January 6, 2015

SCA Alumni Stories: Gary Rydstrom

Gary Rydstrom ’81 is a seven-time Academy Award winner for his pioneering work in sound on such films as Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Rydstrom makes his feature debut as a writer-director on the Lucasfilm animated musical Strange Magic, which releases in theaters on January 23. Juggling a full slate of work in the sound room with his “new” career, Rydstrom recently discussed his unique journey as a storyteller.

Gary Rydstrom

Can you talk about the genesis of Strange Magic, and how you came to be involved? Strange Magic is an animated project that George Lucas had been thinking about and working on for a while.  He wanted to use classic songs to help tell an unusual fairytale love story.  When I returned to Lucasfilm after working at Pixar, the timing was right for me to take over the film.  This old sound guy, who fought with many a composer to get his sound effects heard, had to quickly learn how to make a musical.  Such is karma.  

The movie looks like it appeals to adults as well as to kids. What was the tone you were going for in the film? I’m told by experts that the movie appeals most to kids -- but songs, fairytales, and good love stories are universal, so I want everyone to see it.  Princess Bride was an inspiration, as were old Hollywood romantic comedies.  The artists at Lucasfilm are uniquely able to create detailed, rich, imaginative worlds and characters, which we use to illustrate a story about discovering beauty in the darkest places.  Even though Strange Magic pulls from traditional fairytales and musicals, it doesn’t look or sound like any other animated movie.

You’ve had an amazing career as a sound designer. Can you talk about your desire to be a writer and director as well, and how you pursued that over the years? How satisfying is it to have now made a feature film? It isn’t the usual – or suggested -- path, but my career as a sound designer amazingly gave me chances to write and direct, at Pixar and at Lucasfilm.  My time at USC Cinema gave me a chance in hell of pulling it off.  I always approach sound as a storyteller, so it feels natural to write stories.  And I’m full of stubborn opinions, so it feels natural to direct.  The experience of making and completing Strange Magic has been… magical.

What surprised you the most about your experience as a writer-director? I was most frightened about working with actors.  I’m not an actor.  I don’t have the talent or temperament.  But I found working with actors to be an emotional and energizing experience.  Creating characters by working with gifted actors has been a revelation.  And in my short directing career, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have worked with some of the best actors out there.  This is one definition of directing: figuring out how to work with many people who do something you could never, ever do.

Are you planning to write and direct other projects now? I’ve got a busy year of sound work ahead of me, working with Brad Bird, JJ Abrams, and Steven Spielberg.  I’ll be secretly stealing all their best directing habits.

Was it difficult for you to let other people handle sound on Strange Magic? Could you take a step back from it? It was important for me NOT to mix Strange Magic.  As a re-recording mixer, I often try to keep the director out of the mix as long as possible, so he/she can remain objective and not get lost in the ridiculously dense weeds of the mix.  I developed many devious tricks for doing so.  On my movie, I had to kick myself out.  Making this easier for me, my lead mixer was Tom Johnson, who I went to USC with, and who mixed by first 310.  I trusted him then.  I could trust him now.

Let's go back to your days at USC. What do you remember most fondly from your time on campus? What things did you learn that you still use today in your work? The film program at USC has long and famously brought students together, forcing them into feral packs in which they had to learn how to encourage each other, and how to teach each other, and how to become a cohesive crew.  Working in film is never a solitary thing.  Knowing how to bring out the best in each other is a key to good filmmaking. 

You’re the Re-Recording Mixer on Star Wars: Episode VII. Anything you can tell us about the project or your work on it? It’s gonna be awesome!