Huskies are majestic creatures who love the cold, but anyone who’s ever had one knows they’re also smart, stubborn and extremely vocal.
Huskies express their opinions through whines, yaps, barks, growls and dramatic sighs. Some even sing.
That’s just one reason the Disney+ feature Togo — filmed on location in Alberta, Canada, with dozens of huskies — posed special challenges for supervising sound editor–sound designers Todd Toon and Odin Benitez, who won an MPSE Golden Reel for their work on the film.
Depicting the true-life story of the heroic sled dog was no easy feat.
“Togo’s story should have been told a long time ago,” says producer Kim Zubick, noting that 12-year-old Togo logged over 260 miles through brutal terrain and extreme elements to bring diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska, during a 1925 outbreak.
Nome was then only accessible via the 938-mile Iditarod Trail, and with a winter storm imminent, a dogsled relay was the sole option. Although Togo led the longest, most perilous part of the journey, credit went to another dog, Balto, whose team ran the final 55 miles.
The human cast — led by Willem Dafoe as Togo’s sled-driving owner, Leonhard Seppala, and Julianne Nicholson as his wife, Constance — was outnumbered by huskies.
The library of sounds Toon and Benitez used in postproduction included recordings of huskies belonging to Benitez's uncle. Matching the right sounds to each action accentuated scenes like puppy Togo breaking out of a tack room, or a team of dogs struggling to survive as their sled slides down a cliff.
"It was very important to get Togo's barks just right, so it would feel like he was taking charge and leading them back from certain death," Benitez says of the scene, which included whipping wind.
Their attention to detail highlights Togo's skills as lead dog. The footsteps and breathing of his team are in perfect sync, while other teams sound more chaotic.
Director Ericson Core (Point Break) loved working with the canine cast. "Dogs don't know how to lie, so they're never acting," he says. "Because we shot this without stage work or green screen, but on location with the animals, we saw what those dogs do, how they interact."
When Seppala crosses a frozen bay to save time, ice cracks beneath the sled. "They would drop [Core] off by helicopter in the middle of this frozen lake prior to shooting, and he would lay on the ice and hear the sounds," Toon relates, "so he was very familiar with the reality of these sounds."
Benitez recalls another technique: "We sank hydrophones in a frozen lake and spread them apart by about 100 meters. If you walk on the ice sheet, it makes this tremendous laser-like sound. And when sun hits the ice, it creates this natural resonance that's similar to hitting a guy wire with a metal hammer."
One of the last sounds they worked on comes at the start of the film, as Constance tends to runt-of-the-litter Togo. "Those raspy breaths Togo had seem like such a simple item," Toon says, "but it had to be just right."
Togo's legacy lives on. One of the main dogs to portray him is his real-life descendant, Diesel, who inherited his 14-times great-grandfather's looks, intellect and agility..
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2020