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Immersed in Movies: Talking ‘Dragon 2’ Sound and Score with Randy Thom and John Powell

Immersed in Movies: Talking 'Dragon 2' Sound and Score with Randy Thom and John Powell

In keeping with Dean DeBlois’ ambitious vision for How to Train Your Dragon 2, both the sound design by Randy Thom and score by John Powell were more adventurous as well. For the Oscar-winning Thom (The Incredibles, The Right Stuff), that entailed crafting a more elaborate soundscape. And for Powell, who received an Oscar nomination for the first Dragon score, that meant composing a more complex score.

But the majority of the sound work on the DreamWorks Oscar contender still revolved around the lovable Toothless, who displays greater acting range. “He is made of elephants and camels and leopards and walruses and dogs (including puppies),” explains Thom, director of sound design at Skywalker Sound.

But when Toothless needed to be more empathetic and anthropomorphic, Thom resorted to dogs. “And when all else fails, I use my own voice. And that involves me going into a dark room, where nobody’s watching me make a fool of myself and I make an endless series of animalistic sounds.”

This ranges from a pseudo-leopard growl to a soft and cuddly purr. His ratio of usable tracks is 100:1 in building a vocabulary for Toothless.

“One of the biggest challenge is finding ways to make those diverse animal sounds flow from one to another in a sequence, such as when Toothless kills Stoick, where in less than a minute he needs to go from vicious sounding to utterly sympathetic like an injured puppy,” Thom suggests. “So making that transition from the walrus to the horse to the dog to me involved a lot of experimenting, trying different sounds and [alternating] each sound in terms of its pitch and other characteristics so the end of that sound believably matches the next sound, which is an emotional step in a different direction. There is no technology that helps you do that but the digital technology helps us in other ways.”

The addition of the Bewilderbeast offered its own set of challenges: “It is mostly elephants, which are a real treasure trove of dinosaur and dragon-type vocalizations because they’re so big, but beyond the trumpeting sound, they have a vocabulary of different kinds of sounds, including low frequency. I used some of those sounds and pitched them up so that they are in the human audible range. But I used normal elephant vocalizations, which included a roar, growl, and screech.”

The battle scene is a great example of  crafting sound and music, but mixing is about elimination and figuring out what you need to focus on from moment to moment. “You need to be complex enough to be believable but not so cluttered that you’re muddying the message,” Thom reveals.

Thom’s favorite scene, though, is the Valka cave reveal that we analyzed previously. “In order to design a sequence well sonically, you need to focus on a very few sounds at a time and then gracefully figure out how to change the focus over a period of a few seconds for a minute or so. And the dialogue is sparse enough to leave room for other sounds. This sequence does the balancing act well. There’s a big burst of music that ends when Hiccup drops into the cave and finds himself surrounded by dragons in this very dark place making ominous sounds. And dark visuals, by the way, are always a playground for sound design. And at the end, the score returns to do something that the sound effects could never do, which establishes the emotional connection between mother and son.” 

For Powell, the challenge was coming up with a new tone as well as new themes for Hiccup and Valka. Yet he doesn’t compose leitmotifs in the Wagnerian sense but focuses on ideas. For instance, as Hiccup opens the map of his new discoveries, Powell starts a new tune [“The Map”] representative of what Hiccup wants to do with his life.

“It’s an optimistic but carefully positioned theme that allows us to do various things with it throughout the movie,” Powell says. “So it’s always variations of a theme to me. And then there was one for Hiccup becoming a chief as well. So there was one with him following his own interest in life and the other one is his destiny, perhaps. But that chief tune was important to bring him home at the end. And then there was a melody I call ‘Lost and Found,’ that connects moments in the film: losing Toothless, finding his mother and losing his father. And then Valka talks about how she got lost from the village when it was burning. It keeps coming back and is played after Stoick dies and when Hiccup tries to pull Toothless out of the trance from Drago. That tune became much more malleable than I expected.”

And yet it’s not how “Lost and Found” started, which was hymnal. It has hints of sadness and optimism that Powell tried to balance. But then he did major rearrangements — faster, slower, major, minor — and it was about how you harmonize and orchestrate it. “The most joyful version is when they fly around together. That was the hardest because until the last minute it was a song. I had to make it work for this variation.”For the scene with Stoick singing, Powell threw away the backing track and let Gerard Butler perform it. “We got him to sing his role without any instruments and then I manipulated the track to get the best lines out of Gerard. You heard it and heard the potential of it, but when it came back from animation, it became an extraordinary moment.”

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