Thundercats Episode 3: Enter Sand, Man

Lion-O & co. arrive at an ocean made entirely of sand. Sound design challenge accepted!

I knew in order to make these waves of sand unique, we were going to need some great recordings of sand to work with so I called on the foley stage for help. Our virtuosic foley team was foley artist Alex Ullrich and foley mixer Stacey Michaels who recorded loads of wild sand samples for me to work with. My wish list was pretty thorough:

  • body falls in sand
  • trudging/wading through sand
  • very large object diving into and escaping from sand
  • wavelike motions/movements of sand
  • pouring sand with different textures
Unsolicited advice: It is very rare (at least in my experience) to be able to call for wild (not to picture) sounds like this to be recorded for a TV animation production. You look for something that works from your library and move on; time and money are always an issue. However, odd sound design challenges (like the sand sea) seem to crop up with almost every episode of Thundercats, and frankly they need a little more love than our libraries can sometimes offer. If ever you have the opportunity to get anything custom recorded, go for it. It can be rewarding and creatively inspiring to work with custom sounds.

Alex and Stacey did an amazing job and I had more pieces than I knew what to do with. Alex said by the time they were finished “the word dusty doesn’t begin to describe the foley stage.” I’m sure cleanup wasn’t fun that day. Sorry guys!

From the beginning, I had two priorities: (1) match the shape and rhythm of normal ocean waves and (2) make sure the texture of the sand comes through (surprisingly, it was very easy for these ‘sand waves’ to start sounding like normal water waves). In addition, for the scenes where we are on the boat, I needed the constant ebb and flow of the sand sea to be present but not distracting. Time to get to work!

I started by layering both the pouring sand and wavelike sand motion elements until I liked texture. I cut the pieces together, playing around with volume graphs meld all of the elements and give rhythm and shape to the sound. Rendering it out, I had the first of many layers I needed to create in order to build an ocean:

“Individual Sand Wave”

iPhone or iPad? Individual Sand Wave audio

From there I built more loops of different pitches and tempos to give variation. Layering them all together I started to get the chaotic ocean feel I was hoping for (Chaos can be a good thing!).

“Layered Sand Waves”

iPhone or iPad? Layered Sand Waves audio

At this point, the only thing missing was weight. To truly make this feel like a vast ocean of sand, I needed a low end element in there. Simply pitching the sand samples down didn’t work. At a certain point, it just sounded like junk. I think it’s because sand doesn’t have enough natural weight to get the low frequencies jumping. I decided to take another approach.

Grabbing some pretty weighty samples of ocean waves, I rolled off the high end frequencies. This effectively cut out any splashy portions of the wave and left me with mostly the low rumble and cadence. A bit more tweaking and… Score! I messed around with the tempo to fit what I had already built and there I had it; an ocean of sand.

“Sand Sea”

iPhone or iPad? Sand Sea audio

In typical waste not fasion, I was able to use the rest of the sand elements from Alex for more individual moments in the show… The Ramlak tentacles rising out of the sea, bodies falling into the sea from the ship, bigger on screen waves, etc.

There is a lot going on in this episode and of course, a good amount of the work gets buried. But it’s not about that. It’s about going for the right sound because it serves the story and it’s a fun challenge! The sand sea is unusual to say the least, and it’s likely I won’t cut another one for the rest of my career. It deserved some special treatment.

What did you think of the sand sea?

As always, thanks for listening for what sounds like Jeff.

Creative Toolkit:

  • recorded sand samples
  • ocean wave samples
  • Digidesign EQ 3 7 band

5 thoughts on “Thundercats Episode 3: Enter Sand, Man

  1. I find this blog absolutely fascinating, as does my Dad (who is interested in foley work). I think all the work you’ve put into the sound is awesome. So to answer your question… yes, the sand sea worked for me! haha.

  2. Great sound! The low end water samples really brought it to life and it sounds great.

    I’d be curious to see what it sounds like with the dialogue/atmospheres etc – I would be tempted to pop in a light wind sound and a little reverb!

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Pingback: Radio Silence | Sounds Like Jeff

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