USP-equipped DFC helps propel Avatar to No 1

26th January 2010

In the end it took just 38 days days for James Cameron’s Avatar to smash the box office record his previous blockbuster, Titanic, had taken 41 weeks to set.

But the movie was 15 years in the making – partly because of a ten year hiatus while its writer and director, James Cameron, waited for technology to catch up with his vision, but also as investors hemmed and hawed about the production budget. Any residual nervousness was blown away within two and a half weeks as Avatar became the fastest film to gross $1bn, passing Titanic’s $1.84bn milestone three weeks later.

The key to the movie’s success is that the jaw-dropping visual effects carry conviction as well as wow-factor. Not only is the technology ground-breaking, but there’s been meticulous attention to detail throughout the production and post-production process to ensure that the audience is kept ‘believing’ – no mean feat within a fantasy sci-fi setting.

That realism relies heavily on the skill of the sound department both in devising sound effects to marry up with futuristic machines and other-worldly creatures and in keeping the dialogue crisp and clear (see mixonline’s feature here). But the mix is equally critical to ensuring that the audio enhances the visual magic without ever breaking the spell by drawing attention to itself. As sound designer and supervising sound editor Christopher Boyes notes, ‘It was very important to just choose certain details to highlight and not get gimmicky because there’s a tremendous amount of information to take in, and if we give them too much sonic information at the same time, it will detract from the experience.’

That demanded a new level of control and flexibility – and multi-stem processing power – within the mix console itself. As Andy Nelson, in charge of mixing James Horner’s score (recorded on Fox’s Neve 88RSP2), told Mix, ‘I was working with nine or 10 5.1 stems of music for every single cue. And the beauty of that is it gave me and Jim Cameron complete flexibility to sit the drums out front, or maybe where there were certain action scenes, the drums were starting to tangle up with some other things, so we could pull them back a bit and leave the orchestra out front… And because we had the stems we could do that.’

Fox realized that to meet those demands, Avatar’s soundtrack needed the world’s most powerful audio engine – AMS Neve’s Ultra Scale Processor (USP) engine. The order was placed and installed in two weeks, against the release deadline – and the box office results have already justified Fox’s investment. The USP engine has also already received the thumbs up from the critics, with the sound mixing team – Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson, Tony Johnson and Addison Teague – winning Best Sound at the Broadcast Film Critics Awards.