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Music, Sound, and Audio Technology

Sound Advice: An Interview with Randy Thom

By Wynona Luz
posted May 3, 2013, 16:23

Two-time Academy Award-winning Sound Pioneer Randy Thom Discusses the Simplicity of Great Sound Design and His Process for Animated Movie The Croods

How did you get started in sound designing and editing?

Randy Thom: I volunteered in a public radio station, learned how to use the technology, and started producing little sound pieces. In the mid-1970’s, I made a lucky call to Walter Murch, who hired me to work on Apocalypse Now.

What are some of your favorite or most unique experiences working in the recording studio?

Randy Thom: Many of my favorite experiences happened outside of a recording studio. I remember recording Tom Hanks yelling for help in the parking lot of our facility. It was for his character in Cast Away. People nearby thought he actually needed help, and were surprised to find that it was Tom Hanks.

In your own words, how would you describe your role as the supervising sound editor for The Croods?

Randy Thom: My job was to help the directors figure out how the movie should sound. The director of a film almost always has some idea of what the sound style of a film should be, but those ideas always evolve, and there are a several thousand details that have to be worked out. For example, one of my jobs on The Croods was to come up with a vocal sound for Sandy, the baby in the family. The directors wanted Sandy to sound feral, like a little half-wild animal, but I had to put that into concrete form.

How do you go about telling story through sound? What is your pre-production and development process like?

Randy Thom: I try to get involved as early as possible on every project, ideally while the script is still being written, so that I can offer sound ideas that will affect the look of certain scenes and will also open doors for sound design in the story. I believe it’s always a good idea to have someone producing sounds and experimenting with sounds from the very beginning, even in pre-production.

What tools and technologies did you use during editing and post production?

Randy Thom: Fewer than you might think. I try to keep the technology as simple as possible. Technology is only a tool, and often it’s a tool that gets in the way of creativity rather than enhancing it. Great sound design doesn’t come from being a tech geek. It comes from creative experimentation, intuitions about what the story needs in the way of sound, and focusing only on what is dramatically important at any given moment. A digital audio workstation isn’t any more responsible for great sound design than a piece of screenwriting software is responsible for a great screenplay.

What would you say is the biggest difference between sound editing in animation and live action movies?

Randy Thom: The processes for sound effects are surprisingly very similar. The big difference is in dialogue.  Animated films begin as a kind of radio play. Just the sound of the actor’s voices, a few sound effects, and pieces of temporary music accompanying very simple drawings, usually storyboards. The dialogue recorded for live action films usually has lots of ambient noise, sometimes so much that you can’t hear what the actors are saying, and it varies in loudness and quality from shot to shot in ways that make edits very problematic. You cut from one shot to another during a conversation, and suddenly you hear lots more wind because the wind was blowing more on that shot. Those kinds of discontinuities are very difficult to deal with in live action dialogue editing.

If you could share three sound designing tips what would they be?

Randy Thom: (1) Don’t fall so in love with your gadgets that you overuse them.
(2) Learn to listen to your director at least as attentively as you listen to sound effects.
(3) Simplify. Always simplify.

What are some of your current projects?

Randy Thom: I’m finishing an animated feature called Epic at the moment. It’s a Fox/Blue Sky project.

As a sound professional in the movie industry, could you share some inspiration, insights or advice for filmmakers, sound designers and storytellers all over the world?

Randy Thom: Sound is usually treated as a third class citizen within the filmmaking community, and that’s a tragedy not only for us sound people but for film storytelling too. Sound design is an enormously powerful tool when used well, by filmmakers who take it seriously enough to treat it as a full collaborator, just as they would treat visual design. That means thinking very deeply about sound starting with the screenplay.


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