Audio: <i>Life, Animated</i>
Issue: December 1, 2016

Audio: Life, Animated

Owen Suskind’s world is filled with Hollywood-crafted sound, culled from the comprehensive collection of Disney Classics animations. That’s because they play inside his head non-stop. “He’s a walking soundtrack for all the sound design and dialogue in these Disney films. Owen says he sees all 52 Disney Classics, everything from The Little Mermaid to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in his head at the same time,” says Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams (pictured below), who tells Owen’s tale in his award-winning documentary Life, Animated. “Owen imitates these sound effects, going ‘ka-pew,’ ‘kerplat,’ ‘merauuuu,’ and other sound effects constantly all day long. It’s an intense barrage of Foley and sound design imitations from all the Disney Classics and it’s playing as a backdrop anytime you’re with Owen. It’s amazing.” 

When Owen was struck with autism at age three, he lost his ability to communicate. Miraculously, he and his family were able to use the Disney films as a means to help him reconnect. To tell Owen’s story properly, Williams required uninhibited access to those Disney films — and not just the rights to use them. Williams needed the soundtracks too. Supervising sound editor Pete Horner, at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, CA (, says, “Disney was very generous in allowing us to have materials from those films, including stems when available.” 

Picture editor David Teague was able to cut between the Disney films and overlap them in different ways. Having the ability to play just the dialogue from those films opened up a world of creative possibilities for Horner and his sound team. “We could play our score underneath instead of theirs or just play bits of dialogue. That was a pretty unique experience and really generous of Disney to do. I believe Disney was as impressed with Owen and his story as we were, and so made that available to us,” says Horner. 

For Life, Animated, Williams earned a ‘Directing Award’ at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary, now available on DVD or digital download, is also on the 2017 Academy Awards shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. 

In Life, Animated it’s revealed that Owen feels more connected with the Disney sidekicks then he does with the heroes. In his mind he creates a special place called “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks.” Director Williams used animated sequences to actualize Owen’s vision. Sound designer Al Nelson, at Skywalker Sound, collaborated with composers Dylan Stark and T. Griffin. They exchanged sound and music elements between themselves, and with the animation team in France. The sound and animation teams worked concurrently on these sequences, and Nelson continued working with the composers right through the final mix. In their approach, Nelson says, they “tried to channel Owen’s imagination and his autism. As an autistic man, sound and overall stimulus of Owen’s world is so exaggerated. We tried to present that in these animated sequences.” 

Nelson notes the storm sequence, with thunder crashing and flashes of lightening, the creaking of the stairs as a young, animated Owen runs down them. Outside there’s the sound of the forest and the introduction of Owen’s nemesis Fuzzbutch, whose superpower involves blowing smoke into people’s heads to confuse them. “All those sounds are hyper-exaggerated. As far as processing, because this is presented as a bit of a dream, we used echo liberally. Other very effective layers in those sequences were the many voices calling Owen's name, which Pete [Horner] deserves credit for creating,” says Nelson. 

To create the vocal layers, Horner mined the production tracks for instances of Owen’s family and other people saying his name. Through editing and layering in Pro Tools 12, EQ filtering, and pitch manipulation via Serato’s Pitch n’ Time plug-in, Horner created a layer of garbled voices to represent how Owen was processing speech. “We were trying to create that sense of what it must be like. Owen had family who were trying to reach out to him, but his brain was not allowing him to process the language,” says Horner.

Horner (pictured) was also the re-recording mixer on Life, Animated. On the Orson Wells stage at Skywalker Sound, Horner mixed the documentary in 5.1 using an Avid S6 console. The films vérité segments showing Owen’s day-to-day life juxtapose animated sequences that explain how he interprets his world. While the vérité scenes were mixed front and center, Horner fully utilized the 5.1 surround field to help the animated sequences stand out. And there were also a number of other sequences where he used the 5.1 surrounds, such as when Owen is being bullied, and during the discussion of Owen ‘slipping away.’ Horner says, “Even though it’s a documentary, there’s definitely a subjectivity to our principal character’s experience of the world. Anytime we were tipping out of reality, we definitely employed the entire surround field.” 

During the final mix playback at Skywalker Sound, director Williams says he, producer Julie Goldman, and picture editor Teague all had tears in their eyes. “It was the first time we experienced the full mix and it was overwhelming. I can’t tell you how many times I’d seen the film within that year that we were editing but that first playback in Skywalker’s amazing screening room was magical. It was unbelievable,” Williams says. “It was my dream to work with Skywalker, and to work with Al [Nelson] and Pete [Horner]. I had the best team ever. One of the most rewarding parts of the process was to work with them on sound.”