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Academy Award-winning sound designer shares sound-making secrets

Sound designer Gary Rydstrom stepped up to the podium to begin his keynote address for Sonic Boom, the 2014 Lambert Family Communications Conference, clicked in the direction of the screen and instructed the audio technician to “Crank it.”

Rydstrom, known for his sound orchestration for such films as Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park,  Terminator 2, Titanic, War Horse and Star Wars, likes sound and he likes it loud. During his talk November 15 to a filled auditorium in Annie May Swift Hall, Rydstrom made the case for paying more attention to sound.

“For those of us lucky enough to hear,” he said, “sound is taken for granted.”

The best filmmakers tell one part of the story with visuals, he said, and another with the soundtrack. The scene in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot was his example: the camera remained close and tight on the actors’ faces in the submarine as we hear the sound of bolts popping on the ship.

Rydstrom’s keynote marked the end of the first day of the eighth annual Lambert Family Communication Conference in the Northwestern University School of Communication. This year’s theme, Sonic Boom: Sustaining Sound Studies, explored the emerging area of the study and practice of sound in culture and society, artistic expression and brain science.

“Rydstrom was an ideal keynote for this year’s conference because he spoke to all three of its themes,” said Jacob Smith, associate professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film and faculty organizer of the conference. Smith introduced Rydstrom as one of the most respected and influential sound designers of the past twenty years whose distinctive approach to sound has shaped the way we listen to the world.

A seven-time Academy Award winner, Rydstrom brought a wide selection of film clips and spilled a good many sound secrets. He noted that most compelling sounds are real rather than synthesized, and they are not what one would think. Among the examples he brought were the sounds for incoming and outgoing artillery in Saving Private Ryan in which his team used copper bowls and a vacuum on carpeted stairs; the bumping sound of a MRI machine for Mission Impossible; puppy growls for an alien in Lifted; and a combination trees falling, a koala bear, an angry goose, a baby elephant, a mating tortoise, a dolphin, a lizard and sounds he made with his own voice for approaching dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

“Sound has a personality and it’s an excellent carrier of emotion,” he said before showing a clip of the Pixar Studios luxo lamp short from 1986 in which two lamps interact with a rubber ball and each other. “I thought long and hard about what a sad lamp would sound like,” Rydstrom said.

“It doesn’t matter what a sound is, only how it makes you feel,” he said.

Rysdtrom’s sound engineering savvy has also been used in the operating system world, specifically the Apple’s OS series. Among the sounds he recorded that users hear day-to-day was the sound of paper crunching for emptying the trash, hitting an old film reel for incoming mail, cards shuffling for volume, and his own breath into the microphone for removing an application from the dock.

“It pays to keep your ears open,” he said. “You find unexpected treasures.”

From left, RTVF Department Chair David Tolchinsky, Gary Rydstrom, Jacob Smith

During a short question and answer session, Rydstrom said that though he keeps a detailed index of sounds that he has made or collected over the years, he sees a role for scientifically selected sound in the future. In response to the question what silence sounded like, he referred to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in which there is only 40 minutes of dialogue in the 161-minute film and the more recent Interstellar, which contains scenes where the background sound goes blank, and one poignant sound is highlighted.

Smith said that Rydstrom’s keynote dovetailed beautifully with the mission of the day which was to “think about how the field of sound studies might interact with a range of scholarly fields and initiatives, how it might reach beyond the academy to engage with sound artists, professionals and industries, and how it might take root and grow in a university setting like Northwestern’s School of Communication.”

Rydstrom is a native of Elmhurst, Illinois, and his parents are Northwestern alumni, who Rydstrom says were devastated when he chose to attend the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema. But the chance to return to his home state and give a keynote at Northwestern “heals a wound in my family,” Rydstrom said, “especially on a subject so near and dear to my heart.”

-Ellen Blum Barish (C81, GJ84)