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String and Tins Gives a Voice to an Extinct Species for UNDP’s ‘Don’t Choose Extinction’ Campaign

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Sound Designer Jim Stewart explains the craft behind the sound of a prehistoric beast

String and Tins Gives a Voice to an Extinct Species for UNDP’s ‘Don’t Choose Extinction’ Campaign

It was a pleasure to be involved in the UNDP’s ‘Don’t Choose Extinction’ film, alongside Liv on the production team. While it has it’s cinematic moments and an amusing rug-pull, the sincerity of the message remained paramount - a warning for humans from a dinosaur’s perspective.

Excitement was bubbling from the start after we heard of Jack Black’s involvement in the voicing of the dinosaur (based on a Utahraptor to be precise!). This casting felt great as his performance was captivating and full of his classic mannerisms. One strong debate throughout the process was whether or not to warp his voice to sound monstrous and dinosaur-like. We ended up leaving his performance un-touched, but using dynamic EQ and a chain of subtle ‘colouring’ processes to add weight and power. The team were keen for the message to remain human, and this processing kept that intact while matching Jack’s voice to the dinosaur more realistically.

A similar processing chain (but a lot less subtle) was used to create the dinosaur’s vocal grunts, mumbles and breaths. For it’s arrival in the assembly room, these had to feel beefy, detailed and threatening. It was fun not having to follow the cinematic cliché of a dinosaur introducing itself to the audience via a deafening guttural roar. Instead it’s in ‘predator-mode’, so intimate throat gurgles and sharp nostril flares were used to portray a sense of aggression and terror.

Keen to try out a fresh approach for the source FX, we delved deep into our vast library of… dog recordings! We sourced the highest quality recordings of dogs snarling, panting and eating before pitching them down to create a bank of consistent FX - shout out to French Bulldogs, Australian Shepherds and Deutche Pointers for unknowingly providing some great dino sounds. A live processing chain running on all these sounds was key to gluing them together so they feel  like they are coming from the same source - the main tools here were Avid Pro-Subharmonic (which adds low frequency signals an octave below the source material) and Soundtoys Decapitator (which adds a lovely analog-feeling saturation and grit).

We worked closely with fabulous producers Pablo Senra and Helen Trickey at the UN. The VFX were developed by the talented team at Framestore. Their initial offline picture had a shoot crew member brandishing a tennis ball on a long pole in the place of the dinosaur. It was inspiring to see the animation VFX evolve over the following weeks into a living, breathing character. The detail of the dinosaur’s facial movements and subtle body language really did influence the sound choices; it was amazing to have that all in place prior to laying a single sound effect down in Pro Tools.

While we weren’t involved in the actual recording of Jack Black’s VO, we did have a lot of conversations about getting his performance to work tightly to the mouth animation. Once the movements were locked in by Framestore, we did a final dialogue pass which involved subtle re-timing and warping/stretching in order to achieve the tightest lip-sync possible.

One difficult part to get right was the overall effect of the UN assembly ‘crowd’ during the tense opening shots. We did various ADR passes at the studio and combined these with recordings of people muttering in art galleries, courtrooms and stock exchange trading floors. While this provided a dense and detailed bed, it quickly became evident that any audible phrases or individual voices stuck out like a sore thumb and spoiled the immersion (particularly in headphones).

Through experimentation we found that by highlighting only the sibilant frequencies (whispery ‘sss’ sounds found between 5 – 10kHz) of our in-house voices, the crowd remained unintelligible and became more like a wash of whispers. As sound mixers, we are usually keen to tame any unwanted sibilance - but this job required the opposite!

Another part of the puzzle was the texture and movements of the dinosaur. Our frequent collaborator, Julien Pirrie-Withers at The Foley Barn, provided some excellent source material from the get-go. Beyond the traditional foley pass of feet, moves and props we briefed him to provide a bunch of textural options for the dinosaur’s skin. He came back with 4 varied options - ranging from creaking, tough old leather to organic wet material - so in the sound edit we played a lot with the balance of these layers. During the speech, these textures were dampened to not distract from the voice, but pushed up sharply in the mix for moments when the body language was more dramatic and alarming.

The final part of the puzzle came from the established British film composer Rachel Portman OBE. She provided a colourful and dynamic orchestral score which guided the story delicately at all the right points. This film  was a pleasure to be involved in and we’re looking forward to it’s message being heard around the world!

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Genres: Music & Sound Design, Visual VFX, Storytelling

Categories: Short films, Short Films and Music Videos

String and Tins, Wed, 03 Nov 2021 11:19:40 GMT