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Oscars: Sound Guru Randy Thom on His 20-Year 'Soapbox' and His Craziest Creation (Q&A)

Randy Thom Oscars - H 2013
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Thom (right) and Michael Silvers (pictured with presenter Salma Hayek) won best sound editing for "The Incredibles" in 2005.

Skywalker Sound's veteran sound designer/rerecording mixer — who worked on Oscar hopefuls "The Croods" and "Epic" — talks to THR about creating sound for imaginary creatures, balancing the real with the fantasy and working on live-action vs. animation.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's November stand-alone.

Skywalker sound's veteran sound designer/rerecording mixer Randy Thom has earned 14 Oscar nominations, winning Academy Awards for The Incredibles and The Right Stuff. His credits also include the Star Wars installments The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Flight, The Polar Express, How to Train Your Dragon, Forrest Gump, Ratatouille and a pair of Harry Potter films.

This year, Thom, 62, also director of sound design at Skywalker, worked on two Oscar hopefuls, DreamWorks Animation's The Croods and Blue Sky Studios' Epic. In February, he will be the recipient of the Motion Picture Sound Editors Career Achievement Award, whose recipients have included two of his mentors, Walter Murch and Ben Burtt.

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Your résumé includes both live-action and animated films. What are the differences in approach? Do you prefer one over the other?

I like operating in both worlds. My approach to animation is very similar to live action, but the big difference is there's a kind of open door in animation that doesn't quite exist in live action. Animated films begin basically as radio plays. Filmmakers use a sound recording of the actors' voices as the starting point for the animation, and we'll combine it with storyboards and more elaborate drawings. To make those very early experimental scenes work, they really need sound effects. In animation you need to think about sound very early on. This coincides with a soapbox I've been on for the past 20 years: Sound should be treated more like a full collaborator in the filmmaking. Sound ideas should be allowed to affect creative decisions in all the other crafts, starting in preproduction. That's one of the reasons I have enjoyed so much working in animation -- in a way there's a clearer path to sound being a full collaborator.

In The Croods you created a prehistoric world with unique animals -- the Macawnivore, a turkey fish, a bear owl. How did you approach sound for these imaginary creatures?

The idea for a lot of the creatures is they were hybrids between several species. Most of the sounds that we used to make the vocalizations were recordings of real animals. For the Macawnivore -- a combination of a bird and a tiger -- we recorded macaws, tigers and leopards, and I recorded my own voice. With almost every one of these creatures, my voice is one of the elements. It's partly because each is a character with a range of emotions -- sometimes they need to sound fierce, or charming or comical. If you go out and record a tiger or leopard, they may sound fierce, but they're not likely to sound comical. I will imitate the sound of the leopard or tiger but give it a twist with the needed emotion.

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Did you have a favorite in this film?

Sandy [the youngest member of the Croods family] is a combination of my voice and several puppies growling, gurgling and having play fights. She's a feisty creature that is almost a feral human being. She might have been the most fun character because she is quirky, weird and funny.

Epic takes place in a forest, but within it is a microscopic fantasy world inhabited by characters such as Leafmen. How did you balance the real with the fantasy?

It was very important to [director] Chris Wedge that all the sounds in the forest be believable. So we used natural, organic sounds that you would find in a real forest and just modified them enough to put an exotic twist on them. It was fun jumping back and forth between the normal-size and miniature world. When we go into the perspective of these tiny creatures, suddenly the humans are giants. For the scene when the microscopic characters go into the [normal-size] Dad's lab, the father moves very slowly. Normally that kind of visual is associated with a very large creature. We slowed and pitched his voice down to match the movements. Then in the small people's world, everything sounds normal again.

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What's the craziest sound you've ever created?

This year was the 30th anniversary of The Right Stuff, so I screened the movie and was reminded of lots of things. One is when Chuck Yeager first flies the X-1 to try to break the sound barrier; we needed a set of sounds for the X-1 that would make it seem like something completely out of control was happening. We recorded various jets; those sounds were useful but weren't quite edgy or exotic enough. I brought a microphone and tape recorder to my child's classroom when no one was there, and recorded my fingernails and chalk on the blackboard squealing in the most god-awful way. It became one of the main elements in the jet-plane rocket blast as he accelerates.

What films or sound professionals have been your biggest influences?

I worked in public radio and music for a few years, then made a really lucky phone call to Walter Murch, who hired me to work on my first film, Apocalypse Now. That was my film school. Then I went on to work with Ben Burtt (on The Empire Strikes Back). I couldn't have chosen a better set of doors to walk through.