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Randy Thom

26 June 12 words: Liam Forrest
One of the pioneers of film sound design on what exactly it is that he does
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Randy Thom is a double Oscar winning sound designer and is the current director of sound design with Lucasfilm. He has spent over thirty years working in sound design and is one of the most highly respected sound designers in the film industry. For those who don’t immediately recognise his name you will almost certainly have seen films that Randy has been involved in, with his CV boasting such titles as The Incredibles, Forrest Gump, Ice Age 2, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

What brings you to Nottingham?
The Institute for Screen Industry Research at Nottingham University invited me to come to talk. The institute is interested in fostering collaborations between academics and people in the movie business and other screen industries. My particular interest is in collaboration within film is figuring out better ways for the various crafts on a film to collaborate with each other, give each other ideas, to tell better stories. So that’s why I’m here in Nottingham.

Your primary job is as a sound designer – what does that entail? It sounds quite abstract and I don’t think that many people know what a sound designer actually does…
(Laughs) Including a lot of people in the movie business. The role of sound design varies, sometimes the sound designer does nothing except make sounds. For instance, somebody has to come up with the sounds that spaceships make in a film - you can’t just keep reusing sounds from other films, every film needs new original sounds. In a more realistic film that requires a very evocative kind of wind sound then the sound designer might try to come up with an emotional, really powerful sound of wind blowing through trees or blowing through wires, for example.

But there’s a grander notion of the role that was first suggested by two people in the seventies - both of whom were mentors of mine, Walter Murch and Ben Burtt - who are legends. They thought on each film there should be a person, the sound designer, who would supervise the sound all the way from pre-production, collaborating with the screenwriter, all the way through production and into post-production, where the film is edited. Normally people think of sound design as something that only happens in post-production but Walter, Ben, myself and a few other people have been trying to spread the idea that sound shouldn’t be restricted to post-production and sound ideas should influence decisions in the other crafts much earlier than that.

You have worked closely with Robert Zemeckis on a number of films - Castaway, Forrest Gump, What Lies Beneath – does a good relationship with a director help the collaboration from an early stage?
Absolutely, it helps the director to tell a better story. One example is Contact that starred Jodie Foster playing an astronomer who is looking for extra-terrestrial intelligence and she makes a journey through a wormhole into another universe. There were early visual effects experiments done for the way that she sees stars flying by as she’s going through this process, I thought it would be very difficult to do sound for, basically because there were too many things flying by all the time. I knew it was just going to be a wall of sound, which wouldn’t be very interesting, so I suggested to Mr Zemeckis that it would be much more powerful if there were fewer bright lights and stars flying by as she goes through the wormhole. He agreed, and I think that is a good example of how somebody coming from a sound perspective can have a positive influence on creative decisions in another craft.

You have written quite extensively about the role of sound in movies, in particular how it is often overlooked in favour of the visuals - do you think this has started to get better in recent years?
I do think that the status of sound is rising a little bit and people are taking it a bit more seriously. I’m working with the Sundance Institute in Utah where they bring together young filmmakers and help them come up with film stories and fine tune the ideas that they already have. Every time I work with those directors I am more optimistic because they are so open to these kinds of ideas about sound and they’re not necessarily stuck in the old traditional, conventional way of doing things. So, yeah I think things are changing for sound in a positive way.

The first feature you worked on was Apocalypse Now - how did that come about?
I’d been doing radio plays and a variety of other things in radio in the US, and in the mid-seventies I got interested in working on film sound. I was living in San Francisco and Francis Coppola, George Lucas and Walter Murch had come down there in the sixties to establish a filmmaking community because they didn’t want to work in Los Angeles. I’d spent about a year banging my head against the usual walls that are put up to keep people out of the movie business and then I finally made the lucky phone call to Walter Murch. I called him out of the blue and said I’d done lots of sound work but I’d never actually worked on a movie and he said, ”Why don’t you come down and watch what we’re doing?” At that point they were re-mixing American Graffiti into stereo, so I watched them do that in the dubbing stage one day, and at the end Walter asked me to write an essay about what I’d seen and heard. He liked what I wrote so the giant, amazing film Apocalypse Now was the first film I worked on.

Do you think it is harder or easier for someone to get that kind of opportunity in the film industry nowadays?
I don’t know, to tell you the truth, whether it is any easier now. I think it has always been difficult to get in at any level - sometimes we say it’s the test for whether you are going to survive once you get in. If you are persistent enough and clever enough to get in, in the first place then you will stand a better chance of surviving in a pretty tough industry: if it were easy to get in then lots of people who got in would very quickly fail and be very disappointed. You’re always judged on the last thing you worked on, even after you’ve been established, if you look, there are lots of directors who’ve made one or two good successful films who have then just disappeared for a variety of reasons. So even after you make it through the looking glass into the movie business you have to be persistent and resilient, let insults roll off your shoulders and keep optimistic.

As more and more young people get drawn towards careers in the film industry, where do you think the future of sound design lies?
I think it’s all about collaboration, which is what I’m talking about this week in Nottingham. Sound tends to get pigeon-holed as a technical thing, an engineering practice. Sound people are often referred to as engineers and though, like people in most crafts these days, you have to be a bit of an engineer and know a bit about technology. But the most important thing you do is make artistic decisions; you need to figure out whether a sound is appropriate in a given scene and that’s really what I’m hired to do, I’m not hired to operate the equipment. So I think, though I’m very happy about all the multi-channel systems that are being developed for theatres, I think that shouldn’t be where the focus of sound is. The focus should be in finding new ways to collaborate as early as possible on a film project, so that sound can actually be an important part of the story.

Randy Thom will be at Broadway on Friday 29 June at 8.15pm following a screening of Apocalypse Now at 5.15pm. Tickets £5

Broadway website

Institute for Screen Industry Research website