TRON:LEGACY sound team met next-gen challenges on the grid

Tonight FilmEdge attended a special gathering of key sound designers and editors from the post-production crew of Disney’s hit TRON:LEGACY, revealing many of the audio secrets behind the success of director Joe Kosinski‘s futurist sequel. TRON:LEGACY – The Sound Show is the latest in a series of events hosted by the Motion Picture Editors Guild which peel back the editorial creativity and hard work which elevate outstanding films.

TRON:LEGACY The Sound Show panel at Walt Disney Studios hosted by the Motion Picture Editors Guild. Photo c. Erik C. Andersen.

Moderated by Skywalker Sound executive Phil Benson (pictured far left, above), the panel of audio artisans who shaped the sounds of TRON:LEGACY included (left to right) sound designer Steve Boeddeker, supervising sound editor Gwendolyn Whittle, re-recording mixer Gary Rizzo, film editor James Haygood, and music supervisor Jason Bentley.

Highlights from the two-hour presentation included:

Comparisons of the original 2008 teaser/visual effects test reel sneak previewed at that  year’s Comic-Con versus the final feature results in TRON:LEGACY. Sound designer Boeddeker revealed that his original intent was to create entirely synthetic sound designs for the next-generation Light Cycles in the teaser, but the results sounded far too smooth and clean. He quickly shifted his strategy to sample and manipulate real-world audio recordings of various Ducati high-performance motorcycles to make the futuristic bikes sound bigger, rougher and faster while added a crucial sense of realism to match sight with sound.

During the sound design and editing of the 2008 trailer, the audio team employed what they termed DJ sound manipulation to mix created sound effects and real audio recordings to give the audio track a distinctly electronic, modern sound not heard off the Tron grid in other films.

Re-recording mixer Rizzo also described how audio design really set the psychological tone for the early TRON sequel teaser as the sound design subtly evolved from acoustic to electronic as the trailer progressed, only introducing the electro-style music score (not Daft Punk) after the face of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) appeared on-screen.  The dictum and strategy was to keep their creative sound track simple, that less would indeed be more. Given how the Comic-Con audience in Hall H responded with thunderous ovations in 2008 at the teaser’s screening, they made the right choice and the response quickly prompted Disney to greenlight production of TRON:LEGACY.

TRON:LEGACY - The Sound Show panel: Phil Benson, Steve Boeddeker, Gwen Whittle, Gary Rizzo, Jim Haygood and Jason Bentley. Photo c. Erik C. Andersen.

Speaking of Daft Punk, music supervisor Bentley revealed it took nearly one year of courting to get French electronic music duo Daft Punk to sign on to compose TRON:LEGACY’s original, dazzling music score. Bentley and film editor Haygood confirmed that once on board, Daft Punk’s commitment to scoring the film was unwavering and impressive — so much so that a temp music track was never created for TRON:LEGACY’s editing phase, as Daft Punk provided a constant stream of original demo tracks, many of which evolved directly into their score cues for the final film.  Director Kosinski even used the duo’s demo tracks on-set to aid actors Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde and castmates to feel the unique vibe of life on the grid.

The sound team faced an unprecedented audio editing challenge thanks to the glowing ‘program’ costumes worn by the actors in the Tron virtual realm: the strips of tiny lights which gave their clothing the circuit-like patterns emitted a high-frequency whine. Not only did the production sound recording capture this faint but annoying sound, even the actors became distracted by it. Evident from the first scenes shot on the grid, a solution was quickly found in an audio tool called Nova which could isolate the exact frequency of the while and filter it out while leaving the dialogue recording in tact. This unexpected glitch was compounded as each costume emitted its own pitch and the tones would then overlap and combine in quite uncomfortable disharmony as the actors stood close to each other. Supervising sound editor Whittle admitted their lengthy battle with the high-tech whine caused many a migraine until it was filtered out of the dialogue tracks (removing about 85% of the tone) as editing continued. The minimized whine was then reduced or hidden behind other environmental sound effects including distant thunder over Tron City’s skies or passing vehicles.

Whittle also revealed how Jeff Bridges did all of the de-aging in Clu’s younger voice, at the actor’s insistence — no sound editing or effects were needed to distinguish Clu from Kevin Flynn’s older, rougher speech. Bridges also acted all of Clu’s scenes in a walkthrough with other actors as a helmet-cam locked onto his face recording his vocal and facial performance. The motion-capture data stored from Bridges’ performance was later mapped onto his stand-in actor in the shot scene with other cast members, his stand-in then recreating Bridges’ earlier actions and gestures to complete Clu’s portion of the scene later combining de-aged head and body into one seamless character.

Rizzo detailed another audio philosophy which created a hierarchy of programs in the world of Tron: low priority programs spoke in very processed, electronic voices that were often highly distorted, while top-priority programs like Clu spoke normally — the concept being that the more advanced a program became, the closer it was to being human, or at least a reflection of the humanity which created it. Rizzo and Whittle gave the Sirens distinctly phase-flange vocal traits to distinguish them from Quorra or other females, while the Black Guards all spoke in a very distorted grumbling tone to emphasize their threatening force.

The panel also pointed out a fun audio Easter Egg hidden in the film: as Jarvis (James Frain) witnesses one of Clu’s guards get derezzed as Sam Flynn breaks into the control room, the guard dies uttering a fragmented and distorted version of the famous Wilhelm scream. While it’s quite plainly heard in the isolated clip the panel presented tonight, be sure to listen for it when TRON:LEGACY arrives on Blu-ray/DVD sometime this Spring.

After a discussion of director Kosinski’s specific requests for a sound design which made TRON’s identity discs sound dangerous, electronic and powerful (without cutting off the hand of the warrior throwing/catching it!), the floor was opened for an insightful Q&A session from the editor- and student-dominated audience.

FilmEdge thanks the TRON:LEGACY audio team, Phil Benson and Skywalker Sound and Walt Disney Studios for hosting an interesting, informative panel discussion, and special thanks to Erik C. Andersen for permission to use his photos.


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