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November 2014
Issue: December 1, 2012

Sound designer Gary Rydstrom details 'Wreck-It Ralph' and 'Lincoln'

By: Marc Loftus
SAN RAFAEL, CA — For Academy Award-winning sound designer and film mixer Gary Rydstrom (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park, Titanic), 2012 was a busy year. He lent his talents to the animated hits Brave and Wreck- It Ralph, as well as to Steven Spielberg’s historical live-action drama Lincoln. The films actually represent several years of thought and development from a sound design perspective, with Rydstrom moving back and forth from project to project as each moved forward in production and post.

Here, we go one-on-one with the veteran audio pro, who is already thinking about his next project — The Lone Ranger — which is due for release in the summer of 2013.

Post: Do you have the luxury of focusing on one film at a time?
Gary Rydstrom: “They definitely overlap. Doing sound design for a film, you are never going to get hired for the whole stretch. When I worked on Pixar’s Brave, I started thinking about the sound for that years ago. I would do other projects and then come back to it once the editing crew starts and once we mix. They overlap, which makes the job fun. 

“When I am mixing and am at the console, that tends to be full-time, and it’s hard to do anything else. Most of the year I am kind of juggling a few different shows at the same time.”

Post: How does the workflow for an animated project differ from that of a live-action film?
Rydstrom: “A good animation picture editor will be cutting sound effects even when you are looking at storyboards. Pixar and Disney are particularly good at this. They cut a complete and wonderful temp track as early as possible because it’s part of the storytelling. I am glad they do. I want to give them effects as early as possible that help tell the story.

“They are almost place holders for a while. Then the animation comes in and when that is finishing, that’s when the sound editing crew fully starts, and you have three, four, five people cutting on the movie. That’s when you start putting things in absolute sync and hope it still works. There are two phases for animation: the really early phase, with the design and concepts; and then you have the weeks before the mix, where the editing crew is working in parallel to try to get it all ready for the mix.”

Post: Sound, and dialogue specifically, really drives the animation process?
Rydstrom: “They are animating to dialogue, which everyone knows. With that dialogue track, even early on before the animation, we get a sense of the rhythm of a scene, even though it’s not animated. The couple of times that I have directed animation, I would use sound effects as a way of thinking, ‘This is how I want the animation to hit these poses.’”

Post: Did Skywalker Sound provide full service audio?
Rydstrom: “For Lincoln, the final mix was done in LA. But Wreck-It Ralph and Brave were fully done under our roof at Skywalker.”

Post: Do you prefer animation over live action?
Rydstrom: “I tell people who are starting out in sound to do sound for animated films — it’s a lot of fun. You have to do a lot, but you tend to have more leeway in the choices that you make. 

 “From the moment I heard the premise of Wreck-It Ralph, I thought it would be fun. Going inside a videogame and trying to imagine what an old 1980’s game might sound like, let alone what it might sound like on the inside? It reminded me of how excited I got when I worked on Toy Story years ago and thought this is fun — what toys do when we are not looking. So the premise of Wreck-It Ralph got me excited from the get-go, and that’s the kind of thing you can only do with an animated film. I love that and I love the freedom. With Wreck-It Ralph and Brave, the importance of the sound is so high that you feel that you are a real part of the success of the film, because the film is dead without good sound.”

Post: What was your role on each film?
Rydstrom: “I was a sound designer and co-supervisor with Frank Eulner on Wreck-It Ralph. That one was mixed by Gary Rizzo and David Fluhr. For Brave, I was sound designer and co-supervisor. I mixed that one with Tom Johnson.”

Post: Lincoln’s sound was completely different, going more for historical accuracy?
Rydstrom: “That was sound design by Ben Burtt, who is one of my heroes and a mentor to me. He decided that he would be as accurate with the sound in that movie as possible, so he found Lincoln’s actual pocket watch and recorded that. He found the actual clock that was in Lincoln’s office and recorded that. He recorded the doors of the White House that were there in the 1860s... The beauty of the sound design in Lincoln is not that he created a whole new world, but that he was able to recreate the world as he imagined Lincoln would have heard it. It was a whole different approach than what we would usually take. Andy Nelson and I mixed  the movie.” (For more on Burtt’s sound design for Lincoln, see page 34 in our November issue.)

Post: What format are you mixing for these days?
Rydstrom: “All of the movies this year are 7.1, with four surround channels. That has become fairly standard for movies, and with Brave we went the extra step. It was the first film in the Dolby Atmos format, which includes ceiling speakers and fuller range surrounds that are a little more accurate. We did a special mix of Brave in Atmos.”

 
Post: How does Atmos affect your approach to panning?
Rydstrom: “When surrounds came in, people generally loathed putting dialogue in the surrounds. But the key to Atmos for dialogue [is] the surrounds are fuller range than traditional surrounds. When you pull into the surrounds in an existing 5.1 or 7.1 set-up, they are a little less high fidelity than the fronts. Atmos fixes that, so if you pull dialogue off the screen, it doesn’t sound different. And because the surrounds are a little more fine tuned, you can pan to a specific point in the theater.
“In Brave, the characters would go off screen and we would pan the dialogue just a little bit off screen — just a little to the surrounds in the right or the left. Atmos allows us to start pulling dialogue off the screen in ways that we wouldn’t dare before.”

Post: What are you working on tool-wise?
Rydstrom: “Pro Tools. That’s definitely what we cut with. We mix on an AMS Neve DFC console. That’s something we’ve been doing for years. That’s a digital console, and we even record onto Pro Tools.”

Post: What’s next?
Rydstrom: “I am doing sound design for The Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp. I am in the early stages, so I don’t know what I am in for yet. I really wanted to do it and the reason is, in my long career, I never really did a western. Westerns are the greatest sounding movies ever! You can’t beat a western, and I never got to do one. So I am going to take this as my opportunity to do the western as I see a western should be done — whatever that means.”