The Cinematography Podcast Episode 123: Randy Thom

Randy Thom feels it’s important for the sound elements of a film to be present right from the start, at the script writing stage. Sound is an important tool for a filmmaker because it “sneaks into the side door to your brain” and enhances the emotional impact of the film. As George Lucas once told Randy, sound is 50% of the movie experience. After working in the sound department on over 150 projects and winning two Oscars, Randy has helped elevate motion picture sound into an art form, and is often involved in the creative process right from the beginning. He thinks it’s important for the sound production mixer to be as involved in preproduction with the director as the DP and production designer are, in order to think about the sound possibilities within the movie.

Randy stumbled into sound design later in life, starting out in college radio, then moving to the Bay Area in the 1970’s to work professionally in public radio. Once he saw the movie Star Wars, it changed his life, and Randy decided he really wanted to transition from radio into film. Through a friend, he managed to get in touch with Walter Murch, who worked as a film editor and sound designer at Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios. He sat in on a remixing session of American Graffiti, and Walter Murch next hired him to work on Apocalypse Now as a field sound recordist, where he spent his time recording sound for a year and a half. Randy began working in sound at a time when Northern California filmmakers George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Phil Kaufman had a shared philosophy that fresh sounds should be collected for each project.

Each movie should have its own sound style, which can be difficult to articulate to a director, much as a cinematographer talks to the director about the visual style. Sound styles are audio look books for your ears. For example, when Randy created the auditory experience for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, he had to think about what elements would create the sounds of magic, which had to be based in the natural world. Things disappear and reappear through the transporter in a Star Trek movie as well, but the sound style is distinctly electronic and digital. The sounds used for a transporter would be jarring in a Harry Potter movie.

After Apocalypse Now, Randy was asked to record sound effects for Star Wars Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back with supervising sound editor Ben Burtt. They needed to find the right sound elements for the Imperial Walkers. Randy found metal factories through the phone book, and was able to go record metal sheer noise from the factory in person. The metal noises Randy recorded comprise about 90% of the Imperial Walker sound effect.

For the Robert Zemeckis movie Contact, sound plays an important role. Jodie Foster’s character, a scientist listening for alien life in the universe, finally hears an alien signal. Randy and Zemeckis had to decide what that extraterrestrial signal would sound like. As the sound designer, Randy had input in preproduction early on and gave Zemeckis his take on how much sound to use in the visual sequences traveling through space.

There was little dialog in the film The Midnight Sky, so Randy could collaborate closely with composer Alexandre Desplat. Randy integrated radio signal sounds with the score, so that it would sound interesting but not conflict harmonically with the music. For the dramatic ice breaking sequence in the film, they knew they needed an organic, natural sound, so he accessed the sound library at Skywalker Sound, using several types of ice breaking, even reaching out through contacts to find sound recordists who could get the raw recordings of breaking ice that were then layered and pitch manipulated to help them stand out and not just become background noise.

You can see The Midnight Sky streaming on Netflix.

Read Randy Thom’s tips for sound design on his blog.

Find Randy on Twitter: @randythom and at Skywalker Sound

Close Focus: The end of the Technicolor brand. Technicolor has been acquired by Streamland Media.

Ben’s short end: Zappa, the documentary directed by Alex Winter, is about Frank Zappa as an obsessive artist and musician. It’s very engaging and very well done. You can see Zappa streaming on Hulu.

Illya’s short end: Tilta, a company known for making low-cost gear, now has an EVF extension cable for the BlackMagic Pocket Cinema 6k Pro to enable the user to move the viewfinder on the camera where you wish.

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