Skywalker Sound's Randy Thom Awarded for Career Achievement
COW Library : Audio Professionals : Debra Kaufman : Skywalker Sound's Randy Thom Awarded for Career Achievement
Additional credits include Return of the Jedi, Never Cry Wolf, Wild at Heart, Forrest Gump, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Thin Blue Line, War of the Worlds, Coraline, How To Train Your Dragon, Ghost in the Shell, and Ratatouille.
He has worked with a diverse list of directors, including Francis Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Bob Zemeckis, David Lynch, John Waters, Errol Morris, Henry Selick, Peter Jackson, Brad Bird, and Chris Wedge.
Creative COW: How did you get into sound design?
Randy Thom: It was mostly luck. I certainly didn't think I was going to be a sound person as a kid or in college. I volunteered in a public radio station, first in Antioch and later at KPFA in Berkeley, and discovered I really liked sound work, producing little pieces for NPR among other things. By the mid 1970s, I decided I was getting interested in movie sound and started knocking on doors that were mostly politely closed in my face. There was the old trouble of not being able to get a job because I wasn't in the union, and not getting into the union because I didn't have a job.
Finally I made a phone call to Walter Murch through a friend. I said I've done quite a bit of sound work but never worked in a movie. He said, come down and we'll talk about it. He's always been a generous spirit and I caught him at the right time. He was remixing American Graffiti in stereo, and I sat there and watched him work all day long. Then he asked me to write an essay about my experiences. He liked what he read and he brought me onto Apocalypse Now. When I finally got the call that I was officially on the movie, I made the happiest phone call ever to my girlfriend.
On Apocalypse Now, I spent most of my time recording helicopters and buzzing flies and everything else they needed, and the rest of the time assisting in the final mix. Being in that room was the best catbird seat anyone can imagine. Even then, people sensed it would be an important movie. I was very naïve about the movie business and movies in general, but I had a pretty good sense what a lucky break that was.
After Apocalypse, I went to work on Empire Strikes Back, the second Star Wars film, mainly recording sound effects such as giant metal cutting machines that ended up being the big four-legged robots that carried the bad guys. After that, I decided to try my hand at production sound, recording the actors on set. I'd done a couple of brief reshoots so I had some knowledge of how it was done and was hired to do production sound on Never Cry Wolf directed by Carroll Ballard, after meeting him when Coppola was doing Black Stallion and did some recording for that. Then I did production sound for Rumblefish and the third Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi.
Production sound is an extremely important job and it's creative in an engineering sense. Your job is to get great recordings of the actors with as little background noise as possible. Although it's very challenging and, in the best of situations, the production sound people can interact in a creative way with directors, it doesn't often happen as much as it should. I really wanted to do the kinds of things I saw Walter Murch do on Apocalypse Now and decided sound design was the place to do that.
The Right Stuff, for which Randy Thom won his first Oscar for Best Sound. The same year, he was also nominated for Best Sound for his work on Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi.
How did you get back into sound design?
I went back to Sprocket Systems, which later turned into Skywalker Sound. My first two jobs as sound designer were for an IMAX film about the Grand Canyon that played at the IMAX theatre at the Grand Canyon for 25 years and Colors, a film that Dennis Hopper directed. I also did Howard the Duck. I've always prided myself on being able to adapt to whatever a film needs aesthetically. I don't think I have an identifiable style. I help the director figure out what's needed and then do that and don't try to apply my preconceived notions. Every film has a sound style just like it has a visual style.
As an example of what I mean by "sound style," I worked on two Harry Potter movies. One challenge was that the magic spells and magic wands have to have sounds associated with them but it can't sound like science fiction. It needs to sound natural and organic because that's the style of the film in general, so we had to find sounds that make those effects that sound natural. We used thunder, lighting and other real-world sounds.
Sound is so often called the red-haired stepchild of film, but I imagine that you've worked with some directors who place importance on it. Who have those been and can you describe some of those experiences?
I've been lucky to work with many directors who think sound is important. I find directors who come from visual arts background often have a great imagination with sound. David Lynch thinks like that and so does Bob Zemeckis. Alan Silvestri, Zemeckis' composer, and I often have meetings before the shooting starts and Bob talks about what scenes will be music driven, which will be sound driven. That's great for Alan and me because we don't waste our time developing music or sounds for scenes that won't be focused on them.
Looking back on your career thus far, what have some of the highlights been and why?
One I'm really proud of is Contact, the Bob Zemeckis movie with Jodie Foster. We did some pretty interesting and powerful sound work on that film and the script really laid the groundwork for us to do interesting sound, which is so important. We had to come up with the sounds for Jodie traveling through a wormhole into another dimension. She first detects alien life forms through her ears because she's listening with a headset and detects a pattern that she realizes is a message. One of the things I'm constantly telling directors is to think abut what your characters hear in their environment that will tell the audience something about who they are – how they react or if they don't react. Try to find a way to use the character's ears and Contact was one of those movies.
My mission for the past 25 years has been to convince screenwriters and directors that sound should be written into the script and it should be experimented with in pre-production. That's what happened with Star Wars; Ben Burt was experimenting long before they shot the film. If you have someone designing at that stage, those sounds inevitably affect the way the movie is shot. The director is thinking of how they'll be shot, and it can't help but affect other crafts. That's what's exciting to me about the future of sound design, that that kind of thinking will become more and more common, instead of thinking of sound design as a decoration you place on the movie at the end of the process.
Randy Thom at Skywalker Sound
Has technology changed what you do?
I don't think it's changed the most fundamental parts of the job. One of the unfortunate things about sound is that it's often thought of in terms of technology. Even people inside the music business think the technology does the creative work. When people interview me, they want to know the gadgets I'm using. If they were interviewing a writer, would they ask about screenwriting software? The most fundamental part of sound work always happens inside the head, not in a gadget or in our interactions with gadgets. It's about making aesthetic decisions, using your ears, finding out what works or doesn't, the same as any creative process. None of that has changed, based on technology. It's still about using your ears creatively.
The physical work we do has changed quite a bit. You can do amazing things for a lot less money than you could 30 years ago when I started in the business. It's helped low budget films more than anybody. For not much money, now, you can create a sound track that millions of dollars would have bought you 25 years ago. It's democratized filmmaking.
One of the things I'm especially excited by is that, in the last few years, Skywalker has a partnership with the Sundance Institute. I go there and work with young filmmakers to help them figure out what their film should sound like. It's really energized me, because these young filmmakers are open to all these ideas, considering sound very early on and how sound ideas can affect other crafts during the filmmaking process. They don't have to unlearn the conventional idea that movies are a visual media and sound should wait until the last possible minute. I talk about sound in preproduction and they say, Of course, why not? They're more open.
What other changes in the industry have impacted what you do?
Obviously, budgets have tended to get smaller and the time we have to work has gotten shorter. The biggest problem with both of those things is that you have less time to experiment. I'm often hired by a producer because he or she thinks I'll know exactly how to do what they want, whether it's sounds for dragons or giant machines or whatever. Ironically, although I've been doing this so long when I start a project, I usually have very little idea how I'm going to do what the film wants – because each film has different aesthetic needs and I don't want to duplicate what I did before. You have to try a lot of things that don't work, like any creative process – and that's what suffers when you don't have enough time to experiment and go down a few dead-end roads and have to start over again.
It's not just that there is less money and we get paid less… it's that it really restricts what you can do creatively and in the end it hurts the story if you don't have enough time to do that experimenting. When I go to talk at universities about sound design I say the most important thing I'll tell you is that you have to make mistakes. The trick is to make most of them as early and as inexpensively as possible. If you're not making mistakes you're probably not doing anything interesting.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on Rio 2, a sequel to the animated film I worked on a couple of years ago. And I'm beginning to work on Guillermo Del Toro's next movie, Haunted Peak. In the last six or seven years, I've worked on a lot of animated films. I loved working on animated films but I was afraid I was beginning to be pigeonholed so I've been looking for more live-action projects. I did Flight last year with Zemeckis and I'm looking forward to working with Guillermo; I worked with him on the 1997 movie Mimic. He's a thrill to work with as a sound person.
Thom received an Oscar for his work on The Incredibles
Any additional thoughts you'd like our readers to know?
My mission is to spread the word that, yes, sound can often be 50 percent of a movie. The way to make it 50 percent is to take it seriously as a collaborator and to think about it and experiment with it, beginning with the writing and pre-production. Filmmakers are beginning to adopt this approach more often. In the 1990s, I wrote an article, "Designing a Movie for Sound." A lot of people have read that and it's begun to be used in film schools. I get more emails and calls every month from writers and directors, most of them young saying, what does it mean to make sound a bigger part of a storytelling experience? I'm more than happy to discuss it with them. I'm happy to be a preacher for sound.
Eventually I'll write a book about the ideas I introduced in "Designing A Movie For Sound," but I have no plans to slow down with the work I'm doing now. In a lot of ways I'm more excited about being a sound designer and mixer than ever before, partly because I think I'm beginning to get good at it!
The Career Achievement Award recognizes those that have distinguished themselves by meritorious works as both an individual and fellow contributor with outstanding achievements in 'the art of sound' for feature film and television as well as setting an example of excellence for others to follow.
Randy's diverse works and his incredible tenacity in championing the craft merit this recognition. The prestigious company of this honor, most recently include Ben Burtt, Larry Singer, Walter Murch, George Watters II, and John Roesch, 2013's recipient.
Randy has been nominated for fourteen Oscars, an Emmy, and a Grammy. He has received two Oscars: one for The Right Stuff, and one for The Incredibles.
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