Written by Brad Meyer
Sound Effects Editor, BOOM BOX POST
Here at Boom Box Post, we are lucky enough to work on an exceptionally large variety of animated shows. Each show has its own unique style and sound; some of our shows are more on the toony side, while others are incredibly realistic. Because of this, a large number of our shows take place in real places. In one of our newest shows, Mickey and the Roadster Racers, the characters take an adventure to a new place or city in almost every episode, which is what inspired me to write this blog post. Whether it is traveling to a new city in each episode in Mickey and the Roadster Racers, The Lion Guard in the African Savannah, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in New York City, we often have the challenge of making a specific, genuine place sound accurate.
Creating a real place from scratch involves a lot of research regarding a place’s local infrastructure, and the local languages and accents spoken there. In addition, it is important to research what types of vehicles and sirens one might hear in a specific location. And lastly, although many different types of wildlife are critical to a specific place’s sound, birds and insects are the most important to focus on while building a film or television soundtrack.
I was fortunate enough to intern for the sound team on the Netflix Original Series Sense8 a few years ago, and was responsible for recording a lot of the sounds of Chicago, which is one of the cities the series takes place in. Infrastructure is an important part of any city, and helps contribute to a city’s unique sound. Being born and raised in Chicago, the sound of the El trains are ingrained in my brain, and they sound very different from what a Metro train here in Los Angeles sounds like, for example. I was tasked with recording multiple El trains from all across the city and from multiple locations, the majority of which ended up in the final mix of the show. Ask any Chicagoan, and they will agree that you won’t find many places in Chicago where you can’t hear the elevated trains, and it would have stuck out like a sore thumb if we used some other type of train for the sound of the El in Sense8. Along with the trains, other parts of Chicago which were important to get accurate were the large, iconic metal lift bridges over the Chicago River, and the signature sound of Navy Pier, including it’s Ferris wheel and rides. These are examples of what makes Chicago sound unique, but the same concept goes for almost any city you might be trying to recreate.
Local Languages and Accents
Languages and accents are also an important part of creating an environment, because people and walla are everywhere you go. Most of the walla that ends up in a final mix is nothing more than gibberish, but depending on where you are, filling the space with local languages and accents can make your soundscape more convincing. I recently worked on an episode of a show that took place in Madrid, Spain, and we used some Spanish walla for the crowd at an open-air market. Along with broadcast and distribution restrictions on English in walla, you wouldn’t want to use English in a space like that because it could be off-putting. There are some accents that are hard to miss as well. If we had a scene that took place in New York or Boston, you wouldn’t make crowds of people sound like they are from North Dakota, or The South, for example. Even if you use fictional languages like Elvish in Lord of the Rings, or Parseltongue in Harry Potter, filling spaces and environments with languages and people that are local and original to the story can be a useful tool in a sound designer’s toolbox.
Any good sound designer will tell you that you always want to keep the storyline moving with sound. Sometimes it can be a police car or ambulance going by in the distance between dialogue, or sometimes heavy traffic below an office building in the city. Even in a quiet scene, nothing is ever truly quiet. In almost every episode or film that I have worked on, spaces and scenes (even interiors) have traffic and sirens in the background. However, it is important to note that cars and sirens sound different in different parts of the world. A European siren sounds wildly different than an emergency vehicle in the United States. Even then, different European countries might have sirens that sound different from each other. Even further, a police car sounds different than an ambulance, which sounds different than a fire truck.
In an episode that I worked on a while back, there was a specific scene that took place in an Indian market. Because it is so populous, much of how people get around in India is on motorized bikes or scooters, and pedi-cabs or rickshaws. In that scene there were barely any cars, and most of the scene was filled with smaller vehicles like rickshaws and motorized scooters, because a pickup truck passing by near an Indian market would have stuck out.
Insects help fill out any environment, and it is helpful to remember what type of city or place a scene is in when building your sound environment. For example, if I have a scene that takes place in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or some other desert climate, I would use some desert cicadas to fill the space. But if we are in New Orleans, or the Florida Everglades, I would use bugs native to swamp environments instead. Insects are a subtler environmental factor, but they play a huge role in making a location convincing.
For the final talking point of this post, we have every sound designer’s best friend: birds. A great example of how we use birds at Boom Box Post is in the show The Lion Guard. Since the show is so nature based, and all of the characters are animals, it is important to make sure all of the animals and wildlife we use are native to the African Savannah. Everything from the Grey Crane, Egrets, and Herons to Ibises, Ospreys, Vultures, and specific species of Hawks and Falcons. In contrast, These sub-Saharan environments would sound completely different than a jungle environment, which would have multiple Birds of Paradise, Toucans, and various Macaws and Hornbills.
When I worked on Sense8, one of the cities that the show takes place in is Seoul, South Korea. The sound designer didn’t have any birds native to that region and needed to fill an outdoor scene in a jail yard. I was tasked with somehow getting my hands on some East-Asian bird species, specifically in the Koreas. After a lot of digging, I was able to get my hands on a contact at Birds Korea, which is the Korean national ornithological society. Astoundingly, they had hundreds of recordings of native bird species archived. They weren’t the best recordings we could find, but they were true to the region and ended up in the final mix as well. The director of the society agreed to let use their archived recordings in exchange for a small donation to the organization. This is a wonderful example of how research really comes in to play when attempting to portray a real-life location, and how you may have to think outside of the sound designer box when trying to find something that might work.
An outstanding resource for bird recordings, and thousands of other wildlife species, is the Cornell Macauley Wildlife Library. It is one of the largest wildlife archives in the world, and Cornell let’s anyone use the library for free. I have used this library more times than I can count, and it can be found here (http://macaulaylibrary.org)!