Art of the Cut: Tales From the Mixing Desk of Skywalker Sound
Today we’re speaking with Randy Thom, CAS. Randy is a bit of an unusual guest for Art of the Cut.
He’s not a film editor at all, but a multi-Oscar-winning sound designer and mixer who plies his trade at the legendary Skywalker Sound.
After working in radio and music recording, Randy started his *film* career as a sound recordist on Apocalypse Now! In 1984 he was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Return of the Jedi, but he didn’t win the Oscar for that film because the winner for Best Sound was The Right Stuff which was ALSO his. He won a Cinema Audio Society Award and was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Forrest Gump. Another CAS and Oscar for Contact. Still more nominations and awards for The Iron Giant, Castaway, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Incredibles, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Ratatouille, How to Train Your Dragon, The Revenant, and many others… and to top it all off, a Motion Picture Sound Editors Career Achievement Award in 2014.
So Randy knows sound. And since sound is so integral to what we as film editors do, I thought I’d go straight to the mountain top for some advice on how we can use sound better in the picture cut and how we can better prepare our edits—and collaborate with the sound team. As you may imagine, he was a font of wisdom.
Check out the Art of the Cut podcast to listen to this interview, and stay up to date on all the latest episodes.
HULLFISH: Just to start off I wanted to say that I read some of your blog that you have, and I highly recommend that to anybody that’s interested in sound and storytelling through sound.
In your blog about script analysis for sound design you said you often think of themes when preparing a movie for sound design. I would think of that for a score, but I wouldn’t think of it for sound. Can you tell me what you mean by that?
“Almost any sound can be made to have the same kind of emotional impact on a listener as what we normally think of as music can have.”
THOM: Sure. I try to blur the differences between what we call sound design and what we call sound effects and what we call music as often as I can because I think a lot of the boundaries that we set up between sound design and music are artificial. Almost any sound can be made to have the same kind of emotional impact on a listener as what we normally think of as music can have.
Often, when I’m talking about sound design, I refer to Apocalypse Now as an example because I think it’s one of the best and it happens to have been the first film that I worked on under the tutelage of Mr. Murch. In terms of themes, helicopters are certainly a theme, a sound theme, in Apocalypse Now. With a thematic piece of music what typically happens is that you hear variations on one piece of music in a score throughout a film, and each variation is shaped to have a particular effect in a certain scene. That’s exactly what happens with helicopters in Apocalypse Now.
The first time you hear a helicopter, what you’re hearing is not really a helicopter, it’s a synthesized thumping sound that simulates a helicopter. It’s the first thing you hear in the film, in fact, before you even see anything in the film. You hear this very odd kind of thumping sound in roughly the tempo of a helicopter, making a circle around you in the theater if you’re lucky enough to see it in any kind of theater in a multi-channel sound system.
Then, we hear what sounds like it could be a helicopter in the deep background as we’re listening to that tape recording that the general plays back for the Captain Willard character in that trailer when Kurtz, Marlon Brando, is making his rambling bizarre comment. So, that’s another kind of helicopter sound. We hear a very musical helicopter sound effect when the squadron of helicopters are taking off to go attack the village so that the American soldiers can surf. Then, of course we hear straightforward, if anything larger than life, helicopter recording sounds when the copters do attack the village.
When John Milius wrote the original script for Apocalypse Now, he wrote it as a much more straightforward kind of war film. As Coppola began working on it and revising the script, he decided to tell the story much more from the point of view of the American soldiers. So, lots of things in the Milius script that were fairly objective were made subjective and stylized in the Coppola script and in the way that he shot it and the way he decided to use sound among other things. So, that opened the door to stylizing sounds in all kinds of ways and establishing this theme of the helicopters.
“I’m also trying to imagine how each scene can be set up in a way that will open doors to sound.”
HULLFISH: Talk to me about reading a script for the first time as a sound designer and what your thought process is when you’re reading.
THOM: Well, I’m always trying to figure out ways that sound can be used to help push the story along. Sound themes are certainly one of those ways, but I’m also trying to imagine how each scene can be set up in a way that will open doors to sound. I’ll give you another Apocalypse Now example. When Captain Willard is lying in his hotel room in Saigon and he’s drunk, hallucinating, and a little more than half crazed and he’s looking up at the ceiling, there’s a ceiling fan above him. When Walter Murch was cutting that sequence, it occurred to him that it would make sense for Captain Willard, instead of hearing a ceiling fan, to hear a helicopter because the rotating blades of the ceiling fan are obviously a kind of metaphor for a helicopter.
That was certainly never in either the John Milius or the Coppola script, that he would look up at a ceiling fan and hear a helicopter, but it just occurred to Walter to do that. But there’s no reason why that couldn’t have been in the script. For instance, if I had been lucky enough and experienced enough to somehow have been a full sound designer on Apocalypse Now—which I wasn’t, I was one of Walter’s assistants—and I were reading that script, I hope it would have occurred to me to make a note, “Is there going to be a ceiling fan in this hotel room? If there is, I’m hoping we’ll get a shot of it from Captain Willard’s POV because I think we can do this interesting thing with a helicopter sound.”
HULLFISH: I want to share my screen with you. I have the script from The Incredibles, which if I’m not mistaken you worked on and won an Oscar for, is that correct?
THOM: That’s correct.
HULLFISH: Here’s not quite the opening page, but almost.
MUNICIBERG – STREETS – MOVING – LATE AFTERNOON.
SIRENS WAIL. Lights FLASH. We’re in the middle of a classic CAR CHASE: A police car on HOT PURSUIT of another car driven by armed bank robbers.
The robber riding shotgun primes his SUBMACHINE GUN and unloads on the cop car, which SWERVES into oncoming traffic to avoid the hail of bullets.
What would your notes be on a scene like that?
THOM: Let’s see if we can do it without music. By the way, I’m not at all anti-music or anti-film score. I think a film’s score is maybe the most efficient storytelling tool that a filmmaker has in terms of how much bang you can get from it relative to how much it cost. One of the reasons that sequence in The Incredibles was a big challenge to mix is that there was big score and big sound effects all the way through.
The fact that it’s a challenge doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad idea that that happened, but I’m always encouraging directors to decide as early as possible whether a sequence is going to be a music driven sequence or a sound design driven sequence, or at least which moments in the sequence are going to be each because it’s almost always a mistake to fire all of your ammunition at once. That is in an action sequence to have people screaming and yelling and talking to each other and giant score and giant sound effects. There just are not any great movie sound sequences that are like that. You may think that they’re like that, but if you analyze the sequence, you’ll find that they’re not really like that. What they are is this carefully orchestrated changing of focus from one set of sounds, to another set of sounds, and back to the first set of sounds.
That’s what we tried to do in that sequence, in The Incredibles. You name almost any great sound sequence, whether it’s a music-driven sequence or a sound-design-driven sequence, and take a very close listen to it. You’ll find that there just is not loud music and loud sound effects happening at exactly the same time.
It’s always funny to me how many directors think that’s the case. They think that they can get away with that, and I think it’s a testament to how subjective sound is and how un-analytical we tend to be about sound. I think lots of movie directors, even directors who have made and are making great movies, really don’t understand sound very well at all. Some understand it extremely well and are very analytical about the sound in their pieces, but lots of directors are much less sophisticated about using sound than I wish they were.
The director is going to get the credit and the blame for virtually everything in the movie, and I think that’s as it should be. It’s one of the reasons that I get so upset when in award season I hear people in the press referring to picture editing, cinematography, visual effects, and sound as technical categories, as if we’re hired because we know how to turn knobs and use plugins.
In fact, the reason that people like you and I are hired is because of our judgment. Sometimes we make good judgments, sometimes not so good, but that’s why we are hired. We’re not hired because we can operate equipment quickly and proficiently. Every job these days involves computer technology. In fact, when I got the Oscar for The Incredibles, I made essentially this speech in a shorter version for my acceptance speech. We are not technicians.
HULLFISH: How can picture editors, because that’s mostly what my listeners are, how can we help you?
“In my opinion, far too many American animated films have too much dialogue.”
THOM: That’s especially a problem, by the way, with animated films. I work on lots of animated films and live-action films, and the way that at least American-style animation is typically done is that it essentially starts as a radio play with storyboards. So, because you don’t have anything that’s very compelling to look at, when the animation directors are very early in these projects and they’re showing experimental cuts to each other and to little test audiences, the temptation is to fill the soundtrack as densely as possible to try to get across what’s going on in the scene and to evoke the appropriate emotions. That’s one of the reasons that, in my opinion, far too many American animated films have too much dialogue because they write all this dialogue and they have all this dialogue early on in order to make the scene work in its temp version, but then they’re stuck with it after they have beautiful visuals and great music and great sound effects. Usually, there are very few opportunities to strip out that dialogue.
But in general, if you’re serious about using sound design in your film, I have a little list of guidelines. One is that in those sequences where you want to use sound design in a really powerful, interesting way, try to make the dialogue as sparse as possible. Directors often come to me with a scene that’s wall-to-wall dialogue asking me to kind of shoehorn sound design into it, and there’s just no way to do it successfully because we humans are obsessed with each other’s voices. So, if somebody is talking, even if you can’t understand what the person is saying because they’re speaking another language or it’s unintelligible for some other reason, your ear is going to be focused on that sound to the exclusion of almost anything else. So, there has to be dialogue-less moments, at least, in order for sound design to do what it needs to do.
“If you want to use sound really well it’s often useful to starve the eye for information.”
I would also say that there are visual styles that lend themselves to opening the door to sound. Essentially, the more mystery there is visually, the more latitude we have to do something really interesting and powerful with the sound. Slow motion, black and white, Dutch angles, smoke, fog, darkness, even if it’s just a corner of the frame that is dark, it hangs a little question mark in the air visually. Essentially, if you want to use sound really well it’s often useful to starve the eye for information and all of those things in a way are about starving the eye, about not being completely explicit visually about what’s going on.
I say that not necessarily because an editor is going to have a lot of control over whether a film is shot in black and white, et cetera… but because I do think that editors, who are often hired long before a sound designer is hired on a film, will have opportunities to lobby for these kinds of efforts in terms of the way that the film is put together that will open the door for sound.
HULLFISH: You mentioned starving the eye. I was thinking of a couple of scenes that I’ve seen in various movies where they starve the ear. What are some of the other ways or reasons why you might pull sound out?
THOM: Well, it certainly draws your attention, and it’s very context related, of course. What it draws your attention to will depend on what the shot is and what the context is, but I think it makes you focus on the visuals in a way that you wouldn’t if there were sound. Sometimes that’s absolutely the appropriate thing to do. Sometimes the best sound design is no sound or virtually no sound at all.
In film mixes, in final mixes, I’m actually often the one lobbying to get rid of sound design or to lower the sound effects because I know in that moment that the score or a line of dialogue is what’s really going to carry the heavy weight and if there’s a bunch of sound effects in the background, it’s just going to distract.
HULLFISH: Do you also think like a musician in the fact that those sounds have to have dynamics to them? You want to pull them out in one place so that they’re more evident and more powerful than another place?
THOM: Yeah, absolutely. If everything is loud, nothing is loud. You really need troughs for the waves to be significant. When I’m lucky enough to consult with a director or sometimes a writer—I’m actually these days more and more often consulting with writers about how to use sound in scripts—and there’s an action scene, let’s say it’s a group of people in the middle of a battle and they’re running from building to building being shot at and shooting at others, I’ll usually lobby to set up the scene so that there will be places of, for lack of a better term, sonic refuge. So, I’ll say, “Is there any chance that these people could hide in a shed for 10 seconds before they run. Or at least get behind some massive thing so that we can justify lowering the sound level a bit?”
There are several advantages to that. One is that it allows for the kind of dynamic range or dynamic manipulation that you’re talking about, having relatively quiet places so that when it gets loud it’ll really be much more meaningful, but it also gives an opportunity to be able to hear what the characters are saying without the explosions and glass breaking covering up the dialogue.
Once Upon a Time in the West is a real masterclass in terms of how to use sound. I often tell the story of the opening sequence in that film. Sergio Leone decided that he wanted [Ennio] Morricone his composer to compose an entire score for the film before they started shooting the film in part so that he could play it back on the set and inspire the actors.
So, Morricone did that. He wrote a score and they recorded it before principal photography began, but neither Leone nor Morricone were very happy with the first cue in the movie, the title sequence, essentially. They really didn’t know what to do about it, and then, coincidentally, Ennio Morricone went to a musique concréte concert.
Musique concréte is music using everyday objects, and in this case, I think a guy was playing a ladder by banging on it and scraping it, making all kinds of strange sounds in a more or less musical way. The little light bulb went off in Morricone’s head, and he called Sergio Leone and said, “There should be no conventional musical score in this opening at all. What you should do is shoot the opening in which these three bad guys are waiting in this very remote train stop for a guy who’s about to arrive on a train so they can kill him,” presumably in the American Southwest.
Morricone said, “You should use sound effects as music in this sequence,” and so Sergio Leone literally shot the opening sequence around sound effects. The most well-known of which is the squeaking windmill that you hear from various points of view during that sequence and is used in a really musical way. I recommend anybody who’s interested in how sound can be used in film to watch Once Upon a Time in the West.
HULLFISH: You sent me a script that you have written. It is incredibly sound-driven.
THOM: Yeah, it’s just the natural way that I approach things. Of course, it would be very strange if I wrote a script for a film that didn’t attempt to use sound, but I get myself in trouble by doing that too as a screenwriter because it’s an unconventional way to write a script.
The script that I’ve written is what’s called a spec script, a speculative script. Nobody hired me to write the script. I just wrote it and am hoping somebody will make it. Generally, the rule with spec scripts is that you should have as little description as possible in them. Keep the description of the action as straightforward and as short and simple as possible, but I just couldn’t resist. It’s a lousy spec script in that sense, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get it in front of somebody who will fall in love with it, despite all the description.
HULLFISH: Another thing that you mentioned in one of your blog posts was visually dynamic shots that allow a sound or set of sounds to evolve. When you see a shot, for example, going from a wide shot to a close-up or vice versa or a shot that traces the movement of something, what does that set off in your head as a sound designer? What can you do with that?
THOM: It’s all about dynamics, of course, and visual dynamics open the door to sound dynamics. One of the things that makes music interesting is dynamics. The journey from quiet places to louder places, back to quieter places. That kind of visual transition also allows the sound to evolve in a certain way. We certainly did that with the helicopters, once again, in Apocalypse Now.
The most difficult shot compositionally to do interesting sound design for is a medium brightly lit static shot of almost anything. Dolly shots, zoom ins and outs, et cetera, always open doors for sound to do something interesting because transitions are just inherently interesting, going from one state to another state. There’s something interesting about that. It’s a little mini journey and sound can mirror and reflect on what’s going on visually by making an analogous journey.
I love shots in films where, let’s say it’s an earthquake that’s going on, and you see a crack opening in a wall or in the ground, and then the crack begins to move and zigzag back and forth and the camera follows the crack. Wow. That’s a playground for sound and I love to encounter shots like that.
HULLFISH: What can we do as picture editors to have a better sound design or to make our initial screenings better? How can we think like sound designers?
THOM: Well, some picture editors do think very much like sound designers, some of the best sound edits that I’ve ever encountered have been done by picture editors. So, like everything else, there are picture editors who have a heck of a lot to teach me about sound, but in general, I’d say think about what the characters, the principal characters or any particular character, is hearing or what they could hear and how that can reflect who they are.
You may know the story behind The Conversation, the Coppola film, that Walter [Murch] and Richard Chew edited. This idea in the film that the Gene Hackman character, Harry Caul, mishears this recording that he’s made. He listens to it over and over again in the film and what he hears the Fred Forrest character say is, “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” He doesn’t realize until the end that the filter of his own brain has been distorting what that character said and instead what he was saying was, “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” The emphasis on “us” means he’s justifying killing this guy first, so the character who he thought was the good guy turns out actually to be a bad guy.
That idea was never in the script. It was not shot. Walter invented that idea during the cutting of the film, and it only happened because in one of the many takes that they did of Fred Forrest wandering around in union square in San Francisco having that conversation, Fred Forrest said it differently. Walter thought, “Hmm. Maybe that’s the movie.” So, he went about re-editing the whole film around this idea that the character misinterpreted something that was said in this conversation.
HULLFISH: We’ve had a couple of discussions with this recently where environment is given away by sound. For example, in Judas and the Black Messiah there’s a character in the urban Chicago area, and in his apartment, of course, it sounds very different from the white police officer that lives in the suburbs. You hear lawnmowers and fun dogs barking instead of angry dogs barking.
THOM: Yeah, we’re always thinking in those terms as sound people. We are trying to give each location in a movie a character. When we’re doing our jobs really well even the background recordings of birds and background cars, et cetera, are really meticulously edited around the dialogue and the sequences. Bird tweets are notorious for distracting you from dialogue, and so we try to be careful to not have especially songbirds directly behind important lines of dialogue. But in every way that we can think of, we’re trying to craft every sound in a given location to push the story along.
HULLFISH: Is there anything that we can do technically as picture editors that make your life easier? When we get to the sound?
THOM: I think a lot of it is just about communication. I’m always an advocate of people talking early and often about how things are going to work. Every movie is different. Every set of personalities that work on a movie is different. So, there is no one correct way to do anything.
I think one of the reasons that we at Skywalker Sound have been successful is that unlike a lot of the old Hollywood studios, who were famous for doing sound before the 1980s, we are not stuck in our ways about how we approach a given project. We listen to what the director needs, we listen to what the picture editor needs, et cetera, and we adjust whatever we’re going to do based on that.
All that said, for most picture editing suites it’s probably safe to say they monitor sound in left, center, right, configuration. So, you don’t have surround speakers and you don’t have a subwoofer. I think depending on the kind of project you’re working on, it can be really useful to have a subwoofer and surround speakers just in order to give everybody in the editing suite and the director a better sense of what the movie is likely to sound like in the end.
In the very old days of sound editing, sound people were hired at the last minute and very often an army of sound people were brought on in the two or three months prior to the movie’s release if it was a big movie. Unfortunately, their assumption was that everything that the picture editor and the director had put into the movie in terms of sound was crap, and it was their job, the sound people’s job, to start from scratch and to make it all good. That just generated all kinds of havoc because very often the director of the movie had heard very few of the sound effects before the first day of the final mix. What a stupid way to work that was.
So, we at Skywalker tried to, and I think successfully, pioneered very early on the idea that in a sense the mix of the film should begin as soon as post-production begins. Instead of thinking that it’s our job as sound people to replace everything at the end, it’s our job to help you, the editor, and the director of the film build the soundtrack appropriately from the very beginning.
We’re always advocates of having—even if it’s only one sound person involved and the person isn’t full-time but just works once in a while—have a sound person on the project from the beginning of post-production. Obviously, this is more appropriate on some kinds of movies than others. If it’s a Woody Allen movie, you probably don’t need to bring a sound designer on early because 99% of the movie is dialogue typically but, for most films, it’ll be really beneficial to have somebody who’s really concentrated on sound involved from the beginning. That person will be a great resource in terms of helping the picture department to figure out what kind of sound monitoring system and even mixing system might be beneficial for the editing suite.
HULLFISH: Is there something that we can do with our limited tools as editors in the mix? Sometimes I just don’t know what I should be doing to make a temp mix sound as good as I can make it sound.
THOM: Well, obviously, it depends on the project and it depends on where you intend to play back the temp mix, of course. If you’re just going to play it back in the editing suite, then I think there’s a lot more that you could do then if you’re going to attempt to do a mix there that you’re going to play back in a theater.
I think sonic focus is the most important thing in any mix. Most of the picture editors that I’ve worked with have known that as well or better than I do. What I mean is not falling into the trap of thinking that you have to have too many sounds playing at once.
One of the great things about sound is that one of the reasons that it’s such a powerful tool is that people, the audience, will tend to accept almost anything you give them in terms of sound. They’ll really work overtime trying to make sense of what they’re hearing given what they’re seeing. So, it’s not nearly as important as most of us think it is to fill a space with sounds when we’re mixing a film. What is important is to make sure that the elements of sound that are really going to push the story forward most strongly are heard and are not masked by other sounds. So, that’s always the most important piece of advice I give to younger mixers and to anybody who’s in a mixing situation. It should mainly be about focusing your attention on something specific unless, obviously, you’re working on a scene where the whole point is confusion. There are those, occasionally.
“I think sonic focus is the most important thing in any mix.”
HULLFISH: How would you like to work with picture editors in collaboration? You said that so often sound people are brought in late in the process. If you’re early in the process, what kind of collaboration could you and I do on a film?
THOM: Well, I was very lucky to cut my teeth in movie sound at American Zoetrope and Lucasfilm. The second film that I worked on was The Empire Strikes Back. I paid lots of dues in public radio before I got into movies, but I’ve been very lucky in my movie career in terms of landing on really interesting projects and working with great people. I was spoiled in a sense beginning on Apocalypse and then going to Empire because Coppola and Lucas love editing, and they take editing very seriously. They both really encourage collegiality, communication, and collaboration among everybody, but specifically, in this case, between picture editing departments and sound editing departments.
So, all that’s to say that my natural approach is to get involved as early as possible, to start dialogue between the sound editing team and the picture editing team as early as possible about everything, what the technical standards are going to be for turning over the sound from the picture department to the sound department, aesthetic questions of all kinds. So, the main thing is just to start talking early and talk as much as reasonably possible so that nobody makes any stupid assumptions and then is disappointed later on.
HULLFISH: What are some of the common mistakes or problems that cause you trouble in sound post that you get from picture editors?
THOM: Well, a lot of it flows from problematic production dialogue recordings. It’s virtually impossible to get the right sound on a movie set of any kind because there’s so much going on. The job of the dialogue mixer on a film is often essentially impossible, what they’re being asked to do is impossible. That is, create this seamless flow of dialogue from take to take and shot to shot where the background sounds changed completely for each take, the vocal performance changes completely from each take, et cetera… I wish I knew what I could tell a picture editor to make that process easier, but I don’t think I do.
“I wish I knew what I could tell a picture editor to make that process easier, but I don’t think I do.”
HULLFISH: Do you care about organization of tracks or is that something that someone below you like an assistant of yours takes care of before you ever see it?
THOM: Yeah, that’s not really something I’m involved with, but obviously the more separation we can establish in sound editing across a number of tracks, the more control we’re going to have in the mix, so that’s extremely important.
HULLFISH: You mentioned that sometimes picture editors are actually pretty good at sound, and one of those people, I would think, was Steve Rotter. I interviewed him for The Right Stuff, another film that you won an Oscar for, I believe. He was a sound editor, I believe, before he was a picture editor. He said his recollection on The Right Stuff was that the sound mix took months.
THOM: It did. It didn’t take as long as Apocalypse Now, which was mixed for nine months. I think that we mixed it several times in nine months. I remember the week before the Cannes Film Festival, where the film was to premiere, I officially put in 142 hours. None of us left the building for a week and we’d just go and sleep on a couch for an hour or two, and then come back and work for another 10 or 12 hours. We were all afraid he was going to collapse because he was working harder than any of the rest of us were.
But yeah, The Right Stuff mix took a while. Lots of experimenting. That’s one of the reasons that the movie sounds as good as it does. The biggest tragedy of low budgets and short schedules is that you don’t have the opportunity to try things, and if you’re going to try to do anything interesting and new, you’re going to go down dead-end streets.
HULLFISH: Rabbit holes that they have no success with.
THOM: Yeah, absolutely. You have to make mistakes. You have to have the ability to make mistakes, or the option of making mistakes, to do anything interesting. We did an enormous amount of experimenting on The Right Stuff.
I remember, for instance, that there was a big debate involving Steve Rotter and Phil Kaufman and us in the sound department over sonic perspective changes, cutting from inside the rockets or planes to outside the rockets or planes. Some of the people on our sound crew were inclined to be pretty literal about those cuts in terms of sound so that there was a pretty drastic sound change when we cut from interior plane to exterior plane. I think Steve Rotter felt that it drew too much attention to some of the picture cuts to make that big a sound change, and I think Phil felt the same way. So, we had to dial that back quite a bit. What you’ll hear if you listen to those sequences is that there are often certain sound elements that stay the same regardless of whether you’re inside the plane or outside the plane. I think Steve and Phil’s instincts were absolutely right on about that, and I think it makes those sequences flow much better.
HULLFISH: One of the other things that I remember from that movie is that the early X-1 sequences where they’re breaking the sound barrier for the first time. To be able to make that exciting, a lot of the edits are incredibly short, but the sound edits couldn’t be that short or else it would just be distracting and chaotic. So, you had to decide sound-wise, just like a picture editor has to decide picture-wise, when to cut to a different perspective.
THOM: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the sounds will continue over three or four quick shots. If you thought about it literally, you would think, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense at all. Why am I hearing the sound continue over these shots that have nothing to do with that original sound,” but it’s another testament to this idea that the audience will tend to accept whatever you give them if it’s compelling enough. The audience is certainly not analyzing the sound in every shot and thinking, “Well, does this make sense? Are we obeying all the laws of physics here?” All the audience knows is how it’s making them feel.
The fact that we all tend to not be very analytical about sound is bad in some ways because I think especially directors, editors, and sound people should be more analytical about sound when they’re working on a film than they typically are, but the other side of the coin is the fact that human beings don’t tend to be analytical about sound is really a great thing for storytelling because it allows us to get away with all kinds of tricks that we couldn’t otherwise.
It’s not important to be absolutely literal about footsteps. If you listen to the production sound in a sequence and there were people walking around on any number of surfaces, one thing you’ll notice is that you don’t even hear a lot of the footsteps. Sometimes one footstep will really stand out, sometimes you won’t hear two or three steps at all, and that’s actually the kind of foley that I usually encourage foley performers to do. In the example of footsteps, the worst kind of folly is “clip clop, clip clop,” where every footstep sounds pretty much the same. It’s not reflective at all of the way the real world sounds.
If you’re listening really closely to some of those X-1 sequences from The Right Stuff, you’ll hear elephants, horses, and tigers. Their purpose is that they make you feel—though you never realize it consciously—they make you feel like something wild and uncontrollable is going on. We blended those with the sounds of the rockets and the jet sounds. You try to mix those kinds of elements at a level where they’re not so obvious that somebody will say, “Wait a minute, where’s the elephant? I don’t see an elephant anywhere up in the sky here,” but once again, it’s amazing how much you can get away with.
In The Incredibles, the evil kind of flying saucer-like vehicles that some of the bad guys fly around in the film needed to sound fast and dangerous, and I really puzzled for a while about what kind of sound I could use as a basis for those things. Finally, I just happened to be listening to some recordings of F1 race cars, and decided to try those. It seemed to work really well, but I was paranoid right up to the time the movie was released that everybody was going to say, “Wait a minute. That’s an F1 race car. It’s not a flying saucer,” but not a single person ever asked me about that. I guess they were subtle enough in the mix so that they had their effect without you realizing what they were.
You’re always trying to make engine sounds of any kind as distinctive and attention-getting as possible, but you also want them to have a kind of emotional component. So, if you mix elephants or bear roars or pigs into a sound like that, if that animal vocalization is intense enough, it’ll evoke a feeling of wildness and something fierce and scary. That’s really always the main thing you’re after. The main thing you’re after is not to present a perfectly recorded X-1 flight. You might want to do that if you were doing a documentary about X-1’s or about experimental planes, but even then most documentaries have stylized sounds in them as well.
I guarantee you when you see the nature documentary that has the little mouse or vole running along the forest floor, there was no microphone when the camera was rolling that was picking up the sound of that mouse’s footsteps. That’s all fake. I’m sorry to reveal it.
HULLFISH: Since you brought up documentaries, you were a sound consultant on American Factory. What are some of the things that you would have advised on a documentary ahead of the mix, or was it during the mix?
THOM: It was before the mix and during the mix. I met Julia Reichert, one of the directors of the movie, in 1972 at the Antioch College in Ohio, and I’ve known her husband, Steve Bognar for a long time too. So, it was great that we got to collaborate again. It kind of completes a circle for me because I began doing sound work there in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which is where they still live. So, to be able to work with them again was great.
I began talking with Steve and Julia pretty early about the sound for that film, and they’re kind of natural sound gatherers anyway, so I didn’t really need to tell them this, but one thing I always tell documentary makers is to just record as much sound as you can even if the camera’s not rolling, just record everything that you can record because recording space is cheap and you just never know what you might pick up that will be useful in the cut. The bigger library you have to draw on, the better. Depending on what the documentary is, a lot of those sounds may be really difficult to reproduce in post-production, so it’s much better to pick them up while you’re there in that location.
The machinery inside the factory was an important element, and so I certainly encouraged them to specifically record as much of that as they could. I’m always a fan of sound recorded with a microphone on a boom, as opposed to lavalier microphones. Sometimes you just can’t get usable sound on a boom in a noisy situation and so you have to rely on lavaliers and wireless connections, but I think the sound that you get from a mic on a boom is much more natural and feels more cinematic to me. So, I certainly encourage them to use boom mikes whenever they can.
HULLFISH: Randy, thank you for giving me so much of your valuable time. I really appreciate these insights into sound. I encourage everybody to check out your blog. Can you give us the URL?
THOM: Yeah, randythomblog.wordpress.com
HULLFISH: Thank you so much for your time and I hope someday that you and I get to work together.
THOM: Yeah, that would be great. It’s been my pleasure. Thanks a lot.