs around singing his song, and then we needed to create his movement.
His eyes gurgle when he moves them around, and we used a stomach gurgle sound occasionally just to give him this gross sound
His entire shell is covered in the equivalent of treasure, which are these shiny abalone shells and things like that. We recorded a bunch of shell movement on the Foley stage, and then pitched that way down. It worked but it didn’t have the weight that we needed. So part of Tamatoa’s shell was made by dragging huge cinderblocks around on different surfaces, which gave us this rocky resonance. We use that mostly in the scene before his song starts. Once the song starts, most of the sound has to drop away to make room for the song.
For his feet, John recorded on the Foley stage some very sharp impacts into rock, with sharp metal swords and things like that to give us these stabbing sounds. Those I pitched way down and layered with some other sounds to create his feet. He has these eyes that move independently and so we came up with a funny, gooey sound that gives him this grotesque characteristic because he’s this large, strange looking crab. His eyes gurgle when he moves them around, and we used a stomach gurgle sound occasionally just to give him this gross sound. In Foley, we had recorded some wet chamois sounds for something else but that actually worked really well for Tamatoa’s eyes.
Another group of creatures are the Kakamoras — a tribe of aggressive tiki-coconut people. How did you create the sound for them?
TN: The Kakamoras were a lot of fun. Originally when we talked to the directors they had an idea that the Kakamoras would all talk to each other in their own version of Morse code, by banging on their shells. So we were going to give them this whole rhythmic language made from banging on coconut shells. We were going to make phrases for them and all of these things. But as the film got animated we realized that the animators didn’t really do any of that. They didn’t give us an opportunity to do that much with this idea. There’s one shot in the beginning where they do that, and so we were left with the thought of, “Well, what sound do we give them now?” We needed some sound for them. The Kakamoras wear coconut shells as their armor and we never see their faces or their mouths. So we had the freedom to make them vocalize if we wanted to. Early on there was an apprehension to giving them vocals. Some people were cautious about that. But, in the end we realized it was funnier to have them make some sounds.
We hired voice actors to come in and do some mimicking of vocals that I and Lee Gilmore, the sound effects editor, had done as a mockup. We basically recorded ourselves as a temp track, trying to find ideas with these little guttural growls and snarls and phrases of a made-up language. We cut a pass as a proof-of-concept and sent that down to the directors, knowing we’d have actors come in to perform the parts later. Much like Hei Hei, we cut in more than we needed and then decided during the mix that we only needed the vocals in very specific places.
In the mix, the challenge was to find the balance there because it’s such a huge scene for sound design and music
Also, we have rhythmic running sounds as they are running up ladders and things like that. We have little grunts here and there, and little pain screams as they’re being knocked around. In the mix, the challenge was to find the balance there because it’s such a huge scene for sound design and music. There’s so much going on that it was really about deciding how many we can fit in there, where they are actually funny, and where we don’t need them. In the end, the sound is humanish — sort of growly and snarly. The directors didn’t want the Kakamoras to sound like Minions, with that high-pitched sort of sound. So we ended up going the other direction. We gave them deeper sounds than they should be able to make because they’re so tiny. We played against the convention by giving them big, deep growls which plays into the comedy as well. These little things are so vicious that they can have these deep voices.
What did you do for the Kakamoras’ armaments and coconut armor?
TN: For the armor we recorded a bunch of coconuts, and wood blocks, and temple blocks. I went to the Foley stage one weekend with John’s permission and raided it. I walked around banging on things and looking for things that might make the right sound. I ended up buying a lot of wood blocks and temple blocks. The sounds were mostly for when they get hit and fall. We did some general coconut shaking for when groups of them are running by. We spent a lot of time trying to find the right sound for when two Kakamoras hit together. How do we make that feel like it’s a real coconut, but also be very funny? So we ended up doing quite a few things, like taking this huge wooden oar and dropping it on concrete.
We recorded a lot of wood sounds to find out which were the funniest
The tip of the oar made this great ‘thunk’ and that became the basic element for anytime the Kakamoras would hit each other. We recorded a lot of wood sounds to find out which were the funniest. What was funny to me wasn’t always funny to the directors. They would say it doesn’t sound enough like two coconuts getting hit together. So we’d do it again, and layer a bunch of elements for them to go through. It’s subjective, and not always the same for everyone. It was about arming ourselves with a lot of wood block recordings and things like that. We did buy real coconuts, and of course, they don’t sound like much in particular. You can’t really use coconuts as coconuts. You have to find something else that gives you the feeling of a coconut without actually being a coconut. So it was a lot of wood block recording.
Maui, who helps Moana on her adventure, is a shape-shifting demigod. What was your approach to his sounds?
TN: Maui has the ability to shape shift. He has this fishhook that allows him to change into other animals. Jeff, because he had cut a pass, came up with this simple sound for every time Maui transformed. It was a rain stick, or almost like a maraca. It was this very small, almost rattlesnake tail shake. It was a very simple sound that he repetitively cut in just as a placeholder. But we realize that this sound he used really did work on a lot of levels. It felt Polynesian or tribal in some way. So we stuck with that as an idea, and I recorded some more things to expand on that. So the sound starts with this rain stick element. Then we had to give it some weight so we found some deep, magical, weighty poof sounds to go with it. That became the basic transform sound, and it had about six or seven elements to it.
Then we thought, “Well when Maui transforms, he’s transforming into an animal. Is there a way to use that to vary the sound?” When you use the same transform sound over and over it becomes a little boring. My first thought was since he is transforming into animals of different sizes, let’s scale the sound. When he transforms into a bug it’s a much smaller, intimate sound than if he were transforming into a whale, which would need a huge booming accompaniment. That helped give us the scale, and help us understand what he was transforming into. It adds comedy too because when he’s turning into a bug it’s this little ‘weet’ sound. It’s cute and funny.
So then we thought, “Any animal that he transforms into that makes a vocal, let’s try to use that.” Sometimes he transforms in rapid succession through a few different animals. For example, if he transforms into a pig then there’s a pig squeal, or if it’s a reindeer then there’s a little bellow. If it’s a bug then we have some sort of accompanying insect sound. That was an idea that director John Musker had, to add vocals to Maui’s transformations as well.
They’re more like malfunctions so we have little electrical zaps and plunks and string plucks — more cartoony sounds to remind us that this isn’t the same as a controlled transform that Maui can do.
There was one section of the film where the hook is malfunctioning and Maui doesn’t remember how to use it properly. We added in some comedic elements on those transforms to make it clear that he is not really in control of these transformations. They’re more like malfunctions so we have little electrical zaps and plunks and string plucks — more cartoony sounds to remind us that this isn’t the same as a controlled transform that Maui can do. This is more like him randomly cycling through things and not really being in control.
What was your approach to the lava god, Te Ka.
TN: She’s this giant monster made out of lava. Te Ka ended up having a couple parts. The directors really wanted to explore the idea of giving her a voice that seemed somewhat female but we didn’t want to go with shrieking, witch-like screams. We wanted to convey the notion that the monster was female in character. We ended up recording some actors doing a few vocals and some of that was used for layering, just enough to give us that quality. But Te Ka was mostly made up of flanging, fiery sounds that were layered with vocals of different animals. She’s constantly dripping lava and her skin is crackling and hardening. Lee Gilmore, our sound effects editor who worked on the reel, did a fantastic job of finding various sounds. I made a palette of lava sounds for Return of the King, and some of that was useful. Then we found other thick mud elements for the lava.
What we often find with animators is that they aren’t necessarily thinking about sound effects. Many times you’re in a situation where Te Ka’s mouth is opening at the same time that her hand is forming a fireball at the same time there is a huge lightning bolt behind her. We can’t play all of those so we have to decide what is the thing we need to hear right now.
We built up Te Ka layer by layer and then figured out for each shot which sounds would work best because there was also music in those action scenes with her. We really had to pick and choose our sound effects. For one shot we might be playing a steam element, then the next shot there is lightning happening around her in the clouds, and then for the next shot it might be the lava of her hand hardening. We layer up all of these sounds and figure out what sounds to pick for each shot, to convey what we need to because we won’t be able to play all of these elements at once. What we often find with animators is that they aren’t necessarily thinking about sound effects. Many times you’re in a situation where Te Ka’s mouth is opening at the same time that her hand is forming a fireball at the same time there is a huge lightning bolt behind her. We can’t play all of those so we have to decide what is the thing we need to hear right now. A lot of that you discover in the final mix, when everything gets put together.
What does the ‘Realm of Monsters’ sound like?
TN: The Realm of Monsters is where Tamatoa lives — the giant crab. Moana and Maui have to go to Tamatoa to try to get something. It reminds me of The Land of the Lost, this TV show I watched as a kid. They go into this underground / underwater realm where the sky is basically the bottom of the ocean. So they are underneath the water, and right above them is water. The first thing we wanted to do was give the space a tone, like a room tone. Since we are under the ocean, we went with this weird gurgling water to represent the whole ocean hovering above us. You see a lot of creatures in the distance and at various times Moana encounters a few, particularly right at the beginning. We wanted the sound to be more lush than what was there visually.
This was a fun chance for us to come up with interesting sounds to play in the backfield and off-screen. We wanted to make it sound like a very dangerous place full of all kinds of monsters flying around you and moving around you. It’s not a particularly long sequence but it was a fun one because you have these crazy bats flying around, and these crazy monsters sneaking up on Moana, and crazy plants trying to eat her. There were many singular creatures that were fun to make from various things. It’s a fun sequence because it’s black light looking. It’s one of the more gorgeous sections of the movie. It looks really beautiful. It was fun to find the balance of how crowded we could make it with weird, crazy creature sounds, but still be very careful of the dialogue.
In the Realm of Monsters, did you make those singular creature sounds yourself? Or, was Lee helping you out?
TN: Most of those singular creature sounds I made because the idea to fill it out as much as we did came up a little bit later in the process. We did a pass of all of the on-screen creatures first, which I made vocals for. It was fun because I’ve made so many different creatures for different movies over the years. It was fun to go back to my own library and sneak some of my favorite sounds from things that I’ve done before into the background, just changing them up by re-pitching them or layering them to make new creatures. It was a little homage to other projects I have done in the past. I was able to sneak some vocals in there from other people’s work that I really like, from here at the Skywalker Ranch. Since the sounds are all off-screen and diffused, you’re not really focusing on them. It was a fun chance to just play around and have some fun.
Any favorite audio tools for this film?
I don’t do a lot of processing with sounds, or I try not to. I don’t use a lot of plug-ins in my work. I try to get the right sound by recording, editing, and layering new sounds.
TN: The Sanken CO-100k mic has been the most powerful tool. I don’t do a lot of processing with sounds, or I try not to. I don’t use a lot of plug-ins in my work. I try to get the right sound by recording, editing, and layering new sounds. I find that recording sounds with the Sanken CO-100k, and exploring those sounds by pitching them down, has been very powerful and inspiring. It’s about playing around with recording and trying to find the right sound. I’d rather go out and record new sounds then try to hammer out the sound I’m looking for from other sounds. There’s not a lot of reverb in this film. Often times we are above the ocean. I tried not to process the vocals too much. It’s really about the water and the raft. I found that recording what I need with the Sanken CO-100k and then pitching things down gives you a whole new world of things to work with. It’s very exciting and fun.
I did use a plug-in called Elastique Pitch by zplane. That’s one of my favorite pitching plug-ins for real-time pitching. But a lot of times I find that taking the original file and mastering it at 1/4 speed or 1/2 speed, and then listening through the entire file at that slowed down sample rate is where you can find the tiniest little sounds that weren’t even what you intended to record. But because you’re playing them so slow they sound like something completely different. You just find these little nuggets of really fun stuff, especially with the water. To be able to slow water down that much while still keeping the definition, the full frequency range, allowed us to do a lot of things that would’ve been really difficult to do otherwise for the living water. When you have these big sections of water moving you can really only accomplish that by pitching down water sounds.
What was your favorite scene to design?
TN: There’s one scene where Moana rediscovers a bit of history about her people while she is in this cave. There’s a really beautiful music cue, probably the most beautiful in the film I think. There’s a huge waterfall coming over the mouth of the cave and Moana is carrying this torch. It’s really magical and she discovers all of these things. It was a really delicate scene.
I really enjoy those scenes when the music and the sound effects can accent each other in a way that feels natural
Playing with all the different tones of the cave, like she’s running her hands along these canoes and different things. It’s a very delicate scene and I really enjoy those scenes when the music and the sound effects can accent each other in a way that feels natural. One doesn’t feel as though it’s getting in the way of the other. Everyone who watches the movie gets goosebumps in that scene, and I think that’s because of the marriage of all of these elements coming together. It’s a gorgeous looking scene. In a way it’s one of the simpler scenes in the film but sometimes the simpler scenes are the hardest to get right. You have to find the exact right sound for particular things. So that scene stands out for me as a great marriage between the music and the sound effects.
Were you able to listen to the music while designing the sound for that scene?
TN: We had temp tracks and it became a little unclear at times what were the mock ups from the composer and what was just temp score from something else. The songs are something that we had early on because those were some of the first things that needed to be done. But as far as the score went, a lot of those tracks came in quite late to us. But we got lucky with the cave scene. Once we heard the final music we were able to retool our sound design here and there to make it work together with the music, by pitching some of our sounds into the same range as the music so that they felt right together. Often times we get the music in quite late. So this was a rare opportunity to work against the music in a really detailed way like that.
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