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Immersed in Movies: Ren Klyce Talks ‘Inside Out’ Sound Design

Immersed in Movies: Ren Klyce Talks 'Inside Out' Sound Design

To complement the imaginative animation for Pixar’s Inside Out, sound designer Ren Klyce of Skywalker Sound was recruited to create an experimental soundscape. Known primarily for his brilliant work with David Fincher (nine features, from Se7en to Gone Girl), Klyce, who also worked on The Boxtrolls at Laika and the Lava short at Pixar, discusses some of his sonic secrets for Riley’s emotions and core memories.

Bill Desowitz: How did the process begin for you on Inside Out?

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Ren Klyce: I went over there for the first time to meet with producer Jonas Rivera and it was really early days and it was great because he spoke about how they wanted to feel and risks with the sound and not make it conventional. But they didn’t want it to be spooky. And so it was a fun way to start the project. Of course, they were still writing and had storyboards, so it was nice to get in their minds early. And also getting excited about things they liked, which gave me confidence.
BD: What did they like?
RK: Well, when I met them it was right when Spike Jonze’s Her had come out. They had just seen it, which was interesting, because they identified it with Inside Out with the computer voice and getting inside the mind of Theo (Joaquin Phoenix). How do we do the voice of Joy and how do we delinate that with the girl’s mind vs. the reality and how do we set that all up without it being distracting? It was nice because they could talk about what they liked in Spike’s film and if they could do something similar even though they’re obviously very different films.
BD: So how did that develop?
RK: One of the things that was important to Pete Docter about what he wanted the mind world to sound like and how that would be different from the regular world outside. And he wanted the very beginning to feel ethereal, and when we hear Joy’s voice, he wanted to explore where that would be coming from and how that could be different later on and like it’s coming from our own head. And when Riley is born and develops, how are the sounds of the different emotions realized, both to us and also to Riley?
And so we came up with this idea that when we’re inside Riley’s mind, everything is around us in the speakers and in the soundfield of the theater. And when we’re outside of her mind in San Francisco with her parents, then it’s flat. So that when we go back into her mind, it’s rich and full again. We didn’t always stick to that rule but that was one of our initial manifestos.
And then Pete wanted a different sound for the core memories that Riley creates vs. regular memories, and then, of course, as memories start to become more abundant, as Riley is experiencing more things, what does that sound like? He wanted it to be organic as if it’s really inside a little girl’s mind. But it’s a wonderfully strange film in that here are these emotions sitting at this Star Trek/Enterprise-like console, clicking buttons and trying to make this girl react. So what do the buttons sound like? Should they sound like plastic? Are they based on little kid’s toys from the outside world? So there were all of these really interesting puzzle pieces to figure out. And getting back to the core memories, he wanted them to have a very special sound, like angels singing in a bell at church and this very pronounced sound that got everyone’s attention. And as we progressed when the memories get lost, he wanted memories to then fade and become mute like they were crumbling and disintegrating.

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BD: what kinds of sounds are we talking about?
RK: It ended up being that those more acoustic sounds were used for the regular memories, but the core memory sounds needed to be larger and constantly changing, depending on whether there was a music cue happening. Because the other thing that was important to Pete was he wanted the sound of the core memory to be musical but not rub the wrong way with Michael Giacchino’s score. That was difficult because the core memory happens four or five times throughout the reels. Each iteration had to resemble the previous one but, in reality, they were all different because they had to be pitched to match the score at that moment. So we ended up combining an acoustical bell with an FM synthesis recreation of a bell, which was one of the few synthesized sounds in the film.  What was great about that was it had a weird gong musical quality and we added bass to it and made it more serious sounding. And that went through quite a few iterations because the score would change. And then John Lasseter came in and thought we still needed to change one of them, so there was a lot of focus on the core memories.
BD: What about other aspects of the mind world?
RK: There were a lot of discussions about the textures, particularly the memory dump. Should we feel blood vessels? Or is that too creepy? And it’s interesting how, if you go in that direction, there’s a fine line between comforting, womb-like and cozy to austere, cold and spooky. So taking sounds of kelp from underwater, for example, sometimes they would work and other times they wouldn’t if not pitched correctly. Another thing was that Pete wanted to have all of these textures but he didn’t want it to be dark.
BD: And yet there’s a dark side to the story with Joy learning to embrace Sadness and meeting Bing Bong.
RK: Yeah, and that’s what I really responded to working with Pete. It was really nice how he directed all of us. It was always coming from a place of what he wanted to feel and why. The discussions were never technical about frequency or tone. It was more like: Do whatever you want to do, but here’s what it ultimately has to do for me emotionally.

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