Friday, June 24, 2011

An interview with Gary Rydstrom

by Matteo Milani and Federico Placidi - U.S.O. Project, 2011 

Gary Rydstrom was born in 1959 in Chicago, IL. He graduated from the University of Southern California - School of Cinematic Arts in 1981. He began his career at Sprocket Systems, formerly Skywalker Sound, in 1983. Offered the job by a college professor, Gary received the opportunity to work with his mentor, Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt. He created sound for numerous successful films including Backdraft, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report and Finding Nemo. Through this work he has won 7 Academy Awards.
Rydstrom did his first work for Pixar on the short film Luxo Jr.. John Lasseter has said it was Rydstrom's work on Luxo Jr., such as creating the lamp's voice from the squeak of a lightbulb being screwed in, that taught him how sound can be a partner in the storytelling of a film. In 2006 he has made his directorial debut with the Pixar animated short Lifted. He recently jumped again into the director's chair to create his second animated short Hawaiian Vacation, set to play in front of Cars 2

[Rydstrom talks about the first of Pixar's new brand of Toy Story shorts @ AWN] 

For every director and for all of us the goal is at any one moment in a movie to have the audience on the edge of their feet and can't wait to see what happens next. You are moved by these characters, you believe in these characters. All the meticulous and hard work should be completely invisible. We wanted to be involved in the scene and we don’t you to think that Nemo is a bunch of computer layout. We do not want you to think the many hours that took to create that scene. You are just carried away by the scene and every focus in every step of the production that we do at Pixar is about the story. It is about entertaining the audience. - John Lasseter, 66th Venice Film Festival 

USO: Gary, you’re the third person – of our personal “respect-list” – who came from a sound career and crossed over to a director’s chair: Walter Murch did it first, Ben Burtt came after him. They still design their own sound for their works, just as you did for your first short movie Lifted (with a tribute like the Wilhelm Scream at the very end). How did you manage the transition from sound designer/re-recording mixer to director? How about your feelings?

Gary Rydstrom: Working in film sound is a great way to immerse yourself in the rhythms of a movie. Having done sound for so many movies, and so many different kinds of movies, I’m hoping I’ve developed some mysterious “film instinct.” I think the best directors – and best sound designers – work more from their gut than their brain. In other words, to make movies, your gut has to be bigger than your brain… or maybe I should rephrase that?

GR: "It was a little scary but I always wanted to make films and wanted to have opportunities to write and tell stories. So Pixar being old friends, they gave me this opportunity to come over there and do that. So it was a little scary because there were a lot of things I had to learn. But doing sound for so many years, what I found was that the big similarity is that sound is all about rhythm. It’s about using sound, rhythm helps delineate sound effects, sound tracks, and telling a story with these kind of rhythms is really key. Animation is really about rhythms and timing so I think working in sound gave me a great sense of timing. In fact, on Lifted I used, before animation had been started, used a temp soundtrack to express the timing that I wanted to the animators so they had some reference of what I was after. It was a way for me to even communicate to the animators." - CanMag

[Lifted producer Katherine Sarafian and director Gary Rydstrom © AWN Inc]

USO: Did you develop and learn your new craft in sound room working movie by movie?

GR: Central to sound design is finding what feels right for a movie, what matches its look and heart. So every movie I worked on taught me different lessons. I kept thinking I was close to end of my lessons, but they never ended. Turns out that’s what makes working in film fun. It’s never the same twice. 

USO: Being close to first-class directors during all your sound career has thought you well?

GR: I felt like a spy, watching a lot of directors. I’ve been very lucky to have worked with many of the best – Spielberg, Cameron, Lasseter, Redford – and you probably don’t need me to tell you (their movies do) how different in approach they were. One thing the best have in common: they inspire their crews.

GR: "... 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. 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." - Mix Magazine

USO: Can you describe what you were feeling when you left the Technical Building (where you spent almost 20 years), and all your friends at Lucas Skywalker Sound, to your new life/experience in Emeryville?

GR: Luckily I get back to Skywalker Sound quite often, otherwise I’d REALLY miss my old friends and career. Pixar’s no slouch, but there isn’t a more beautiful place to work than Skywalker Ranch. 

I've known Gary for over 20 years and he's really been a mentor and a role model for me, as to how to do this work. His standard for quality, inventiveness and humor is really always in the back of my mind when I work. No one is a quicker study when you break down a scene or a film in terms of what, soundwise, is the best direction to go to serve the story. - Tom Myers, Skywalker Sound 

USO: What does it mean for you to associate a particular sound to a visual event (identifying it in a vast catalogue as big as the sound library of SkySound)? What are the mental or purely instinctive paths competing in making the choice?

GR: Something magical happens when a sound effect is added to picture – and it’s not predictable. After all my years of doing it, I still depend on experimenting, putting sounds against image and seeing what happens. First time I did this, as a film student, it amazed me how sound could “open up” a movie, how the combination of sound and visual could create something greater than the sum parts. Having a great sound library is essential, but the real secret is how one uses it. 

GR: "I wanted to give the lamps in Luxo Jr. character through sound. I told John (Lasseter) 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." - Mix Magazine

USO: Many sound artists working in other domains like electroacoustic music, musique concrete, environmental sounds has been strongly influenced by the contemporary cinema, and by its ability to create stories with the help of sound effects, soundscapes and even to define the personality of some "objects" with unmistakable sounds. How it is possible to interrelate these multiplicity of experience? 

GR: What all sound artists share is a desire to convey emotions, so I certainly was inspired by non-movie sound work. Sound is emotion. Not just music, but all sound. Humans (who can hear) seem to take sound in general for granted, which is frustrating, but liberating. How manipulative can we be when no one’s paying attention! 

USO: While Europe was experiencing electronics and sound design like natural language consequence of the avant-garde of 50's, in the U.S. this journey took place independently in the field of the film industry with other purposes and objectives. You were aware of what was happening in the old continent and its experiments?

GR: I’m certainly aware of the European traditional of producing “soundscapes” (for lack of a better word) for radio. In some ways, I was jealous of sound work that didn’t depend on the visual – how free it seemed! Best I could do was build an “off-screen” world in film. But I always had a movie to be influenced by – how scary to have sound work stand on its own. 

USO: You've been one of the most assiduous "regulars" of the Synclavier, an instrument widely used in various musical fields. Can you describe the creative approach with this tool? What were your procedures? What made it such as a instrument so unique? To create the sound of the engines of the Titanic you and Chris Boyes worked long on the Synclavier to reproduce the effect in question. Do you remember how you did it?

GR: I fell in love with the Synclavier early in my career because it was such a powerful instrument for shaping natural sounds. I never used the FM synthesis – even making electronic sound effects I would try to use natural sounds, just because I find real sounds are more interesting. Sampling sounds and putting them on a keyboard allowed me to quickly experiment with pitch and layering, which are my primary tools for bending real sounds to my will. The Titanic engine sounds took advantage of how the Synclavier could speed up and slow down a sound pattern. For me, nothing beats using a “musical” instrument for creating sound effects.

GR: "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." - Mix Magazine

USO: How about your relationship with Ben Burtt along your sound career and especially now in Pixar? I mean crosstalk and dialogue, to share ideas. Could you describe him as a mentor, a friend, a colleague, a druid?

GR: All of my approaches and philosophies about sound come from Ben Burtt. At the time he was revolutionizing sound design, I was lucky enough to get a job at Sprocket Systems and see how he did it, how much he knew about film sound history, and most importantly how much he cared about using sound to tell a story. When I started working on Jurassic Park, I remember Ben was away on vacation. I stumbled along until he came back – for all sorts of reasons, psychological and practical, I couldn’t get started until he was in the building.

[Gary Rydstrom Talks About Cinema Sound - via DolbyInsider]

USO: Nowadays many sound designers are working in nonlinear environments like Pro Tools, Nuendo with tons of plug-ins to make everything. One thing we always admired in your work is the exquisite and unfailing "organic" sound and his innate musicality. It seems that sounds "exist" in nature and are not a product of a skilled craftsman. Would you like to talk about that?

GR: There’s a danger in processing sound too much. I believe the best sound effects come from the best raw recordings, and are tweaked as little as possible. The world is so full of amazing sounds – sounds no synthesizer can match – so why not find them and use them?

GR: [...] 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.
[...] 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. - excerpts from “From here on in, absolute silence.” [via Benjamin Wright]

Thanks Gary... keep up the good work! M&F


  1. Anonymous11/13/2011

    Way to go Gary! Awesome work!

    1. Anonymous8/27/2012

      as a fellow Synclav guy, it allowed me to do what I do for 24+ years.

      Good stuff Gary!