On Collecting Sounds, Working with Animators, and Telling Stories to Your Ears
Although it isn’t in his nature to boast, Gary Rydstrom is the only person in the world who can brag of having received seven Oscars and 17 Oscar nominations for best sound mixing and editing and an Oscar nomination for directing a short animated film. He received the first Oscars for sound and sound editing in 1992 for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and the most recent Oscar nomination for Lincoln in 2013. These awards came while he worked at Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Sound; he directed the 2006 Oscar-nominated short film “Lifted” while working at Pixar. Coincidentally, Disney now owns both studios.
“Disney bought Pixar shortly after I joined Pixar and bought Lucasfilm shortly after I came back here, so if anyone wants Disney to buy them, hire me,” Rydstrom laughs.
I met Gary for lunch at the beautiful Skywalker Sound building — the so-called Technical Building at Skywalker Ranch. Each building on George Lucas’s ranch has a story to tell, as if it had evolved with new generations of a family. The tech building looks like a winery — grape vines, winter-bare, clung to an arbor over the patio outside the studio’s front door. Inside, the dining room in an airy, covered courtyard felt like a winery’s tasting room.
We met in a conference room upstairs, fireplace at one end, kitchenette at the other, windows overlooking some of the ranch’s 4000-plus acres. Rydstrom had just finished directing George Lucas’s baby, the animated feature film Strange Magic, and was already working on sound for Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.
Taking the Reins from George Lucas
Strange Magic, based on Lucas’s idea, aims a love story at pre-teen girls by using love songs from popular culture. The development had been underway for years when Lucas and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy approached Rydstrom.
“The movie had been around with different waves of people involved,” Rydstrom says. “George wanted to get it finished. I’d come back here from Pixar and was doing sound work again. I had directing animation experience from Pixar. So George and Kathy Kennedy asked me to take it over. I feel like it was my karma for being so sound effects-centric that when I got to direct a feature film, it was a musical.”
The crew and the art department were already in place, animation tests had been done, and production was due to start shortly.
“The most important meeting I had was with George [Lucas], who described the story he wanted to tell,” Rydstrom says. “He told it to me like he would around a campfire, and we did everything possible to turn it into a script. The basic story was the same — Bog and Marianne fall in love. The changes were around the edges.”
“As with all the actors, I was in the recording booth with Kristin [Chenoweth],” Rydstrom says. “When she hit the high notes in ‘Love is Strange,’ my glasses broke.”
“Love is Strange” is one of 25 songs in the film, narrowed down from George Lucas’s original 100. “There were a lot of songs,” Rydstrom says. “Too many. And as the purpose of a scene changed, we changed the song to match the moment. It has sound effects, too, but a big part of this movie is the singing and the music. It’s all had to be articulated, orchestrated, and mixed.”
Tom Johnson, who won Oscars with Rydstrom for Titanic and Terminator 2, did the mixing. “The fact that Tom Johnson mixed the movie makes me teary,” Rydstrom says. “He and I were at USC film school, and he mixed my first movie. That was 95 years ago.”
He exaggerates, of course. Rydstrom was at USC in the late 70s and early 80s studying film production as an undergraduate and graduate, working on his Master’s degree, until one day a professor asked if he wanted to work for George Lucas’s sound division, Sprocket Systems.
An Offer He Can't Refuse
“It was a completely unexpected job offer,” Rydstrom says. “Otherwise, I would probably have stayed in graduate school for another 30 years. I’d probably still be there. But it was 1983, during the era of the original Star Wars. Jedi was being finished. So when someone asked if I wanted to work at Lucasfilm, it was a pretty easy answer.”
Sprocket Systems would eventually evolve into Skywalker Sound, but at the time it was a small group.
“It was a good time to come to the company,” Rydstrom says. “I got to do a bit of everything — effects, recording dialog, mixing. Ben Burtt was there.” Burtt, already a sound legend — having given R2-D2 his beeps and whistles, the lightsaber its hum, and Darth Vader his heavy breathing — was also a USC graduate. However, Rydstrom didn’t pick USC with a career in sound in mind. That was as unexpected as the job offer. During high school in Elmhurst, Illinois, he was, as he puts it, the guy with the Super 8 camera.
The Gold Rush
Films of the early 70’s also influenced the teenage filmmaker. “It was a bold and wonderful era with great films,” he says. “American Graffiti, Jaws, The Godfather. We had early Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, DePalma. It was crazy to think I could make a career out of making films, but I wanted to give it a try.”
In the years since, he’s worked for three of those directors — Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma — and many others: Ron Howard, James Cameron, John Lasseter, Mel Brooks, Robert Redford, Gore Verbinski, Ang Lee, Henry Selick, J. J. Abrams, Kathryn Bigelow, George Lucas of course, and more. He has more than 100 film and video titles to his credit.
“I’d be the world’s greatest director if I could take a little bit from every one and cobble them together ” he says. “But one of the things I have learned is that great directors are good at inspiring their crews. I’ve worked with Robert Redford, a really wonderful director, on several films. I don’t know if I can be like him, but it’s nice to see someone that elegant describe what he wants and make you feel good about the movie."
Sound Tells the Story
"The reason I think I can be audacious enough to direct is that I use sound to tell a story," he continues. "I like to articulate the sound and keep it focused on what’s important. The really great directors know how to use sound. Hitchcock knew how to use sound. Steven Spielberg thinks about sound early on.”
Saving Private Ryan
“In the opening of Private Ryan, we go below water and Tom Hanks is so shell-shocked he can’t hear, and then the sound comes back,” he says. “And in Jurassic Park, T. rex’s appearance is beautifully set up for sound. We hear it before we see it.”
Of all the directors he’s worked with, though, Robert Redford provided his “favorite moment sound note.” It takes place during the film The Quiz Show. The lead character, Charles Van Doren [Ralph Fiennes], is deciding what choice to make.
“Redford asked for a morality tone,” Rydstrom says. “I don’t know what a morality tone sounds like but I did my best. I thought that the sound of making a moral choice would be completely inside your head. It’s just you, no one else in the world. I thought back to when I was a kid and listened to a seashell. I just heard myself resonating. So I played ocean sounds, recorded them through a tube, and moved the tube.”
Often, the sounds Rydstrom uses come from a library with bits of sound recorded over the years. “Sound design is about collecting sounds,” he says. “We record sound all the time. You never know what you could use it for. Ben Burtt famously turned interesting sounds in the world into Star Wars sounds, and people here in this building do that all the time. We hear a great crack of wind through a window and we run to get that sound.”
The sound generated by a gift from his parents — an electric rice steamer — ended up in Casper. “It made a ghostly howl,” he says. “I used it all over the place.”
In 2004, Rydstrom received his 13th Oscar nomination — best sound editing for Finding Nemo — and he left Skywalker Sound. Nemo was the 10th Pixar film he’d worked on, and John Lasseter’s 1986 short film “Luxo, Jr.” was the first.
“I’d been lucky,” he says. “The sound I was doing was on some of the most interesting and revolutionary films of my era. Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan. I had no problem with my job whatsoever. But when the opportunity to direct a film at Pixar came out of the blue, I took it. ‘Lifted’ gave me the chance to go back to the foundation of what really got me excited about film—those 10-minute Laurel and Hardy shorts.”
“Lifted” also gave him an Oscar nomination for best short animated film. His second short film, which he wrote and directed at Pixar, “Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation,” provided his first chance to work with actors.
“I desperately hoped Don Rickles would make fun of me,” he says. “But he never did.”
The Wind Rises
His work with actors continued as he directed voices for the English-language version of three animated features from Studio Ghibli: The Secret World of Arrietty, From Up on Poppy Hill, and, most recently, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises.
“I learned doing those animated films how much I like working with actors,” Rydstrom says. “Before Strange Magic I took acting classes, but I’m too self-conscious. You have to be on the inside thinking out. I’m on the outside wondering how I’m doing. Actors have this amazing ability to inhabit; I really admire what they can do. And working with animators is like working with actors. In Strange Magic, there’s interplay between Bog and Marianne, and the facial and vocal acting is so detailed it’s worthy of a close-up. It feels like watching living, breathing characters.”
Animators in Industrial Light & Magic’s Singapore studio created most of the performances for the characters in Strange Magic; a handful of ILM animators in San Francisco helped with two sequences. Rydstrom traveled to Singapore twice during production, but primarily worked with supervisor Kim Ooi and the animators in Singapore via videoconferencing.
“My way of directing animation is to do it myself,” he says. “I knew how I wanted the bodies to move.”
Back to the Ranch
Rydstrom flew back to Skywalker Sound at Steven Spielberg’s request to work on the 2011 film War Horse, and he has stayed. In addition to directing Strange Magic and directing voices for the English version of The Wind Rises, he has worked on sound for Brave, Wreck-It Ralph, The Lone Ranger and Lincoln. And he received three more Oscar nominations — two for War Horse and one for Lincoln.
“I’m happy at Lucasfilm,” he says. “I get to do sound stuff and work with directors like Spielberg. But what I’m excited about is that Lucasfilm is a production company and will make movies. My career has been varied. I don’t know what’s coming next. But that’s OK. Not only OK, but great.”
And with that, the interview was over. But, I had one last item on my checklist. I first met Rydstrom at the VIEW conference in Torino, Italy, and while there, he told a group of us that he would like to record the sounds that particularly talkative dogs make. I have one of those dogs — a hound — so I sent him some files, and took this opportunity to ask if he’d gotten them.
He scratched his head, thought for a minute, and then his face lit up.
“I did get them,” he exclaimed. “I could use them right now for a project I’m working on.”
He jumped up out of his chair, graciously thanked me for the interview, and, quicker than I could say "galaxy far far away," the Strange Magic director was out the door and the sound designer had dashed down the hall.
It was unexpected. But OK. And not only OK, but great.
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