Canadian Sound Designers Engage Preschoolers’ Imaginations On Netflix’s Octonauts

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Sound Designers Jamie Mahaffey and Martin Taylor recently worked on the children’s animation education staple Octonauts, from the BBC. On December 10th, the pair won the Emmy for Outstanding Sound Editing and Sound Mixing for a Preschool Animated Program at the inaugural Children’s & Family Creative Arts Emmy Awards.
The franchise centers around a group of undersea explorers who discover new underwater worlds, engaging toddlers’ curiosity and imagination. The Mix Room added theatrical quality sound design to both Octonauts series Ring of Fire, as well as a new Octonauts series Above & Beyond. Viewers are introduced to many new Octonauts characters in Above & Beyond, and the series’ impressive worldbuilding was nominated for “Outstanding Preschool Animated Series.”

PH: Can you share a bit of your background? How did you get into the business of sound design? 

Marty Taylor: Many years ago my journey started in music recording - specifically recording score for television & film. That session work morphed naturally into sound design and mixing for picture. After a session recording score to picture I was asked ‘can you put some birds in that scene?’. The rest is history….

Jamie Mahaffey: My journey also started in the music world. I was a touring musician for 7 years wanting to make the leap into writing original material. Back then, the only way to record anything was to head into a professional recording studio. Once I saw that environment I was hooked, ‘I need to be in studios as much as possible’! So I applied for a job at the studio I was recording at. The job I got was as an assistant (make the coffee, vacuum the floor, that kind of thing). Slowly made my way up the ranks to becoming an engineer. After doing 15 years in music production as an engineer I decided to make the move into post-production audio for television & film. I was always curious about how sound for picture was done and have never looked back since.

PH: What have been some of the most impactful sound moments in film/series that stand out to you (in your opinion) and why?

Marty Taylor: If we’re talking about shows other than our own, then I have two. First would be a moment in ‘Finding Nemo’ where an underwater mine floats by and hits a submarine. The sound design team didn’t put a big clang or any type of metal hit, they simply put in a tiny bell ‘ting’. Brilliant!  And second would be BBC/Amazon’s Top Gear. Simply fantastic sound design. If we’re talking (the Emmy-winning) “Octonauts and The Ring of Fire”, then I’d argue the underwater volcano explosion scene was pretty intense :)

Jamie Mahaffey: For me the original ‘Toy Story’ movie from Pixar was a game-changer. The sound was so fantastic that I think it shone a whole new light on the impact that sound can have! If we’re talking about one of our shows then I have to go with the last 30 minutes of “Octonauts & The Ring of Fire”. There was so much action packed into those 30 minutes that I don’t even know where to start! It was an over-the-top-non-stop-thrill ride! So much fun!

PH: Can you share a little about The Mix Room - what it is and how it started?

Marty Taylor: Jamie & I met back in 2003. I was wrapping up a session as he was coming in to start another one. We clicked pretty much right away, found ourselves laughing A LOT and started working on projects together not long after that. Eventually we were so busy that it just made sense to open our own studio so we could have full control over The Mix Room schedule and thereby manage all the clients’ projects. We continue to crack each other up to this day. We are brothers. 

PH: I’d love to learn a bit more about your experiences working on projects such as the Lego Jurassic World series on NBC, as well as the Lego Marvel Avengers and Lego Spiderman series.

Jamie Mahaffey: These were the shows that forced us to up our game! Once we started receiving the first picture dubs and getting our first look at the shows we knew it was going to require a level of sound design that would have to live up to the names Jurassic World / Avengers / Spiderman. Let’s just say that we were sufficiently motivated to make sure we hit it out of the park lol!

Marty Taylor: Intense. And then… more intense! Non-stop action. The shows are so well written. They’re for kids (not preschoolers..) but there’s definitely stuff in there for older kids and parents too. Thoroughly enjoyed working on these shows. The sound design was very 'Jerry Bruckheimer’. A great challenge. 

PH: How did you become involved with Octonauts?

Marty Taylor & Jamie Mahaffey: We’ve been fortunate throughout our career that as the producers, directors and post production supervisors we know move onto different projects with different production companies, they’ll often contact us for sound on whatever new project they’re embarking on. This was the case with Octonauts.

PH: What did the initial planning process look (and sound) like? Can you give a bit of insight into your planning and creative processes? 

Marty Taylor & Jamie Mahaffey: Having clear, concise direction from the directors / producers has been invaluable. We’ll often have a spotting session with the producer, director and sometimes the composer where we all talk about the direction / tone for the show. We think our instincts are fairly honed at this point so our first pass on a show is generally pretty close to what the director & producer are looking for. We’re also very organized with our team of editors. We assign sound categories (jobs) to our individual sound editors. This helps us avoid any duplicate editing and also allows the individual editor to concentrate on just one category, therefore making it the absolute best it can be.

PH: Collaboration is such a critical part of the work you do. Can you share what that collaboration looked like between the two of you?

Marty Taylor & Jamie Mahaffey: We think we’re great at talking through any given series, show or show segment. We don’t have egos or competition with one another. We each want to see the other succeed and we make sure each of us has the space to do so. We aim to make decisions on whatever is best for the show. Oh… and we try to grab beer whenever time allows :) 

PH: What types of sound design tools did you use to bring the Octonauts world to life? 

Marty Taylor: From a sound designer’s POV, I use Krotos’ Audio Igniter and Reformer Pro among other plugins.

Jamie Mahaffey: From a re-recording mixer’s POV, I’m a big fan of plugins like Futzbox from McDSP, Speakerphone & Altiverb from Audio Ease and De-Humanizer from Krotos. These are some of the tools that we use to put the characters in all the various environments they find themselves in. Environments like big caves, inside cars, arenas, telephones, radios, the list goes on and on!

PH: Can you share some of the challenges you faced (and how you achieved those)? 

Jamie Mahaffey: I find one of the biggest challenges is time. If you have no deadline and an open check book it’s not very difficult to get a show to sound great. But of course, that’s not reality. The reality is that it has to sound great AND be on time AND be on budget. That’s a little more difficult to do :)

Marty Taylor: From a sound design perspective vehicles are probably the most challenging. You need to match the scale of the vehicle to the visual on screen. Octonauts is geared towards preschool aged children, so most engine sounds have a “cuteness” to them. Blending sounds from our vast SFX libraries with the aforementioned plugins, plus a fair bit of time, we get there :)

PH: Sound is so important for shows like this - especially resonating enough for children to consistently recognize patterns and sounds. How (if at all) is your approach to working with sound for children different than for adults? 

Marty Taylor: Cuteness is the key for the Octonauts vehicles. We stay away from anything too threatening sound-wise.  No big, loud explosions…ok….maybe just one or two :) We try to support any visual motion with light airy sound design or friendly whooshes and zips along with foley for things like water movement. Other than that, we stay as real world as possible with the various environments/animals etc. Anything other than preschool type shows, we stay real world or when it’s required - over-the-top.

Jamie Mahaffey: When we’re mixing shows for children it’s important to keep the dialog clear and crisp. Sound effects have to be very identifiable to make it clear what a given scene is about. Our philosophy is that the sound should ‘glue itself’ to the screen. The viewer should completely buy that this is what this particular world sounds like.

PH: Can you talk about any upcoming projects?

Marty Taylor & Jamie Mahaffey: Some stuff :) Season 2 of Pamela Anderson’s home design show "Pamela’s Secret Garden” for HGTV. Season 1 of "Small Town Potential” for HGTV and season 7 of “Restored” for Magnolia. We’re also very proud of the Youtube Originals show “The Eggventurers” which has topped 35 million views and counting! We’ve just started work on Season 8 of “Octonauts Above & Beyond” for Netflix. And we’re knee-deep in a brand new show for Disney due out next year. 

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