Oscar-winning sound ?designer to deliver an earful at HannaBoys Center
“Sound is very mysterious to most people,” says Randy Thom, an acclaimed veteran Hollywood sound designer. “Particularly movie sound, even to those people who consider themselves movie buffs. There’s a general notion that there’s a microphone on the set that picks up the voices of the actors, and that music is added at some point, but beyond that, most people don’t have much of a clue about how sound is actually created for a film.”
How, then, are movie sounds manufactured?
That’s what Thom will be illustrating and describing, in entertaining detail, when he appears at Hanna Boys Center on Monday, Dec. 5, at 7 p.m., as part of the ongoing Sonoma Speaker Series.
Thom, who won Oscars for his work on 1984’s “The Right Stuff” and 2005’s “The Incredibles,” has designed or recorded sound and sound effects for more than 100 films since his first job on Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” He’s received numerous Oscar nominations, including nods for such diverse films as “Return of the Jedi,” “Never Cry Wolf,” “Backdraft,” “Forrest Gump,” “Ratatouille” and “The Revenant.”
During his appearance in Sonoma, Thom will be talking about how artists like himself manipulate sound to tell engaging and believable cinematic stories. In a presentation he promises will be anything but “technical,” Thom will be giving an insider description of how droids are made to beep and clank, firestorms seem to groan and rumble and angry bears – even computer-generated bears – are given a jarring and terrifying roar.
“There will be a lot of behind-the-scenes secrets revealed,” Thom hints. “I’ve worked on a lot of well-known films, so of course I’ll be showing clips from quite a few of those. I’ll also do a demonstration, something a little like a magic trick, involving some dry ice.”
Dry ice, it turns out, is often a professional sound designer’s best friend. It’s one of the many tricks he employed on “The Right Stuff” while creating the white-knuckle sequence where Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier. The unsettling shrieking and wailing of dry ice as it melts gave the scene an edgy, frightening, out-of-control feeling that added greatly to its intensity.
“You can use dry ice to make some pretty extraordinary sounds,” Thom says. “And I’m going to demonstrate that. It’s going to be fun.”
While working on “Apocalypse Now,” a job he got after years working in public radio with the likes of John McChesney – who will be interviewing him during the Sonoma event – Thom was baptized in the fire of live sound design: recording helicopters, explosions, gun fire, and even the sound of a water buffalo being decapitated (though that infamous scene’s sacrificial ceremony is rendered soundless in the final cut of the film, with only the Doors’ music to give the scene its auditory power).
“That was an amazing experience,” he says of “Apocalypse Now.” “From the beginning, Coppola had a vision of how to use sound ideas to shape the story he was putting together, literally designing the sound of some sequences as the script was being written.”
Some portions of the film, of course – including the aforementioned buffalo sacrifice – were never dreamed of until the crew was on the set working with indigenous people, who killed the bull on the last day of shooting as part of their own celebrations.
“One of the other classic moments in the film,” Thom says, “is the scene where Willard, the Martin Sheen character, is lying in his bed in the crappy Saigon hotel, looking up at the ceiling fan. But instead of hearing a ceiling fan, he’s hearing helicopter blades. It’s that kind of thinking that was written right into the screenplay. And that’s pretty rare in movies, even today.”
Another film where a very specific sound-design was embedded in the script was Ron Howard’s firefighting drama “Backdraft,” in which the most intense scenes suggested that the fire was alive, growling and hissing like a monster. So, what kind of high-tech gadgetry was employed to make those sounds?
“We used our voices, actually, in addition to other things, in creating those fire monster sounds,” he says. “Ron Howard wanted the fire to sound like it was breathing, so we breathed and moaned, and then combined those sounds with actual fire sounds.”
Similar techniques were used on Alejandro Inarritu’s “The Revenant,” in manufacturing the hyper-realistic sounding bear vocalizations for the scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio is mauled by a massive grizzly.
“That was me,” Thom says. “We had some actual bear recordings, but probably one-quarter of those bear vocalizations were made by me. I used those sounds to fill in the gaps of what I had in terms of actual bear sounds. Fortunately, I’m a big guy with a deep voice, so I was somewhat believable as a 500-pound bear.”
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences clearly thought so; Thom received an Oscar nomination last year for his work on that film. With any luck, he’ll be persuaded to demonstrate that acclaimed bear impersonation when he appears on Dec. 5, to share more stories of how sounds are made by the inventive artists who bring noise, commotions, explosions and roars to the world of motion pictures.
Email David at firstname.lastname@example.org.