Daniel Rowland talked with us about his music production work for Pixar’s best short film in a long time: Piper.
Piper is the animated short screening in theaters before Finding Dory—the long awaited Finding Nemo sequel.
Finding Dory reached a lot of eyeballs. Even more than expected. It’s the highest-grossing animated debut of all time. Yes, of all time.
Some viewers are even saying that what they love most about Finding Dory is actually getting to see Piper.
Piper—directed by Alan Barillaro—is no doubt a great candidate for best-animated-short at the Academy Awards this year.
“It took three years for Barillaro to craft the six-minute short, using cutting-edge technology that could very well signal the future of the studio.” (Vanity Fair)
And you know what’s pretty crazy about it? Rowland worked on recording and mixing the music for Piper using LANDR.
Did I mention that we’re lucky enough to have him on our team? Rowland is a Senior Audio Engineer here at LANDR.
We caught up with him to talk about his process. He also gave us insider tips for those of you aspiring to work in music for film:
At what points in your process did you use LANDR? In what ways?
I used LANDR nearly every day we worked on Piper. Basically every mix I exported out of Pro Tools would end up in LANDR. Adrian Belew (the composer) and I would come back at the end of the day to listen to the masters with fresh ears. I’m often sending these tracks to the director to listen to and make comments on. It was much easier to let LANDR do the mastering—things were consistent every time I sent a file off. These are essentially demos you’re sending out for approval, so they have to sound great or you risk tainting someone’s opinion because the track isn’t sonically right.
What did you find LANDR did best in the process of making Piper?
It saved me time! The fact that LANDR was mastering in the background while I was off to the next project is awesome. I know I can trust it at this point, so I’m not having to listen through the entire track again after I’ve mixed it—like I normally would if I was doing a quick master on my own. I make a mix, print it, drop in in LANDR, and move on.
For Piper, the best part was that sections of music we created on different days (or even months) sounded sonically cohesive. When I went to assemble the various cues into a full cut of the music track, I rarely needed to tweak them to sit right together.
Given that there’s no dialog in Piper, what role does the music play?
Adrian Belew wrote the music. I recorded, molded, and mixed it using my instrument: my computer and DAW.
Without dialogue, there really has to be perfect marriage between the music, effects, and animation. Pixar is great at that—just look at a film like WALL-E, where there’s no dialogue for the first 20 minutes or so. And that’s a masterpiece in my opinion. The lack of dialogue is one thing that made creating the music for Piper so tough, even though it’s a short film… and it’s also why there are at least 3 different scores for the movie.
Ultimately the orchestrator, Jake Monaco, really helped to take the demos we made and make them cinematic. Still, the guitars and synth lines we recorded made it into the final film—the rest was recorded by an orchestra at Skywalker Sound.
The press describes Piper as ’emotionally satisfying.’ How do you think the music and sound make that happen?
Try watching any movie without music and FX and tell me how emotionally satisfying it is. Don’t get me wrong: I love silent movies! But we have expectations as a modern audience. Music has to be there to draw us in, even if we don’t’ realize it’s there (that’s the best kind!).
Were you also involved in the making of the bird sounds? How did you make those?
The amazing Ren Klyce handled the sound FX, among other things. I’d first heard his name while working on the last Nine Inch Nails album. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross had composed the music for several David Fincher films that Ren did sound design on. It was cool to finally get to meet him.
At the very start of the project I’d created a thousand or so bird sound FX, trying out everything I could. I bought a dozen squeaky dog toys, rubbed styrofoam on glass and plastic, and recorded 20 or so guitars, using a small violin bow to squeak the strings behind the nut. Then there was pitched up dog sounds, recordings of my own voice, recordings of Adrian’s kids, etc. Tons of stuff from which I picked the most applicable sounds. No idea how much of that made it in the film!
What about the water sounds?
For one scene, I did a good deal of underwater recording—in sinks, swimming pools, bathtubs, etc. At our studio, I’d programmed the synth parts for the underwater scene in Piper, also using a guitar loop Adrian created. Months later while at Pixar, I played this music through a waterproof Bluetooth speaker and had hydrophones underwater to record it.
Barillaro (the director) actually came along for some of that which was cool—he was swishing the water around to create more of a disturbance at the Pixar pool, and moving the speaker around with a net. Fun stuff.
My best advice is to be impractical when you have the time—‘cause you often won’t! Both in life and music.
Later, I even pitched the music up a few octaves and recorded in a bathtub while I was dropping in Alka Seltzer tablets. When you pitch it back down, the music is in the right octave, but the bubbles sound huge. Wildly impractical, but fun! My best advice is to be impractical when you have the time—‘cause you often won’t! Both in life and music.
What other tips can you give to those interested in making music for animation films?
I have friends who are composing at the highest levels of the industry, so I’ll pass on the advice they they’ve given me (and what I’ve found to be true from my own dabbling).
First of all, when working on films, the deadlines are even more intense and frequent than when working on a record for a label. You need to be fast and make quick decisions. You also typically have (much) less control over the creative outcome. So if you’re used to ‘doing whatever you like’, that may take some adjustment. The music HAS to serve the picture, and the director is the ultimate arbiter of that. You may be in love with the music you’ve created, but you have to step back and look at the bigger picture.
Accept that you’re not the captain of the ship and you may not always have the most complete view of where a project is going. So you pick your battles: fight for things you really believe in. Let go of things that aren’t that important. Compromise, revise, and move forward. Another life lesson I could probably learn something from!
How do you see LANDR being used in the world of animation and film?
From talking to people in the industry, it’s used quite a bit now. I’m sure it’ll be used even more as people get exposed to it. Again, there are intense deadlines, while still requiring good sounding music.
LANDR seems custom built for that.
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