If you have kids in your family or kids of your own, you will very likely be acquainted with the rescue operations of Ryder and the dogs of PAW Patrol. You will also certainly have seen these heroic animated characters on merchandise all over. Action figures, backpacks, lunchboxes, posters. But none of this would have the same magnitude if it weren't for the hit animated TV show that it's all sourced from.
And with all of the whooshing, running, engines, sirens, and more, the thrill factor of this show is dependent on its sound! Together with his studio colleagues, Luke Dante, an American-Canadian with Estonian and Puerto Rican heritage, is on the case to add sounds like these.
How did he get involved?
Dante was born in the United States, on Staten Island, New York, to an Estonian-Canadian mother and an American father of Puerto Rican origin. After spending his first few years in the US, in 2002, his family moved to Oakville, Ontario, where family members of theirs were living. After finishing high school, he was inspired by his family to take a creative path and study Media Arts at Sheridan College.
Initially, Dante wanted to do video editing because that was his father's career and the tools were there all around him. However, due to the love of music his parents instilled in him, he combined his interests and gravitated towards sound post-production.
After graduation, he interviewed for an internship at Spence-Thomas Audio Post, a studio in downtown Toronto. He says, “When I was just starting out, it all sort of fell into my lap… I've been lucky to be there for five years now. I was able to take the skills that I learned in school for live action [videos], and apply them to the cartoon world, which is something I had never thought of doing in my life.” From the get-go, he was working on PAW Patrol and it's been a constant roll-out of episodes since.
The studio is active in the production at several different stages. The first is the recording of dialogue with voice actors, who range from kids to adults. They come into the studio with the director, before the studio cuts up the dialogue audio and sends it to the animators. Using a Leica reel—what Dante calls “a moving storyboard” that gives an idea of timing—the animators can construct the episode. Once the animation is complete, it's sent back to Spence-Thomas Audio Post, who create and refine a layer of sound effects and also clean up all of the dialogue. Music is created by the studio Voodoo Highway, which is then edited for the show by music editor Kyle Peters.
When he started his job, Dante's primary work was adding in the sound of footsteps. I asked about how difficult it was to realistically simulate the walking of characters seen in the show.
“When they're running, it's something different than when they're creeping around on grass… All of these individual steps were treated like drum samples, and you put them into a sampler. Then I could use the keyboard and go through the show [to add the sounds]…” Dante had worked with instrumental beats in high school and college, but it was a new challenge to use software like Native Instruments to match character movements, showing how much an audio producer has to understand the nature of sounds. Replicating a series of animated shorts with dinosaur footsteps was also particularly difficult.
Over the years, Dante has added foley (i.e. naturally occurring) sounds and helping with dialogue to his role, discovering how sounds vary from show to show. For some programs, like PAW Patrol, sound effects can be comedic and “cartoony”, such as the classic slide whistle when a character falls, or the clatter of bowling pins when a collision happens. Other projects, like Elinor Wonders Why, require more naturalistic sounds to convey specific actions or emotions to viewers. The studio's sound effects supervisor, Tim Muirhead, ensures that these worlds are kept separate. With the studio having reached season eight of PAW Patrol, they've hit their stride now.
Dante loves how he can make something of an “audio painting” in his job with each episode; and indeed, the audio really makes the story come alive.
It's a studio environment with lots of fellowship and encouragement: he's hung out with voice actors like Ron Pardo, who voices Mayor Humdinger, ringleader of the Kitten Catastrophe Crew and the villain of PAW Patrol. His work has also brought childhood memories full circle, getting the chance to work with the creators of Zoboomafoo on their latest show Wild Kratts.
It's an encouraging, driven studio team—led by owner and recording mixer Richard Spence-Thomas—which Dante is very grateful for.
The company was actually founded as a film mixing studio in 1967 by the sound engineer Patrick Spence-Thomas. It was in the 90s that the Canadian toy company Spin Master sought out the studio to record dubs for an English version of the anime show Bakugan Battle Brawlers. This project is what led to PAW Patrol.
Dante's favourite project beyond this show has been Alma's Way, created by the Sesame Street actress Sonia Manzano. Dante was thrilled to work on a show that connects to the Puerto Rican culture in New York City, which represents half of his own background.
Bolstering his work in sound is his love of music. Through music, he's made strong connections to his maternal Estonian background, attending seven ETHNO music camps and spending summers in Tartu in between semesters at Sheridan College. All of this indicates a broader passion for all things sound.
At the end of May 2020, for the sound production in PAW Patrol, Luke Dante was among seven of his colleagues to win awards at the Canadian Screen Awards in the category of Best Sound – Animation. In this way, he's also carrying on a very Canadian tradition within animation, that studios like Nelvana are also part of.
When he's able to watch these shows and see the final product, he says “It fills me with joy to know that it's going to make kids happy. There's really no greater reward.”
Keep your eyes peeled for Alma's Way, which will be premiering on PBS Kids on October 4th; and of course, PAW Patrol, which can be seen on TVO Kids. And don't forget to listen closely to the sound effects!
Written by Vincent Teetsov, Toronto