When the team from Nickelodeon's Albert walked through our doors, they presented us with a great sound design challenge - bring a rich world of talking, walking plants to life with sound. Nickelodeon’s first original animated TV movie tells the story of a tiny fir tree named Albert and his plant friends overcoming all kinds of obstacles (like a Christmas hating cactus) as they journey to the big city. The rich animation of these plants - bouncing around in their pots, foliage and needles flying, trunks bending - is extremely detailed and impressive. Now it was our job to provide the proper sonic support. With the use of digital foley, we had just the tool for the job.
Getting the Materials:
From our work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the creative team knew that we could handle rich action sequences. Their main question was how we would sell the movements of the plants. These characters needed nuance; to be alive and expressive. In cutting the temp sound, they mentioned only having dry and crunchy sounding leaves to work with. We knew the first hurdle was gathering the proper materials.
When walking foley digitally, we will often hire a professional foley team to record our source sounds ‘wild’ (not to picture). This was an absolute necessity for Albert, as we needed to invent the sound for this world of talking plants from the ground up. The first big hurdle was not having fully rendered picture to work with, as is often the case with CG productions. Luckily, the production provided me with tons of materials to help fill in the gaps. I had these beautiful rendered images of every on screen character and used these as a tool to ensure the foley would match final picture. I prepared a sort of foley 'bible' to organize my thoughts and communicate it to the very talented Roy Braverman and his foley team. There were general needs listed out, followed by a page for each principle character that contained a picture of as well as the following information: body movement - foliage movement - pot/footstep type
I also passed along the miscellaneous character renders to be sure we got lot of extra movement and pot sounds to work with.
Keeping it all Straight:
The foley team sent us back a very well organized session but we took the extra step here to chop up and relabel everything. 90 original files became 286 final files for editorial, each starting with Foley_Plant to signify the collection and followed by tons of descriptors to help speed along the next phase of editorial.
Cactus Misc Needles_01 became Foley Plant Cactus Misc Spiky Needles Body Fall_FLEY_ABT
Creating Digital Foley Patches and a Custom Albert Workflow
The real magic here came in creating the patches with which to walk each character. Every ‘step’ of our principles contained a surface-specific pot hit, some body movement (i.e. trunk creaks) and settling foliage. There are even large swaths of time where Albert is covered in Christmas ornaments and lights. To walk this in the traditional manner on a foley stage would mean multiple passes for every walk cycle and a TON of editorial after the fact to make sure it all lines up. In the digital realm however, editor Tess Fournier created a single Kontakt instrument for each category and walked it to picture all in one pass. Efficiency! But that’s not all. By routing each instrument out its own unique bus, she recorded every layer on it’s own track, giving us complete flexibility in the mix. The MIDI track is saved along with the audio in case of a last minute change of surface. Maisie is on snow now? Just swap out the MAISIE pot cement instrument for the MAISIE pot snow instrument, hit record and it’s fixed.
Filling in the Gaps
After the walking is complete, that work was passed along to our sound effects editor Jessey Drake. Loading it into her editorial project, she could then see the gaps that needed filling (body movements outside of walk cycles, long pot scrapes, etc). All of these were then hand cut within two food groups for easy organization; CREAK (trunk movement) and LEAF (foliage and needles).
While digital foley may not be perfect for every project, there’s an argument to be made here that we simply could not have accomplished the job we put forward without it. With a production like Albert, full of unusual challenges (bouncing around in pots!) and rich textures, we pushed this idea to new creative heights. The workflow not only allowed for us to add rich and believable textures to our characters, but through efficiency gave us the time and resources to put extra care into hand cutting all of the individual movements that happen outside of their walk cycles - and there was a LOT to cut. In the end, we walked 28 tracks of digital foley and hand cut 22 more tracks of individual movement. This project was a foley BEAST! However, it didn't need to be complicated. Through solid planning and exceptional teamwork, we were able to hand Albert down the line from inception to source recording, walking and cutting; in the end providing Albert with a soundtrack as unique and ground breaking as the film itself.
You can find clips from Nickelodeon's Albert as well as the entire film here!