Junior William “Nick” Nichols of Belmont, NC, served as audio engineer on the Western-produced radio ads for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.

CULLOWHEE - In about the time it takes for Santa to deliver gifts around the world, Western's Don Connelly and his students had to complete their work on a pair of complex radio commercials for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.

The railroad's “Polar Express” trips from Bryson City are based on this season's popular animated movie, and ads for the railroad's special excursions had to be approved by Warner Brothers. When that approval finally arrived, Connelly, assistant professor of communication, and his students had less than a day to put the pieces together.

It all began weeks earlier when Diane Newman, marketing director for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, asked Connelly's class to help turn her “cocoa, cookies and carols” script into radio ads, complete with elves, bells, Santa, theme music from the movie, and, of course, a train whistle. 

“The students were involved in recording, voicing and developing two ads. With the elements they created in class, they each produced their own mix for extra credit,” Connelly says.

Connelly recruited Bruce Frazier, Western's Belk Distinguished Professor of Music, and his students to work on the music for the spot. They had about 15 minutes of “Polar Express” movie theme music and needed only a fraction of it for the 30-second and 60-second commercials.

“There were many different portions of that theme, including some that were sweet and tender,” Frazier said. Instead, he picked a piece with energy and drive to fit the upbeat mood of the ads and used digital signal processing to create a beginning and an end where none existed before.

It all came together right on time. The radio ads, which now are airing in North and South Carolina, include the script by Newman, Connelly's narration, and Frazier's musical edit. Western junior William “Nick” Nichols of Belmont, NC, served as audio engineer.  Other students provided the elves' laughter, and another class provided pre-recorded sleigh bells and the train whistle, which now has become the railroad's signature sound.

For Western, “The Polar Express” is more significant than a movie or a train excursion.  “This project gave our students the opportunity to work on a ‘real' production and to add a significant project to their portfolios and resumes,” Connelly said. “It proved, once again, that we can be engaged with local businesses and broaden our students' experience at the same time.” 

Nichols, who is majoring in communication at Western and hopes to work in radio or the recording industry, says he appreciated the challenge and the opportunity to serve as audio engineer on the project. “I really enjoyed it.  It was definitely a good experience to get to work on something major like this,” he said.

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