Feb 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Tom Kenny
It's the rare individual who is able to go out on top, to walk away from a career while still at peak performance. It's a move we tend to associate with star athletes, the Michael Jordans and Jim Browns of the world, and after the initial, “Oh, no, say it ain't so” reaction, we generally greet their decision with respect and awe. They did the right thing.
And so it is with Gary Rydstrom, arguably the finest sound designer and re-recording mixer of his generation. At the ripe old age of 44, with seven Oscars (out of 12 nominations), a slew of BAFTA, Golden Reel and C.A.S. Awards, and a 20-year filmography remarkable for its range and quality, he is leaving Skywalker Sound. But rather than opt for the speakers' circuit or the golf course, Rydstrom is headed for the director's chair at Pixar, a company that he's been associated with since creating the “voices” for Luxo Jr. back in 1986.
But we've come to praise Rydstrom, not to bury him, as there is no believable scenario in which he will be able to completely sever ties with Skywalker or the world of sound-for-picture.
Rydstrom was raised in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, Ill., and by the age of 12, he knew that he wanted to work in movies. “The ironic element of my career is that I got interested in movies by watching old silent films on TV,” he says. “In the '60s, there was this revival of interest in Chaplin and Keaton, then I also discovered the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder and Warner Bros. cartoons, of course. I've always been interested in comedy, and though I was probably not gutsy enough to perform comedy, I've always wanted to make comedy films.”
In 1977, Rydstrom headed west to the highly respected USC School of Cinema. Though he dreamed of being a writer/director, he quickly learned that he had an affinity for post-production. After completing his bachelor's degree and “too scared to go out into the world,” he enrolled in the master's program, where one of his film projects was a cutout-animation spoof of his professors watching their former student George Lucas' Star Wars. Then, one day in 1983, Professor Ken Miura called and asked if he would be interested in working at Lucasfilm, just as he had suggested Tom Johnson a year before and Ben Burtt years before that.
As we settle into one of the sound design suites at Skywalker Ranch, on the final days of the final mix for Peter Pan, we pick up Rydstrom's story as he packs up his car, his dry wit and his enduring humility and heads north to the great unknown of the San Francisco Bay Area.
That's a big jump. Were you nervous about leaving the industry town?
Well, I didn't have a job in L.A. I was doing odd jobs like being Francis Coppola's projectionist. So this was my first real job, and George Lucas' company — and what was becoming Skywalker Ranch — had a Xanadu-like mystical hold on the film business. People hadn't seen it; it was this foggy nirvana off in the hills. It was at a time when Northern California was a big part of a golden age of sound: Ben Burtt, Walter Murch and Alan Splet; Richard Beggs; Fantasy; and Sprocket Systems. For me to get a job in sound at that place at that time was like someone who wanted to be an animator getting a job at Warner Bros.' Termite Terrace in 1945. It was ideal. The work that was being done, that had just been done in the early '80s — Jedi, Raiders, Empire and Black Stallion. Apocalypse in '79. It was sound heaven. The first thing I did was work in the machine room with Tom Johnson loading the dubbers for Ben Burtt.
Let's talk about mentoring, then. You have some assistants who have moved on to pretty stellar careers.
My mentor was Ben Burtt, who was great to watch because he had redefined how sound design work was done, essentially by becoming a director of the soundtrack. He took over and made it as much a single vision as possible. The audio version of the word “vision” I guess would be “ausion.” [Laughs]
Skywalker Sound, Sprocket Systems at the time, handled all the aspects of sound under one roof: effects recording, editing, Foley, mixing. There was a real collaborative spirit. When I started, I performed Foley and recorded dialog and sound effects, a little bit of everything. One of the first sound design jobs I did was Cocoon in 1986, assisting Gary Summers. I was lucky to work with Randy Thom on several projects.
When I was able to, I had assistants working for me. I didn't think of it as mentoring, necessarily, but I suppose it was. And I'll point out the sad, sad fact that the last two times I've been nominated at the Academy Awards, I've lost to former assistants of mine [Chris Boyes for Pearl Harbor and Ethan Van der Ryn for The Lord of the Rings]. When you start losing to the people who used to work for you, then it's time to move on. [Laughs]
There's another kind of mentoring that happens at Skywalker that comes from the history of the place. It's in the bones of the building. You are reminded that this is the place where Ben Burtt did revolutionary work on Star Wars, and you feel pressure to live up to that. The building in a funny way becomes a mentor, too.
Early in my career, I would get work that was deflected from Ben Burtt. On the first Pixar short I did, Luxo Jr., they wanted Ben to do the sound. They couldn't get Ben, so the job deflected to me. On Titanic, James Cameron was someone I had worked with before, and it was a great opportunity to deflect work to Chris Boyes. Skywalker Sound tries to find these films, these opportunities for people: Chris Boyes and Tom Myers and Steve Boeddeker, Chris Scarobosio. We have a large group right now of young— younger than me, anyway—and very talented sound designers.
Did the experience on Cocoon convince you to stay in sound?
The sound design work on Cocoon was so much fun: taking sounds that were one thing and turning them into something else. On Cocoon, we had to do alien glow sounds. We tried all these different things, and Cindy, who I eventually married, and I had these crystal champagne glasses, so I did the glass harmonica trick by rubbing my finger on the top of these glasses that meant a lot to me. A little echo and pitching and layering, and it became an alien glow sound. I thought, “This is the greatest thing in the world.” I remember how exciting it was to be able to say, “Oh that's my champagne glass or that's my dog in there. That's my refrigerator creak up on screen.” Then of course, people start making odd sounds at you when you're a sound designer: “Look what I can do!”
Around the same time, you created the sound for Luxo Jr. [a small metal lamp that bounces about], perhaps the signature Pixar sound.
I'll give you the short history of what became Pixar. George Lucas hired a group of people to work on computer graphics, starting with Ed Catmull. They started making these short films, animated by John Lasseter, who they hired from L.A. The first one they did was Andre and Wally B to test out their animation software and hardware, and Ben did the sound.
Then Luxo was made in 1986 for Siggraph, one of three short films to show off what the computer graphics people could do. At the time, computer graphics was in its infancy, and John Lasseter's short stood out because it had a warmth to it, a sense of humanity that people hadn't seen in computer graphics. It's still hard to get, and he got it from a lamp! The film is a tour de force of character animation. It was a real defining moment of my career, being part of something so revolutionary, meeting John Lasseter and working with what then became Pixar.
I wanted to give the lamps in Luxo Jr. character through sound. I told John that I'd come up with these voices. He'd never imagined they'd have voices and was wary of the idea. But I experimented with taking real sounds — a lot of it as simple as unscrewing a light bulb or scraping metal. Every once in a while, a sound would be produced that would remind you of sadness or glee. I always think of sound design being like prospecting for gold. Start by, say, goofing around, making lots of sounds, then find the one percent that has something interesting about it. Put this against the film, and there's a magical moment when the sound, if it's right, merges into the image, brings it to life. They were not cartoon-y. They were fun, reality-based sounds. It felt like the birth of something new, even then.
In the sound world, you have Ben Burtt and George Lucas, Alan Splet and David Lynch—these partnerships that grow up together. Mine was with John Lasseter. Great timing.
I'll get back to Pixar later. Let's talk technology. You still work with the Synclavier and you're not alone. What is it about that box?
Tom Kobayashi, who ran Sprocket Systems at the time, went to a trade show in 1987 and came back with a Synclavier. The idea of using a sampler for sound effects work had astonishing potential. With sampled sounds in RAM, you can instantly pitch-bend it and layer it and play it and shape it, without using any processing time. You can layer on the same key and very finely manipulate the pitch and delay and merge them together in ways that were harder to do in the tape-to-tape days. It allowed me to create the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, in which I took several layers and blended different animal sounds into what sounds like one animal.
With the Synclavier, I have a library of sound “parts,” little snippets that are like phonemes in language. Interesting bits of sound that can be rearranged in multitudes of ways. It's a library of raw material, and it's valuable still.
You started cutting on mag, done all the jobs the same as they did in the '30s.
When we cut on mag at USC, we had three dubbers available. We could cut up to three tracks—very limited. But you learned to work within this limitation. It makes no sense today to learn to cut mag or align a tape machine. But if you go right to Pro Tools, you have almost too many possibilities right out of the gate; it's harder to focus on the essence of what sound editing is through all the bells and whistles. Maybe Digidesign and the other companies could come up with special software for education that eliminates all of the especially cool features. [Laughs]
But I have to say that there's still a place for some of the old technology. I remember on Saving Private Ryan, I was trying to come up with weird sounds for these incoming tanks as they approached the village. Spielberg wanted scary, odd sounds bouncing between the buildings. I put sounds of metal scraping and engines beating on quarter-inch tape and rocked the tape back and forth by hand — like record scratching — and coming up with strange sounds and rhythms. I could only do that with a quarter-inch tape deck.
What's the next step? What's coming for dub stages or edit suites?
I've been long fascinated by this paradox: There has been no revolution in sound to parallel the revolution in visuals in the last 10 years. What ILM or Pixar can create visually is approaching photo-real. This has led to a real change in how movies are made and in what kind of movies are made. But there's no sound equivalent. I can't go into a computer that I know of and create a lion roar, synthesize it entirely and make it a believable, interesting lion like ILM can make a lion. I would think that creating a lion visually is harder than creating a lion roar, but I guess I'm wrong.
On to creativity. When we talked during Titanic, you said that your first law of sound is to always have variation.
Sound comes to us over time. You don't get a snapshot of sound. Therefore, what you notice with sound, the essential building block, is change. So in putting together a soundtrack or making a basic sound, I'm always thinking in terms of how it is changing over time. Even the simplest sound can have a rhythm to it, dynamics, changing pitch. Orchestrators must think about these things all the time. Even Philip Glass' orchestrator.
What about level?
I love having digital playback in theaters, where the great benefit is dynamic range. So dynamics become a useful tool for getting a sense of contrast. In an action film, say Terminator 2, contrasts, sometimes even massive contrasts, are essential.
But it's also about how frequencies work together. There's a trick to making a gunshot big using multiple layers of elements. You take the high snap of a pistol and add to it the low boom of a cannon and the midrange of a canyon echo. You orchestrate it. On an über scale then, we do that to the whole soundtrack, making sounds work together.
You also said that while you strive for dynamics and movement, you've come to appreciate silence.
Silence can be thought of as a type of sound. It's like when somebody years ago figured out that zero was a number. And silence is just as valid as an amazing sound. Every sound editor can't help but think of how to fill up a track; it's what we're paid for. I remember a scene in the first Mission Impossible in which Tom Cruise breaks into a computer room at the CIA, for which we'd added all these sound details for equipment he was using to lower himself in. Yet the idea was that if he made any sound over a certain level, he would trip the alarm. Brian De Palma ultimately said, “No, take it all out.” And for the most part, that scene plays with nothing on the track. I went to see it with an audience and it had the desired effect: It made everyone lean in, pay closer attention, get nervous. Tension comes from the silence of that scene.
In Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson wanted the soundtrack to express the character of Barry Egan, who could explode at any minute. Often, there would be dead silence, almost nothing on the track,. Then a car crash shocks us or a truck goes by or even a phone ring. From silence to a nasty loud sound. He loved playing with that silence, setting the audience up with it.
That's interesting, because you said once that the big scenes can often mix themselves. The quiet scenes can be the challenge. As an example, you noted the glass crack in
The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
Oh yes, that's just a single glass crack, so is that the right glass crack? There's nothing else on the track, it better be! [Laughs] In a big action scene, the biggest challenge often is to make the track articulate. The mixing and editing challenge is to make the track not turn into mush. That's its own challenge. That's a Hulk kind of challenge. Then you have what Randy Thom did on Cast Away. That's a stunning example of what sound can do in a movie. There are stretches of that movie in which very little or none of the sound recorded on the set is used. And there's no music. So Randy's job was to build up a perfectly believable, subtle, realistic yet dramatic soundtrack. No place to hide sounds, so they have to be the right sounds. Every detail becomes awfully important.
Throughout your career, you've been a big proponent of the musicality of effects and the interplay between music and effects.
I don't think an audience is going to care which parts of the soundtrack are coming from an orchestra and which parts are sound effects. Alan Splet was the best at using sound effects in an overtly psychological and musical way. His ambiences were stunning: applying rhythms and pitches of sounds as evocatively as a composer would. Some people think that there should be a hard line between realistic sound effects and emotional music. But I don't heed that delineation. In A.I., we made a real effort to make the sound effects very, very musical. We were lucky to have the John Williams score early enough to design and edit our sound effects within it. Obviously, the amount of cross-pollination between music and effects depends on the movie, but it should be an option. It doesn't matter to an audience what department the sounds come from, it only matters that the mix of sounds works.
You have quite a range here on your resume. In the same year you might do
A Bug's Life
Saving Private Ryan,
Is there any difference in your approach between a
I'm not sure if I have a range or if I was lucky to work on a wide range of movies. I went from Terminator 2 to A River Runs Through It, from Strange Days to Toy Story. This kept things interesting.
I think in any career you have to be careful not to get pigeonholed. Early on, I could have been considered someone who did action movies, but then along came Robert Redford, Disney and others, thank goodness. The luckiest thing I've had going in my career is that I've had good projects.
I'm going to throw out a few issues facing the industry and let you speak to your peers. As you exit, what would you like to say to both students and professionals?
The first thing I would say, which sounds both simple and almost insulting, is that people in sound have to keep thinking of themselves as a key part of the movie. Sometimes we have to fight against the feeling that we're not. If we do our jobs well and throw in a little evangelizing, we can make sound as important a part of filmmaking as it should be.
How about loudness?
We have to be careful. We get overly loud striving for impact. It's counter-intuitive, but sometimes we'll get more punch from a mix by being less loud, by putting big moments in the proper context. Terminator 2 is a very contrast-filled and fairly simple track. It has an apparent punch and loudness to it, but probably wouldn't compare to a lot of what we hear today.
If we have thousands of tracks to deal with, both as an editor and a mixer, we can easily lose the forest for the trees. The sound process is a big funnel, narrowing tracks and making choices as it goes forward.
The edit and the mix, and how they are blurring?
I've been able to do both, and I see that there's great potential in blurring the line between them. There will always be a place for mixers and for editors, but I agree, generally, with the trend to do sound jobs with a smaller core group of creative people who collaborate and cross over traditional roles.
What about schedules and budgets?
The fight for money and time gets harder every year. Schedules and budgets are under downward pressure, while expectations are as high or higher. We have to keep proving through the quality of our work that it's worth spending the money.
Okay, now what's all this about Pixar?
It all came about because I've had this long, great relationship with John Lasseter and Pixar. I've felt involved throughout the whole filmmaking process on their films. They offered me an opportunity to develop and direct films, maybe because I bring an outsider's perspective while still being a Pixar guy through and through.
My friends there know that I've had a long-standing love of comedy. When I first told Steven Spielberg and George Lucas that I was doing this, they were touchingly supportive and generous with advice. To think what I've learned just watching Spielberg and Redford and George and Cameron and Paul Thomas Anderson and Ang Lee and all of these directors — what a great education it's turned out to be. I'm grateful for my sound career. It gave me the equivalent of 50-yard-line seats, second row, during a fascinating era in film history.
Can you let someone else mix your movie?
I'm looking forward to making someone's life a living hell! I don't know whose. [Laughs] By the time I make a feature animated film, which takes a very long time, God knows what mixing technology will look like, probably something with holograms and balls of light. But I do know that I'll always do the work at Skywalker Sound.
Do you have any projects?
I have such a love of the Pixar shorts: Luxo and Knicknack and Tin Toy. They're in my blood. So I want to do a Pixar short and take it from there.
Full circle. From film school shorts to Pixar.
See, there's another lesson for people. I left film school and it took me a mere 20 years to get a directing job.
Tom Kenny is the editor of Mix.