Arthur and the War of Two Worlds

Creating a virtual soundscape with Pro Tools and System 5

Mixing sound for film requires passion, skill, and imagination, and none more so than when mixing for an animated feature. With Arthur and the War of Two Worlds (Arthur et la Guerre des Deux Mondes), the third film in writer/director Luc Besson’s Arthur trilogy, principal sound mixers Didier Lozahic and Matthieu Dallaporta had the unique challenge of matching the rich computer-animated landscapes of the film with a sound environment of the same caliber. Together with supervising sound editor Guillaume Bouchateau, they carefully crafted a soundtrack with the help of eight Pro Tools|HD systems and one of Europe’s largest mixing consoles—the 620-track Avid (formerly Euphonix) System 5-F.

"This film was a real pleasure to work on," says Lozahic. "We were not limited technically or artistically. We could really build out the sound universe to match the film.

From music to movies

Lozahic started his career in music doing both recording and mixing, but broke into film when composer Eric Serra (Arthur, Fifth Element, GoldenEye) asked him to collaborate on Luc Besson’s Leon (1994). Music has always been central in Besson’s work, and Besson, Serra, and Lozahic have since collaborated on a large number of films, each time looking for new ways to expand their creative range.

Lozahic adopted Pro Tools for his film work starting with Yamakasi in 2001. "The real revolution in the industry was the arrival of Pro Tools," he says. "For both music and film, it has become an essential tool."

Initially, Lozahic used Pro Tools just as a player for sound design, but the software has gone on to take up more and more of a role in helping him build an equilibrium across the entire film. "It’s just a lot easier to add 20 dB on a single word with Pro Tools than with a fader," he says.

Pro Tools has also been the key to allowing both the mixer and director to keep their options open throughout the film’s development. "Something that is extremely important in the cinema—and especially with Besson—is the open mix," explains Lozahic, "Nothing is recorded, and choices are left open until the end. This gives enormous freedom to the director."

 
 The real revolution in the industry was the arrival of Pro Tools...it has become an essential tool.
Didier Lozahic, principal sound mixer

Preparing for Arthur

The team knew that the Arthur project would require a lot of resources. There was a whole soundscape to create to match the 75% of the film that’s animated, and the final mix ended up with more than 800 sources—with 85 minutes out the 90-minute running time including music. The choice of facility was easy—Luc Besson’s spectacular Digital Factory located deep in the French countryside in Normandy.

At the heart of this facility is Theater 4, a beautifully decorated 200-seat theater equipped with the previously mentioned 620-channel System 5-F. The console is connected to seven Pro Tools|HD playback systems that are allocated between dialog, Foley, effects, sound design, backgrounds, and music, and one Pro Tools|HD stem recorder. The orchestrated music was recorded in the same facility to ensure sound consistency. Each Pro Tools system is set up for 192 tracks and 64 channels of I/O, making for a huge total track count—something easily handled by the System 5 console.

Before deciding on the System 5, Lozahic collaborated with Besson to determine which console to choose. Four things led them to the conclusion that the System 5 was the best choice for the studio—its advanced technology, excellent sound quality, ease of use, and almost unlimited processing power. "We never found ourselves in a situation where the console couldn’t handle what we asked [of it]," says Lozahic. In addition, the console perfectly integrates into the studio’s Pro Tools environment, giving mixers complete control over all audio and music elements.

The mix

After several months of sound editorial work under the direction of Bouchateau, Lozahic started in on the mix. He prefers to work in layers, starting with the music and the backgrounds, and then adding in the dialog piece by piece. He pays special attention to the dialog tracks to keep them sounding as natural as possible, and uses the music as a mask only when needed. Then there’s the question of how to separate all the sounds in the film. The team had particular fun working on the surround panning of the insects in one scene. "When we first started using surround, it was very basic, but now with digital technology it’s much more interesting," Lozahic explains.

The other key factor is setting the right dynamics. "The cinema is the only place where you can really use dynamic range," he notes. With Arthur, particular care needed to be taken to ensure the energy of the action was matched sonically, and translated well for a children’s film. This is where working in a large mixing space is key to getting the right balance.

While the sound editors prepare and deliver the original surround work in an organized way for mixing, the acoustics of the large screening room are clearly different from the small edit suites, enabling the mixers to hear how the mix will sound to audiences as they work. After an initial review of the sound edit with Besson, Lozahic worked at length on the final mix, which took 10 weeks, with Besson giving a lot of liberty to the mixing team. With the open mix flexibility provided by Pro Tools and System 5, they knew that different mix choices could be offered, and changes could continue to be made during the major review steps.

Keys to success

Asked about what advice he’d offer to those entering the business, Lozahic emphasizes the importance of apprenticeship. "School helps you save time—this is advanced technology. The rest is experience. Watch people work. It’s the school of life." He also emphasizes the importance of people skills. How you communicate with the director and the producer has a strong impact on whether your ideas will get across.

As for Arthur and the War of Two Worlds, the sound team successfully created an extremely rich audio environment that brings the characters and spaces of the film to life, and Lozahic is thrilled. "I have a real passion for this work. You look for ideas, you express yourself. It’s extremely enjoyable." Making a film is a serious endeavor that requires a large investment and large teams, but in the end, the joy the team takes in creating the work is what comes through in the quality of the film.