HARNESSING THE ELEMENTS ON CAST AWAY

Jan 1, 2001 12:00 PM, Michael Axinn

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RANDY THOM CREATES SOUNDTRACK FROM WATER, WIND AND FIRE Randy Thom has always been a man of many hats. After being nominated for two Academy Awards as production mixer for Return of the Jedi and Never Cry Wolf in 1983, he aced himself out for the trophy with his third nod as effects mixer on The Right Stuff. In addition to his current status as sound designer and re-recording mixer at Skywalker Sound, Thom is also known internationally for compositions like Ear Circus, which employs sound to create a sense of locale and narrative.

But when Robert Zemeckis, a director with whom he has collaborated with on five films, approached Thom with his idea for the new Tom Hanks film, Cast Away, even Thom was taken aback. His brief was to create a track without birds, insects or animals, and only wind and waves for ambience during the hour-long sequence that covers Hanks' struggle to survive on a desert island. "It's certainly the biggest challenge of this kind that I've ever had. For roughly half of the film's running time," Thom calculates, "there's virtually no dialog and no music at all."

"It's a sound designer's dream," says Zemeckis, "and Randy has risen to the occasion with more elegance than I could have imagined. He is a true sound artist who is able to evoke the audience's emotion using sound effects."

Sound designers and supervising sound editors often lament the secondary status accorded the effects track, and Thom is no exception. But like the kid who gets the keys to his Dad's car after years of begging and moaning, it's a bit of a shock to finally get behind the wheel and realize there's no one else in there. "It's a great opportunity," he concludes. "We, the sound effects people, don't have anywhere to hide."

GIGABYTES OF WATER In the movie, Hanks stars as a Federal Express systems engineer whose plane goes down in the Pacific. To illustrate Hanks' struggle, Zemeckis opted for something more reflective of what the castaway would be hearing. "He said, `Randy, you're going to have to score this island with sound effects,'" Thom recalls. "In a typical film, much of this dramatic territory is covered by music."

Without the benefit of an orchestra, Thom, like the character depicted, was forced to rely on the elements. "There are no living things that make sound except for him. And so the sound palette that we have to work with is water and wind."

With these modest tools, Thom set out, as he does in his art pieces, to establish setting and underscore emotion, which was in keeping with the filmmaker's goals. "Bob Zemeckis has thought very deeply about what is going on with this character from moment to moment and how that can be reflected and amplified through the use of sound," he says. "It has to be authentic enough that you will believe it's real, but on the other hand, the sound needs to act on the character."

Thom began by collecting "virtually every conceivable kind of water sound" and playing them off one another. "What I'm looking for is emotional and dramatic notes that will resonate," he explains. "Very often some accidental juxtaposition of a certain kind of watery wave, a big impact on a rock and a wave that's rolling backward down a steep bank of sand will have an effect on you that's very different from - and might be better than - what you imagined was possible before you went about collecting those sounds."

THE OPTIMISM EFFECT Still, one of the things Thom has discovered over the years is that when it comes to emotion, sound effects have inherent limitations. "It's almost impossible," he says, "to signal optimism." When Hanks first washes ashore, he has little reason to feel any hope. But later, as he plots his escape, it's the close collaboration between filmmakers and sound designer that creates a new context.

"The writer and Bob Zemeckis came up with a great idea for launching him on the attempt to get off of the island," Thom says. "He discovers that the only way he can get through this dangerous reef is to invent a sail for his raft, and in order to do that the wind has to change. The wind almost always blows from the water to the land. We use the sound of the wind blowing around him and the raft and the palm trees and rocks."

Thom built a palette of prevailing winds during a month of prerecording in California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona. When Hanks makes his move, Thom cashes in on the brief to replace score. "He's noticed in the years that he's been there that there's one time of year when a strong wind does blow in the opposite direction," Thom explains. "We can use the wind in a very musical way to signal, `Here's the moment that the change is going to happen.' And the intensity of the wind is such that it literally and emotionally launches him in this attempt to get off the island."

Another place Thom nails his cue is the cave where Hanks goes in to hide during a storm. "The winds that are associated with the cave are probably more musical than any of the other winds, partly because the wind as it blows across the opening and through the cave is a little like a flute."

PEAKS AND TROUGHS One element Thom might have used in his track is silence. "There's certainly a lot of places in the film where we could have used absolute silence," Thom notes, acknowledging his effective use of dead-quiet in Contact. Instead, he continues, "There are transitions where visual images turn into darkness, then new images that are happening the next day or years later. It seems to work best if we hear something through all of those."

These transitions, symphonic in scope, demand a certain scale and pitch and, of course, the right sound. "I'm a big believer in dynamic range," Thom says. "That's a problem I have with lots of the action-adventure films that come out these days, because the directors of those films seem to think that it's important for them to be as loud as possible at all times."

The kinds of transitions - from loud to soft, across scenes and across time - that lend a poetic quality to films like Apocalypse Now, Thom believes, are as much the result of serendipity as they are of hard work. He considered this as he sought to span a dissolve that occurs halfway into the film.

"A transition from campfire to shimmering water," he recalls. "The campfire is in a cave at night, and the shimmering water that you see is on a particular day four years after. I started by listening to lots of recordings of water lapping and fire and finally had this happy accident of hearing these two sounds that were very similar that I wouldn't necessarily have dreamed up if I had been trying to construct this in my brain." Thom also credits effects editors Ken Fisher and David Hughes with bringing his vision to fruition.

RAISING THE FOLEY BAR Two other benefactors of Cast Away's deep focus on post sound were Foley and ADR. "The Foley on this film is at least as important as the Foley on any film ever done," says Thom. "For instance, there's one scene where FedEx packages that were on the plane wash up onto the beach. When [the Tom Hanks character] gets more desperate, he decides to start opening them to see if there's anything that he can use to survive. I think there's a very good chance that all we will hear is Foley - no wind, no waves - just because it'll make him seem more isolated."

Thom praises Skywalker Sound Foley artists Dennie Thorpe and Jana Vance, mixer Tony Eckert and recordist Pepe Morrell for living up to the challenge. "The Foley so far is the best I've ever heard," Thom raves. "You totally believe that what you're hearing are the sounds that were made while the camera was rolling, but in fact almost none of them are."

Equally crucial in this context is the ADR, especially the breaths that were cued to establish intimacy with our Curusoe-like hero. "Almost all of Tom Hanks' dialog on the island will be ADR," says Thom. "The production mixer did a great job, but he had an impossible task of trying to get usable breaths, for instance, when he was 50 feet from waves breaking."

As expected, Hanks, ADR supervisor Marilyn McCoppen and the stage at Fox have done a "spectacular job," but it doesn't end there. "We are worldizing some of the ADR," he says to describe the procedure undertaken by supervising sound editor Dennis Leonard. "There are some lines that Tom yells, and we want to make it really sound like he yelled them outside, so we've taken the recordings and played them through loudspeakers out of doors with microphones."

ADR centerstage? Olympic-caliber Foley? No music for half the film? All this puts Thom in mind of a promise he's heard throughout his career. "I've been told by other directors, `It's your job to make the scene work. It's going to be all sound effects.' And then you get to the final mix and find out that there's music all through the same scene that's basically trying to do the same thing." With Cast Away, however, Thom may finally have his wish.






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