Sound Chat #42 - Randy Thom (Sound Design)

I send a few questions to Randy Thom. Randy Thom started his career in radio and music recording before making the transition to film in 1975, when he was hired on Apocalypse Now (1979) as a sound effects recordist. Since then, Thom has worked in a wide variety of creative capacities within the sound department in over seventy five films. For example, in addition to being the music mixer on Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983), Thom was also the production sound mixer for all the footage shot in the US. Since 1983, Thom has been on staff as a sound designer and mixer at Lucasfilm's Skywalker Sound facility. He is part of a small group of sound designers that are following in Walter Murch and Ben Burtt's footsteps in the continuing work of turning motion picture sound into an art form and not simply a series of technical processes. His work on a film often begins before the film has started shooting, and becomes an integral part of the storytelling and emotional impact of the film. Randy Thom has been part of Robert Zemeckis' core creative team ever since Forrest Gump (1994). Through his career Thom has worked with such top Hollywood talents as Walter Murch, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Brad Bird, Tim Burton, Chris Columbus, Mel Brooks and the Farrelly Brothers. Thom has received two Academy Awards for sound, The Right Stuff (1983), and Incredibles, The (2004)_. He has fourteen Oscar nominations.


Thanks for doing this Randy, I'll start with some questions from people that follow Sound Chats on Facebook and we can cut right to the meaty questions: Thiago Perry de Sampaio asks about your editing workflow What comes first in terms of dialogues, backgrounds, etc.. when you have a locked picture?


Locked picture?   What is that?   I haven’t worked on a film with a locked picture in at least twenty years.  On most projects I start by doing some speculative sound design many months before the rest of the crew comes on.  The director typically wants me to experiment a bit with some of the sounds that are the most highly conceptual.


Matt Cavanaugh asks: I'd be interested in hearing his approach to supervising, and what factors determine how much work he does himself vs. what he delegates, things he looks for in a team, etc.


These days I’m delegating more than I used to, in part because there are some key younger people who I hope to see take over some day.  They need to take on more responsibility so that they can get used to it.  I will always choose to do some of the more challenging (and/or fun) elements of the work myself, but often I want someone else to take a shot at it first, and if what they do doesn’t seem to be completely working then I will step in and offer ideas, or re-do parts of it.


Thanks to Matt and Thiago for those questions and now I want to take a turn towards to more intangible and would love to know after all your years of experience if you can sum up your philosophical approach to post production sound?


The most important thing I can say about "post production sound" is that it shouldn’t only happen in post production.  Sound design begins with the script, and just as production designers and cinematographers make suggestions about changes in scripts that they feel will open doors to their crafts, sound people should do the same.  Tragically, we rarely do, and that needs to change.  Sound design should be an active participant in pre-production, production, and post.


What are the biggest shifts in terms of working practices have you seen come in with the advent of more plugins and software solutions for sound and picture, ideally at least one main good one and maybe something that is lacking as an effect from solutions like dialogue denoising


It’s definitely easier to to a first class sound job with fewer people and less expensive equipment than it used to be.  And some of the tools, like the denoising ones you refer to, are quite amazing.  On the other hand, in my opinion we spend too much time obsessed with technology.  We should be spending some of that time thinking instead about how sound ideas can be incorporated into the story.  Immersive sound can be a useful tool, but it’s kinda crazy how much press it gets.  We need much better ways to synthesize organic sounding things, like creature vocalizations.  Lots of people are working on it, but I haven’t heard anything yet that has impressed me.


I am predominantly a location sound recordist, though do post on my own work because I know where everything is and what I need, along with a relationship with the director from on set. Apart from clean audio, what else is useful from a location sound stand point in post production?


I wish production mixers would take on more of a sound design role in terms of helping directors figure out how to use sound creatively.  Production mixers should be thinking about how to tell the audience something useful about the characters, objects, and the places in the film by using sound; and they should be thinking about what they can advise the director about setting up shots to accomplish that.  As I mentioned already, Cinematographers and Production Designers are often suggesting script changes that will open creative doors for their crafts.  We sound people, including Production Mixers, should be doing the same.  Take a look at my essay “Designing A Movie For Sound” for more specifics.


I would love to hear how everyone on your team or other teams that you are apart of keep communication flowing with constant edit changes and updates, morning meetings maybe?

We don’t have many group meetings.  My assistant (Leff Lefferts) and my Co-Supervisor’s assistant make sure that everyone is talking to the people they need to be talking to about ongoing picture updates, etc.


Finally if you could leave just 3 pieces of advice in terms of building a career what would they be?

Be a nice person to work with.  Work very hard.  Train your ears to listen intelligently not only to what is coming out of the speakers but also what comes from the mouths of your clients.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone creatively astray because I hadn’t understood what my clients were looking for.  Usually because I had some preconceived notion of what to do that was keeping me from being aware of what would make the clients happy.  Making the clients happy is the key to a long career, and you can be extremely creative and original in the process.


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