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James Scullion ’07 talks with Jarrad Jinks about music, grumpy old audio guys, the sounds of sorcery and winning an Emmy with the Lost in Oz sound editing team.
Dorothy, Toto and Scarecrow move cautiously through the hidden depths of Glenda the Good’s flying castle—a palace kept aloft by way of witchcraft. At the bottom of a dimly-lit staircase they come across an effervescent and incandescent blue lake of oblivion water. The Good Witch of the South is missing and finding her may be key in Dorothy’s quest to return home to Kansas.
The lake hisses as Scarecrow, Glenda’s right-hand man, approaches. The oblivion water’s sound warning that a single touch will slowly sap remembrance from any who touch it. They enter a nearby boat with a thud and the motor hums quickly to life. The water reacts with a sizzle and continuous, nearly inaudible chimes as the propeller churns and the trio venture deeper into the cavernous void of the castle’s depths, surrounded by the memory-erasing reservoir that likely stole Scarecrow’s recollection of Glenda’s whereabouts.
In Lost in Oz, an imaginative retelling of Frank L Baum’s classic tale, Dorothy, Toto and a number of other familiar characters find themselves beautifully animated and surrounded by a multi-Emmy award- winning soundscape in Amazon’s original TV series. As part of the sound editing team that won a Daytime Creative Emmy for Outstanding Sound Editing in Animation for their work on Lost in Oz, James Scullion ‘07 helped build a reality in which the sound of magic collides with real-world elements.
Teams of talented sound designers, engineers and editors record each line of dialogue and then collaborate to craft a world around the words and images, supplying the sounds to complete an immersive experience—the putter of cars powered by wizardry, the simmer of sorcerous substances and the shuffle of a straw-stuffed scarecrow.
James attended ASIJ for nine years, beginning in elementary school and graduating in 2007, during which time he participated heavily in the performing arts, both onstage and backstage. When asked about his time at ASIJ and if there was any specific teacher that inspired or contributed to his career choice, James reply was, admittedly, “a little cornball.” He feels that, in a way, every teacher had an influence on his life and career choices. Pushed to name names, James goes on to mention a few in particular—David Neele (Digital Film/Tech, Theater Design), Brent Huber (FF ’88–’17, AP ‘88–’05), Kerry Nichols (FF ‘87–’08) and Ed Staples (FF ‘98–’08). “All of their encour- agement and instruction in the theater arts and in music really helped me a lot.”
Reflecting on his influences earlier in life, James often tells people that the work he does now is a perfect marriage of what he loved growing up—music, storytelling, theater, writing and technology. “Sound for picture is really all of those things put together, and there was definitely kind of a sense of understanding across different media at ASIJ.” James recalls one of his first forays into sound, a music technology class he took in middle school, taught by the late Brent Huber. He describes it as a mind opening experience in regards to what is possible with a computer. “Brent Huber was always teaching us fundamentals in music and the more traditional ideas but also was completely open to newer crazy ideas.” While some students in his class moved towards composition, James enjoyed just making nonsensical sounds, and Brent encouraged him to continue, “if you like making crazy sounds that’s cool, that’s your thing!”
And just like James, David Neale also works both sides of the stage, putting that understanding of different media into practice. “When I was in middle school he would be directing the plays...when I got to high school he would be coordinating the back stage as the technical director, but I would still go to him for acting advice and he would always encourage all of the actors, I remember, to understand what was happening behind the stage, understand what was going on behind the scenes.”
That lesson in particular resonated with James and he illustrates the importance by describing a divide in his profession, an us-and-them mentality. “There’s a bit of a stereotype in audio engineering-type work of the grumpy old sound guy—like that great line in The Conversation (1974) with Gene Hackman ‘I don’t care about what they’re saying, I just want a good fat sound,’ which is true to an extent.” But James, when he did music engineering and now as he works with filmmakers and actors, has always made it a goal to bridge that gap—in line with David’s philosophy. “I don’t ever want people to think on one side we’ve got the people that write and the people that shoot and the people that act, and then on the other side we’ve got the sound guys, who are kind of like these weird technical dudes who do some sort of wizardry which we don’t really understand too much about.”
David’s impact on James compounded with a school program, an “extracurricular thing called MUSE.” MUSE—meaning Musicians United Stage Entertainment—was an impassioned revitalization of Battle of the Bands without the competitive element. As the organizer, David wanted the music to have inherent value, to be played and enjoyed. MUSE allowed James and other students a consistent stage for practice and performance. “And as a result I ended up being in three or four different bands, and we managed to play a fair amount.” David recalls James’ band, Quite the Gentleman, of which James was the bass player. Influences from his surprisingly eclectic taste in music, listening to bands like They Might Be Giants, shone through in those low notes. David says “Even as a middle school student James had his own way of doing things. He wasn’t concerned about trying to act a certain way or fit a particular mold.” James didn’t limit himself to the bass, either. “With MUSE, I also did a little bit more of the technical things. When you’re younger, there’s always one guy who kind of actually knows how the PA system and all that works... and that guy was me.”
James feels that the openness at ASIJ, with different departments collaborating together, helped him to foster his multimedia loves into more tangible aspirations and mentions that “in particular ASIJ has such a strong program for the arts.”
After ASIJ, James moved on to attend university at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia. SCAD is unique, in terms of studying sound, in that they have an animation department, a film department, game design and motion graphics—four different mediums that require audio. “So for a sound person, there’s a lot of opportunity there to collaborate with different types of media.” While in college, James worked infrequently in animation, preferring to focus his attention elsewhere. “I ended up doing a lot of live action at SCAD because I liked it and, maybe in some way, it was also because because they were in the same building as me—so I ended up meeting a lot of filmmakers.”
Throughout university, James’ focus remained on live action sound engineering and he graduated with a BFA in Sound Design for Film and Television. He moved to Los Angeles, CA, in 2013 and worked as a free- lance sound editor for television, editing with stations such as MTV, Animal Planet, National Geography, PBS and the History Channel. James’ focus began to shift from live action exclusively after starting with Bang Zoom! Entertainment, a postproduction house specializing in video games and animation.
In exploring his increasing interest for sound in animation, James notes some distinct points of divergence making it clear that, when compared to live action, animation is very different.
“In live action, frequently, you need to come up with basically every single sound for that scene.” In any given movie, nearly every sound you hear did not happen on set—footsteps, clothes moving, birds chirping and punches all must be created. According to James, “usually you don’t want to have actors actually punch each other.” Those sounds are built out with attention to every detail, from the heft of fabrics to nearly imperceivable background noises, and layered to fill out what one in that setting may hear naturally. “So the footsteps, even though we recorded them and we were really careful with the details—we were like ‘oh yeah, let’s make sure to use this boot because this boot really sounds like the way that this character’s boot looks’—in the mix we we might ultimately dip that real low so that you barely know it’s there.”
Sound for animation, as James points out, foregoes the extensive layering that creates a full-bodied and true-to-life atmosphere of audio in each scene, instead taking a more singular approach. “[Animation] is much more about focused sounds, moment to moment, that call attention in different ways—if you try to make it too real, then there’s a disconnect because you’re looking at something that part of your brain knows inherently is not real yet there’s all these sounds...it’s almost an uncanny valley thing.”
James is careful not to wander too far down that uncanny valley and likens sound for animation to the beat of Charlie Watts’ drums— linear, concentrated. The philosophy is reflected in Lost in Oz. Scenes like those containing the flying monkeys, as their guttural roars give way to the sounds of engine-powered wings and flowing into the resonance of mechanical flutter, illustrate the same clarity as a Charlie Watts’ cadence, with few other audible sounds layered on top of the succession of focused effects.
James looks up to the team at Skywalker Sound, inspired by the production values of their work on Pixar films. “To me, they are a gold standard of really any sound work but especially animation sound work.” Skywalker Sound, George Lucas’ multi Oscar-winning studio, exhibits a detail to their design that complements the 3D animation without approaching a verisimilitude viewers may find unappealing, and while maintaining a focus James admires in the Hanna-Barbera cartoons—recollections of characters falling endlessly down off-screen stairs to singular sounds of drums and honks with each strike of another step.
In reflecting on why Lost in Oz took the Emmy in Outstanding Sound Editing in Animation, James’ initial reaction was simply “they liked what they heard.“ James looks at the foley work, sound recorded in post production, as an example for where Lost in Oz excels. Something that James found clear from the outset was that the producers wanted to build this world that was fantastical but had a sci-fi flair to it— flying cars powered by magic—where magic is generated by an element in an almost chemistry- like process. And so the sound team set out to build something as unique as the concept. “If I wanted to I could have just found something that sort of worked from a sound effects library but instead, and this is something that we run into on the show a lot, we decided to build something new by taking some clips from libraries and then recording our own audio, combining them together and making our own thing out of it. I think stuff like that comes through to the audience.” James looks back to oblivion water, the abundant, memory erasing liquid used as an occasional but significant plot device, and the showrunner’s desire to make it apparent, but not overtly explicit, that the substance was magical. James decided to craft an enchanted liquid sound by dunking a waterproof microphone into a glass of soda and introducing alka seltzer tablets into the mix. Using that audio of close-mic’d bubbles, and a bit of his own sound-editing sorcery (guitar pedals), he created something unique.
James points to another example, the voices for Emerald City’s villainous gang of flying monkeys. “The trick with these flying monkeys was that they had to seem really cool and like bad guys but they can’t seem too scary, because it is a kid’s show.” The Lost in Oz team came to the conclusion that howler monkeys had elements that they liked when paired with imagery from the character design team, but wanted to add another level of individuality, morphing the howler monkey-inspired performance of a voice actor together with that of other primates to create the diverse and unique voice for the henchman to the series’ primary antagonist.
Passion fuels that desire to go the extra mile and the teams that contributed to Lost in Oz had no shortage of excitement for the project. James speculates that, as a series that won three Emmys in total, Outstanding Sound Editing (Animation), Outstanding Sound Mixing (Animation), and Outstanding Children’s Animated Program, and nominee for an additional two, Lost in Oz was well received because of that passion. “One of the things in Lost in Oz that I really liked, that you don’t often get, is that everybody was 100% invested in this project, they really care and are willing to put in that extra effort. I think that stuff like that comes through in different ways and affects the quality.” He further notes that it can be difficult when working on a project to finally receive the animations and realize that it hasn’t lived up to your expectation. However, with Lost in Oz the animators, designers and sound were all contributing amazing work.
Lost in Oz ran for a single season receiving five-star reviews from viewers on its exclusive platform and there are hopes for a second season. James is currently contributing to ongoing series such as Disney XD’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider Man—but he also has aspirations to continue his career in live action. “I would love to work on some of the stories coming out of television productions.” He has a great respect for crews on shows like Game of Thrones who can produce a movie-length episode and full mixes on such short time frames. Following his work on Snake Outta Compton (2018), James would love to work on more independent features and comedy feature films. “It is fun to have those rare moments to play a sound gag and get a laugh because of the sound.”
With an Emmy under his belt at the age of 27 and the sounds of flying monkeys at his back, it’s an understatement to say James has options. But, wherever his career takes him, he ruminates, James is reminded of an old sound mixer he knows, careful to note that mixers are somewhat stereotyped for complaining because they get tossed everything at the last minute to be fixed. ”I remember him one time after complaining, and I remember this, that old mixer saying ‘but hey, it beats working for a living.’”
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