Sound Secrets of A.I.

Jun 1, 2001 12:00 PM, by Blair Jackson


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One of the most highly anticipated films of the summer is Steven Spielberg's A.I., a project that has been shrouded in secrecy worthy of a Stanley Kubrick film — appropriate because it was a Kubrick film originally. When the great director died last year, Spielberg, a close friend of Kubrick's, decided to tackle the film himself, working in part from Kubrick's extensive notes and adapting some of the visual look that had already been devised for the project. Though precious little has leaked about the particulars of the film, this much we can say: A.I. stands for artificial intelligence, and the story, set in the future, centers around a robot and his interactions with humans. The cast includes Haley Joel Osmont, Jude Law, William Hurt and Frances O'Connor.

“It's a really unique film, different from anything Spielberg has made before,” says sound designer and re-recording mixer Gary Rydtsrom on a break from premixing the film at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, Calif. “It has a magical, fable quality to it that's very nice, so even though it takes place in the future and has robots and all the rest of it, it's so subjective — it's seen through the eyes not only of a boy, but a robot boy, so it's his perception of the world. It's really a fable about what it is to be human, so what we're trying to do with the sound is follow along with that quality of a future fairy tale and give it more beautiful and ethereal sounds, rather than gritty, realistic ones. What's interesting is that Spielberg is making two sci-fi movies in a row, and the next one, Minority Report, will have more of that realistic tone.”

Working from scratch to invent a sonic world filled with robots and futuristic vehicles posed a fun and fascinating challenge for the sound team. Rydstrom says, “We've created more new material for this movie than we ever have before. We had to do a lot of robot sounds, which means you have to have all of the different mechanized and motorized sounds. The robots go from the highest of high-tech to fairly low-tech, so there's a wide range there, and it was important to give each one its own character. And there are different kinds of vehicles that required their own sounds, too.

“We recorded a lot of new material, and I even tried using non-motor sounds for them, too,” he continues. “There are wonderful sounds from animals that can be used for motors if you listen for them. I found bits and pieces of monkeys and koala bears and birds and other things that sound like little ratchets and squeaks and parts of motors, so it's an interesting blend of machines and natural sounds. You take little bits and pieces of them and work with them — sometimes you pitch them down, sometimes you pitch them up. It's amazing how the natural world can sound so unnatural at times.”

Over the course of his distinguished career, which includes seven Oscars, Rydstrom has worked on many films set in unusual environments, yet when asked which of those jobs might have influenced his approach to A.I., he has a surprising answer: “I had just come from doing a feature documentary called Into the Arms of Strangers [about children escaping from the Nazis during World War II], which just won an Academy Award, and that was a very strongly emotional film. With the sound for that, I tried to follow along as if we were inside the head of the people telling stories of these horrific events from their childhoods and of the beautiful things, as well. That sense of memory is very similar to the feel of [A.I.], so there were tonal sounds and sweeping, magical sounds that were used as atmospheres, as opposed to just gritty, pink noisy kind of washes of reality.

“Also, for Into the Arms of Strangers, we were able to match music and sound effects in a real interesting way, because first I did some sound effects work, the composer listened to that and worked around that, and then I got his music and had a chance to work around what he had done. It was a nice way to work. On A.I., one of the most revolutionary things from my standpoint, in terms of the mix, is we had John Williams' music very early on in the process. It's a gorgeous score, and really the heart of the soundtrack is going to be his score; that's where a lot of the themes and emotion are carried.

“Usually, the music doesn't show up until the first day of the final,” he explains. “But right now, I have the edited final music for each of the reels as I premix, so I can hear the music and do everything I have to do underneath the music to make sure it fits in. It's a radical shift from the way we normally work, where, at its best, we might have a temp score to work to. So not only am I getting the mood of the film as driven by the music a lot of times, but I'm literally able to put things in rhythmically and [in consideration of] pitch, so the sound effects weave in and out of the music in a very seamless way. For this movie, I'm not just doing guns and explosions, and the score is not a typical score. We're trying to use sound effects in a more stylized way and having the music to work with has resulted in a more seamless feeling all through the film.”

Rydstrom adds, “There were definitely some things that changed on the basis of what the music was doing, both in the quality of the sound — so we don't fight against the mood the music is creating — and pitch-wise, as well. We're creating these electric vehicles, so they have tonalities of their own, and it became important that those tonalities work with the music. It's very exciting to be able to do what I always want to do, which is think of the soundtrack as a piece, as opposed to coming at it from three different directions and then colliding in the final mix. It's been ideal.”

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