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If you think recording the sound of 1500 penguins singing is a big ask, how about getting the stars to read their lines in real time from several locations around the US, with the director stationed in Sydney. Well, Trackdown Scoring Stage did it as part of their music recording services for Happy Feet, which has just been nominated for a Best Animation Oscar.

Thanks to the internet and state of the art technology, George Miller directed the voice cast of Happy Feet from the Trackdown Scoring Stage facilities in Sydney, while his cast - Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Elijah Woods and Brittany Murphy - were either in Los Angeles, Nashville or New York … all at the same time.

This innovative real time recording technology brought Australia closer to the rest of the world than ever before. With Miller's time being so precious, and his presence in Sydney being integral, this cost and time effective recording method ensured he was available across all production departments without having to travel the globe. Or having the actors all come to Sydney.

Then there was the need to record the sound of 1500 singing penguins. This was another of the enormous challenges that faced the team at Trackdown, the extensive facility at Sydney’s Fox Studios, which had the task of providing services and facilities for recording the music for Happy Feet.

Trackdown's Main Hall could have squeezed in around 400 singers and the recorded cues could be doubled, but composer John Powell felt that settling for fewer singers would not do justice to Miller's vision. Music Supervisor Christine Woodruff turned the impossible dream into a reality. Woodruff and her team contacted every choral group in town and finally managed to come up with 600 voices, which formed the basis of the choral sound, electronically increased on the cue, to deliver a sound that was just like 1500 penguins singing. (If you don’t believe it, count the voices…)

Technical Director/Chief Music Editor Simon Leadley solved the space issue by suggesting the stage at Fox used for the helicopter crash scene in Matrix I. A huge location. The team at Trackdown set up the enormous stage as a recording studio which included suspending microphones from the extremely high ceiling. Brett Weymark was the obvious choice to conduct such a huge choir, due to his past experience.

In recent years, Australia has developed a fine reputation in all aspects of filmmaking. Trackdown’s commitment to build the first purpose built Scoring Stage in Australia back in 2003, means that filmmakers no longer look outside Australia to have their films scored. “Trackdown is incredibly proud of its involvement in this truly outstanding cinematic masterpiece and we applaud the brilliance of George Miller for allowing Australian talent to shine,” says general manager Sue Taylor.

With Leadley (Moulin Rouge!, Master and Commander, Catch a Fire) and Senior Music Editor Tim Ryan (Moulin Rouge!, No Reservations, Catch a Fire,) at the helm, Trackdown provided audio and music services for the more than two years that it took to complete. The music editing team was completed with Mark Franken (Lord of the Rings, Aquamarine, The Quiet American) along with Los Angeles based Tom Carlson (X-Men 3, Ice Age, Mr and Mrs Smith).


Simon Leadley says: "Music editing on any musical is challenging, but add animated penguins who tap dance on ice in the Antarctic and A List actors who are scattered around the globe, you begin to understand the challenges that we faced.

“Through various stages of the production, temp music was produced so that George could visualise the scenes in early mock-up form. We worked closely with sound supervisor Wayne Pashley who was responsible for capturing the tap sound at Mocap and who later ‘iced’ and processed the taps so that we could make musical changes. This ensured that the dance matched the final music as closely as possible. Keeping tabs on two years of vocal recordings, editing them to get the performance standard that George was happy with while ensuring the Lip sync - or in this case beak sync - was as tight as possible, along with the constant draft and re-draft from music, dance and editing departments, certainly threw a great challenge our way."

Back in 2004, Trackdown provided a large Dialogue Recording Studio which replicated the sound of the Los Angeles studio where the dialogue was originally recorded. As the Scoring Stage was too live and the large Isolation booth too small to accommodate all of the actors and crew, their TV Studio became the solution. The 200 sqm space was dressed with carpet, curtains and furniture and equipment was set up under the Leadley's direction.

The film's score by John Powell (Ice Age, Mr and Mrs Smith, Shrek, X-men) was recorded at Trackdown Scoring Stage by Oscar winning engineer Shawn Murphy (Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Dances with Wolves) using the Sydney Scoring Orchestra. Leadley says: "The Scoring process was challenging but very enjoyable as they were working with Shawn and John's regular team for the first time, meaning that their team, Torei Lista (Pro Tools), Daniel Brown (Assistant Engineer) and Jamie Watson (Floor Assistant) had to adopt their work methodology.

“A very tight Score and Mix schedule meant that they were editing the score parallel to the scoring sessions. There were two weeks scoring going straight into mix with a single setup day and two weeks for mixing the songs and score in a form that gave them maximum flexibility at the final dub. It was necessary to simplify the music so that the dubbing mixers were not overwhelmed with tracks. The result was certainly worth the effort.”

For Powell, “it was a joy to work at Trackdown,” and for Trackdown it was a joy to work with Powell and the sound of penguins is turning into the sound of the cash register as customers from around the world queue up at Trackdown’s doors.

Published January 25, 2007


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Happy Feet

Chief Music Editor & Technical Director Simon Leadley

Senior Music Editor Tim Ryan

Happy Feet: Australian release, December 26, 2006

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