The Art of Sound Design
by Christine Bunish

Post Magazine - November 1, 2002


… Dane Davis, president of West Hollywood's Danetracks, Inc. (, doesn't see himself simply "painting by numbers with sound" in the "see a bird, hear a bird" tradition.

Instead, Davis, who won the 1999 Academy Award for best Sound Effects Editing for The Matrix - on which he was sound designer/supervising sound editor - thinks about "what's happening on screen and what sounds are created in the process of what's happening. You want to find a way to put motivation in the sound, to suggest more is going on than just what you see."

Davis and his Danetracks team had a special challenge in the new Disney animated feature, Treasure Planet, which transplants the Treasure Island tale to outer space where Long John Silver is a cyborg and his pet, Morph, is a shape shifter instead of a shoulder-perching parrot.

"It's set in a future as it might have been imagined 200 years ago," Davis explains. "It's sort of retro-futurism, so we had to find the threshold of the old and the new."

He notes that "Disney-animated soundtracks are usually somewhat simple compared to live-action features such as The Matrix. We create a level of detail that's pretty extreme, so people were worried that our sound might overwhelm the animation." Davis spent two years (with breaks for other commitments) as sound designer/supervising sound editor, working constantly to see how much like a live-action movie the animated feature could sound. In the end, "it surprised a lot of people" that his premise - the animation would be more real and plausible with detailed sound - worked.

The movie's sound effects were recorded at the Danetracks facility using Pro Tools 24-bit systems with multiple plug-ins and stand-alone digital processing programs, including U&I Software's MetaSynth and Sound Hack.

For Long John Silver's mechanical prosthetic arm, which "can do just about anything," Davis says he and sound designer Richard Adrian "tried a million things and picked what worked best [spinning and vibrating friction motors and mechanisms] without conflicting too much with the character dialogue." The sounds were edited and processed to "grow the sound onto the picture" such as a sequence where the pirate's arm whirs and spins furiously as he whips up a meal for the crew.

Supervising sound editor Julia Evershade handled many of the action sounds such as the wooden tall (space)ships' explosions, gunfire and classic-yet-sci-fi swashbuckling, plus the mechanical robot Ben. Andrew Lackey and the rest of the design team devised sound to accompany the gigantic visuals of a black hole and solar storm. "They had to sound expansive, fun and dramatic without blowing the kids out of the theater," says Davis. "We experimented with lots of growling and shrieking sounds for the threat of destruction that had to work with the whistling and howling of the 'etherium' being sucked in and exhaled from the black hole."

He and the directors decided to use his own voice, sped up and pitched higher, for Morph, but he filled his mouth with Jello for gooey vocalizations with no consonants or vowels. Over time Davis developed an amazing repertoire of about 90 emotional categories for Morph with 10 to 40 variations in each.

Davis also squished, splatted and plopped Jello for Morph flying, flipping and melting. To avoid sounding wet and disgusting, he digitally stretched the sounds so they became very springy, "as if Morph's molecules were always rearranging and bumping into each other."