Spotlight on Sound
How sound played a Huge part in shaping sonaria’s narrative
Ever since the release of
Windy Day, Pollen Music Group co-founder Scot Stafford has served as the creative director of music and sound for Google Spotlight Stories. The release of Sonaria marks the co-directorial debut of Stafford who was also the composer and sound supervisor.
“Towards the end of 2016 [GSS technical project lead] Rachid El Guerrab asked me to pitch an idea for a show that was sound-driven from the start: an idea from within the internal team that would focus on pushing our audio tech forward,” recalls Scot Stafford. “My first thought was to focus on 6DOF sound. [In 6DOF viewers can get closer to things, and look around and behind objects]. My second thought was, ‘No way is this going to feel like a tech demo!’”
A key inspiration was modular synth sounds of Weddell seals. “I imagined a nearby Antarctic ice shelf separating the world of ‘above’ [wind, airy lightness, ocean spray, ice cracking] and ‘below’ [immersive seal song, krill crackling, submerged darkness],” remarks Stafford. “And most importantly, the ability to move between these worlds just by sitting or standing. In order to make the experience more sound-driven, we’d chase a dozen creatures through as many acoustic environments, all of which could be identified by sound alone. Stafford had drawn a teardrop shape in one of his earliest treatments which intrigued co-director Kevin Dart who founded animation and design studio Chromosphere. “Kevin wanted to build every creature, and world, out of this one shape,” states Stafford. “I loved the idea, and encouraged him to embrace the shape’s 2D simplicity, even if it didn’t work from a traditional CG animation standpoint.”
The sound design was primarily achieved through a mixture of Ambisonic sound fields and individual sound objects for the environments and creatures. A day was spent using several boutique microphones (including a hydrophone), a water tank and plastic tubing to capture swishes,
“the Best SOUND Came from An OLD RUSSIAN CONDENSER WRAPPED in A CONDOM AND A YARD Of DUCT tape” Scot Stafford, creative director of music and sound for Google Spotlight Stories
swirls and bubbles that follow motion on screen. “The best sound came from an old Russian condenser wrapped in a condom and a yard of duct tape. Ah, what we do for film!” laughs Stafford. “Typically, we record non-diegetic score in stereo, but for Sonaria I wanted to arrange the ensemble in a circle around a double M/S mic array, with cellos evenly distributed between violins and viola. This created a radial symmetry in the mix that, as you rotate in 360, always has an even balance. I wanted this mix to focus according to viewer orientation, so we built specialised quad emitters that turn each virtual speaker up and down based on gaze angle.
“Our biggest challenge was definitely the seal scene in the Antarctic,” reveals Stafford. “In order to create a convincing experience of crossing the threshold between above and below the ocean, we built new audio features that allow us to:
• Mix between multiple sound fields according to camera position – the worlds above and below have totally unique spatialised soundscapes.
• Roll off high frequencies of occluded sound sources, to sound ‘above’ or ‘below’ the ocean surface.
• Trigger sounds of submerging or surfacing our heads as we break through the ocean surface. Unique sounds play at various volume levels depending on the direction we approach the surface as well as the speed of our head movement.
• Move between acoustic zones. Underwater is highly reverberant; above is totally ‘dry.’”
Scot Stafford co-directed and also composed the sound for the project