Sound Q&A: Animal Talk

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Talking animals are synonymous with cartoons, but when BBC One and Young & Rubicam/RKCR wanted animals to say "Help"—in a spot promoting a TV series that raises awareness and funds for rare animals around the world—they wanted it to be anything but cartoonish. "Saving Planet Earth" shows endangered animals, like a polar bear, an orangutan and a rhino, voicing their need for help. We spoke with Wave sound engineer Parv Thind about the project.

Where did all the animal sounds come from?
Parv Thind: When the original idea came up, the creatives came in with a CD of easily identifiable general animal sounds, like a tiger growl or an elephant trumpet, which you would immediately recognize. Then we went through our huge library of animal sound effects and compiled a collection, so we would have loads at hand. The more obvious the animal sound, the better, because what we were trying to do was actually quite complicated. We wanted people to recognize the animal sound and not a comedic version of that animal.

How hard was it to manipulate the sound to say "help" without having it come off as funny or fake?
It was pretty difficult. What we did was bring random people from the office into the studio to shout out "help" in the same pitch as the animal sound we would play for them. So in the case of the tiger, we went with someone who had a deeper voice. We would then morph the two—the tiger's growl and the human's voice—together. A big part of the process was deciding just how much morph to use. One percent more or less of what you should be hearing and you lose the word "help" altogether. So it was quite a battle with ourselves deciding when it still sounded like the animal without sounding too human. We were all crying out for help by the end of the process.

Was sound a consideration when choosing which animal would be in the spot?
We knew it would be difficult regardless, so we suggested straight away that some of the more difficult animals should be off the list. For example, if there was a snake on there, the whole process would be almost impossible. Certain animals just don't make a certain sound. So if we try to work with those, we're just making a noose for our necks, really. So we sat down and told them which ones we could probably get to say "help."

How were the voices manipulated?
To help it out, once we had the sound we liked but maybe the mouth didn't really sync up, we got the creatives to manipulate the mouth a bit to make it look more realistic. For example, with the bird, the beak closed before the word was all out, so we got them to pop the beak open again briefly for the "P" part. On the tiger, you'd hardly notice it, but after the "P" we got them to flare the nostril ever so slightly and it really made a difference.

Which animal was the most difficult to voice?
The bird was quite difficult, because the beak is nothing like a human mouth and the less human-like the movement, the more difficult it was. For most of the animals, getting the first part of the word was no problem. Getting the "P" sound was the tricky bit.
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