A lot of people ask Randy Thom for advice about creating sound for film. That’s not really surprising. Although the nine-time Academy Award — nominated sound designer/supervisor/re-recording mixer’s filmography is intimidating (running the gamut from Shrek 2, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Cast Away to Forrest Gump, Backdraft, Wild at Heart, Colors, Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom and much more), he’s actually extremely approachable. He also loves to teach.
Originally from Shreveport, La., Thom got his start in the sound business working for the campus radio station at Antioch College in Ohio. From there, he migrated to Berkeley, Calif., where he was hired on at famed Pacifica station KPFA, recording everything from news and documentaries to live broadcasts. It was seeing — and hearing — Star Wars that inspired him to seek work in film sound. (“It rearranged my chromosomes and opened my ears to possibilities,” he recalls.) Persistence and a lucky break got him hired by Walter Murch as a sound effects recordist on Apocalypse Now, and he never looked back. In 2004, he celebrated his 25th year with Lucasfilm.
When we caught up with Thom, he was on a rare break. The two films that had taken up his life for most of 18 months — The Incredibles and Polar Express, on which he was both sound designer and supervising mixer — were battling it out at the box office. Amazingly, he’d managed to coordinate working on both at the same time, something quite unheard of. But then, Thom’s done quite a few unheard of things in his career.
Are you enjoying the time off?
Actually, when I finish a project, I always go through a little post-partum depression. I start thinking that everything I’ve done [on the film I’ve just completed] is wrong. It takes me a few days to get over that before I can relax.
When you revisit films after a break, do you tend to find that your work is better than you thought?
I think anybody who attempts to do something creative becomes obsessed with what we perceive as the failures and the things that didn’t work. That’s what dominates your brain. Part of being able to do good work is to sort of hypnotize yourself so that you’re not obsessed with that negative stuff. And after you get some distance, you’re generally better able to see what’s good about what you’ve done.
A very essential chemistry about the artistic sensibility is that balancing act: having enough self confidence — and maybe ego — to dare to think that you can do something interesting while also, occasionally, oscillating back to the other side, where you’re full of self-doubt. If you maintain the balancing act, you’re in the state of mind where good work happens.
The Incredibles presented many opportunities for new sounds, even at the dinner table.
With all of your experience and success, one might expect you’d have progressed beyond that kind of self-doubt.
When I give talks at film schools, I tell students that you often do your best work in those moments when you’re feeling most desperate about not being able to do anything. It’s funny, but people who hire me, or somebody like me, often expect that we’ll know exactly how to do whatever it is that they want. Let’s say, for example, you’ve worked on one or more dinosaur movies and they want you to create a dinosaur vocal. They assume you just know how to do that. But you’d be an artistic hack if you simply duplicated what you’ve done before. You want to create something new. And if you want to break new ground, no matter how much experience you have, you’re always starting from zero with a blank piece of paper in front of you trying to figure it out.
On the other hand, if you have a lot of experience, once you find a direction that seems to be working, all of the technique you’ve developed over the years kicks in. You know which kinds of experimenting will tend to be fruitful. But it’s still scary every time you start a new project. When I started The Incredibles, for example, I was terrified at the number of sounds I had to come up with.
That’s understandable. It’s got everything: a retro look, a typical office and a suburban home, natural outdoor environments like water and jungles, plus futuristic weapons and machines, superheroes with superpowers — and amazing chase scenes.
It’s all over the ballpark. It was also intimidating working with [director] Brad Bird. He’s really knowledgeable about sound, which is a double-edged sword. [Laughs] You never, ever play something for him and have him say, “That’s perfect; don’t change anything.” It’s always, “I love that! Now how about if we also do so and so?”
Brad’s a wonderful leader — he’s always positive. Some directors are so insecure that they panic when you play them something they don’t think is right. They can’t help but convey that sense of fear and negativity to you. Brad always finds something good to say and builds on that. He constantly pushes you to push your own envelope as far as possible. It’s inspiring, but it’s also a lot of pressure.
The overall sound for The Incredibles is terrific: warm and rich with great depth of field. The exact opposite, actually, of the trailer that I heard just before it that made me reach for my earplugs.
Brad and I both like dynamic range in a film. One way to make things extremely loud is to emphasize the middle part of the audio spectrum, the 1kHz to 4kHz information that people’s ears are most sensitive to. When I’m doing a film, I do the opposite. I avoid emphasizing that range of frequencies most of the time. If there’s an explosion or something that needs to be loud, I try to get as much of the feeling for it as I can in the bass. That makes it seem like a big event without hurting your ears.
I fabricated as many new sounds as I could for The Incredibles, partly because Gary Rydstrom did such a stellar job of establishing an identifiable voice on all the previous Pixar films. I tried to do the same thing on a similarly high level. Also, there were so many opportunities for new sounds. For the six weeks when we were mixing the movie, I was still madly revising sounds and designing new ones. I had a mini sound design station on the dubbing stage and I’d stay there during lunch.
But about new sounds, I think it’s rare that you do anything that’s brand-new. My approach to the art is almost always to take something from the past and put an interesting twist on it. Young sound designers, I think, often get caught up in the idea of making a sound that’s unlike anything anybody has ever heard before. But that’s really hopeless. It also isn’t very useful, because a sound needs a frame of reference.
Did you do much field recording?
Some. The Velocipods, the flying saucers [in The Incredibles], were a combination of new and existing recordings of Formula One racing cars combined with jet-bys. For something like that, the best place to start is to think in very general terms rather than thinking literally. For the Velocipods, that was they’re fast and they fly. First, you think of everything you can that’s fast, whether it flies or not, and whether it looks anything like a Velocipod or not. You listen, try variations, then make them faster by adding some artificial Doppler Shift and heating them up with added reverb — all of the usual stuff. Then, when you come up with a set of sounds that are emotionally and dramatically satisfying, you have to bring them down to earth, to where the sound is believable in the space it’s in. To do that, you combine it with more conventional sounds and maybe some wind. Now you’ve got not only the sound of the object moving through the air, but the sound of the air itself. You combine all of those things in random ways and you happen upon a few really compelling moments. Then you try to remember what you did to create those few moments so you can make more variations!
The best work always comes from experiments. You have to be willing to go down hundreds of dead-end streets, and you learn something from each of those dead-end streets that you will eventually use.
Doesn’t the intense time pressure of today’s films make that kind of experimentation more difficult?
Short schedules make it harder to take risks, but that’s always been true. The most valuable thing on a movie is the director’s time. He or she is, typically, being pulled in a hundred directions at once. Any moment that you get to talk to the director, you have to use as efficiently as possible. For me, it works best to not theorize too much early on when I’m talking with a director. It’s better to get just a few words that describe what they’re thinking about. Then I go off and produce a bunch of sounds and sync them up, more or less, with the picture so that the director can hear them in context. Once you have something concrete to talk about, the next conversation is much more specific and useful.
That’s what I did on The Incredibles, while I was jumping back and forth between it and Polar Express. I’d work a day or two, or a week or two, coming up with specific sounds. Sometimes they’d be cut to picture, sometimes not. I’d either play them for Brad in person or send them over to Pixar, then we’d talk about them. And Brad knows enough about sound to be able to make specific suggestions, like speeding them up or playing them backward.
The Incredibles’ soundtrack is definitely full, but it doesn’t sound cluttered.
There’s a persistent myth that good mixing is about playing as many sounds as possible at once. But if you listen carefully to almost any complex sound sequence in a film, you’re not actually hearing everything all of the time. You’re hearing a constantly shifting change of the sound source from one thing to another. When you do that artfully enough, the impression the audience gets is that they’re hearing everything all the time. But they’re not, because that would just be a wall of incoherent noise. Although when you begin mixing that kind of sequence, that’s often how it sounds. [Laughs] All of the faders are up, you’re playing back hundreds of sound effects, more or less at the same time, along with a huge score and a full dialog track. It’s frightening; typically, you can [sense] everybody’s heart sink as they wonder how they’re going to get it to make sense.
The art of mixing is deciding from moment to moment what you want to focus on. Everything else either has to come down in volume or it has to be altered in EQ so that it doesn’t grab as much attention. In dense sequences, one of the tricks is to make sure that the sounds you want to get people’s attention have some kind of special quality to them. Just making them loud isn’t enough; what gets the ear’s attention is change. The easiest and most readily apparent kind of change is pitch. So to design a sound effect that will grab attention, you need to find a way to make the sound change in pitch over time. A gunshot isn’t just a bang. It’s an initial bang, followed by the reverberation of that bang, which will occupy a different part of the audio spectrum. Then there’s maybe a third reverberation so that you get this constant kind of spectral or pitch change. That gives it character, grabs the ear and makes it seem like a big event.
Do you find more film directors becoming sound savvy?
The awareness is a little better, but sound is still the most neglected craft and art in movie-making, and it’s not taught very well in most film schools. It’s still seen as a necessary evil: a long succession of technical operations that you have to go through to make a movie. I’ve actually written an article on designing a movie for sound that you can read on Filmsound.org. It’s a long list of complaints about sound not being taken seriously, but it also suggests steps to rectify that.
Unfortunately, a large percentage of directors tend to fall into one of two camps. Some are ultra-literal. For them, sound’s main job is to provide a grounding function for the picture. They can do picture cuts and dissolves and perspective tricks, and sound will always be there in its gritty, realistic way to reassure everybody. There’s another set of directors who think sound’s main goal is to make people’s intestines shake from the beginning of the film to the end. All they’re really concerned about is that every sound be as loud and as cool as possible.
Certainly, sound can provide those functions. But the wise approach to sound design begins with the script; it’s not about coming up with cool sounds to paste on the outside of a fait accompli. The effectively sound-designed movies are the ones that have been designed for sound, either before the sound designer even shows up or with the collaboration of the sound designer. That way, there are open doors in the story, in the way things are shot and blocked, in how much dialog there is and the way music is going to be used. Then sound participates in the storytelling. It isn’t just a decoration put on at the end of the process.
I get a lot of questions from young writers and directors asking for advice on how to use sound. The first thing I tell them is, when you’re writing a scene, think about what the characters are hearing. The most effective way to do sound design is to channel the sounds in the scene through the characters on the way to the audience. That allows the sound designer and the director to stylize the sound in ways that tell the audience what the characters are like because of the way they hear the world around them. Most of the great sound sequences, certainly most of the great sound effects sequences in movies, come from the point of view of the characters. That has to be set up by the visual design and picture editing. I’m lucky to work mostly with directors who understand that.
You’re fortunate in your career in that you work in many different film genres.
I don’t like being pigeonholed. Working at Skywalker, people often assume that you’re a sci-fi/action adventure specialist. I love working on those movies, but I also love to work on mysteries and movies that use sound in really subtle ways, and occasionally a comedy. The sound designers I admire don’t necessarily have identifiable styles. They’re the ones who mold their techniques and approach to work with the style of the director and of the movie. That’s what I try to do.
Maureen Droney is Mix’s L.A. editor.
Randy Thom had only wind and water to work with to design sound for Cast Away.
Read how he did it here.
Read more about Thom’s work on
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets here.