By Jack Egan
“I’m starting my career all over again,” declares Gary Rydstrom. Nominated for 13 sound achievement Oscars—most recently for sound editing on the computer-generated Finding Nemo (along with Michael Silver)—and winner of five statuettes, Rydstrom has decided to change course and become a director.
“I feel the need every 20 years to reinvent myself,” he says, somewhat sardonically, at age 44. With that motivation, he has gone to Pixar Animation Studios, where he is now on staff fulltime. “I’m starting to look at movies to make and direct,” he says. “My first opportunity will probably be to do a short.”
Rydstrom’s surprising switch comes after an extraordinary two-decade association with Lucasfilm. Until last year he had been the creative head of its technologically celebrated Skywalker Sound unit. Rydstrom’s jump to Pixar is a move to what he considers “an old-fashioned studio, with all the production under one roof and where everybody interacts.”
“I’ve also had a longstanding association with Pixar,” Rydstrom adds, explaining his decision to join a company, which, like Skywalker, is headquartered in the San Francisco area. The Rydstrom-Pixar association goes back to 1986 when he did sound for Luxo Jr., a pioneering computer-generated short about a lamp and its offspring, which oddly presaged the parent-child plot of Nemo. Since then, Rydstrom has done the sound design for all of the Pixar feature blockbusters produced in association with Disney, including the two Toy Story movies, A Bug’s Life and Monster’s Inc. (Pixar and Disney terminated their production relationship in January.)
Rydstrom’s hairpin swerve in occupations comes after one of his busiest years. In addition to Nemo, he was the sound designer for The Hulk and supervising sound mixer on Peter Pan. Pressures on him to do more while meeting ever-tighter schedules are but one factor behind his decision to change careers. He doesn’t rule out future work at Skywalker. “I haven’t severed all connections,” he says.
Then there’s Nemo, which ranks as the top-grossing animated film in history, with worldwide box office now topping $900 million. The film also represents one of Rydstrom’s signal achievements in sound. “The challenge was to create the reality of a live-action movie and the stylistic approach of an animated film, all from scratch,” he notes. He praises the rich musical score provided by Thomas Newman, who was also nominated for an Oscar for Nemo.
For that film, Rydstrom used a panoply of techniques. Aquatic sound devices, including “lots of bubble machines and a condom-covered microphone we dipped into an aquarium,” and a coastal cave with water sloshing in and out. Not everything was high tech. A flapping paper towel simulated Nemo’s injured fin. “My favorite sounds were the bubble pops,” he notes. These were created by the old trick of putting his finger inside his cheek.
Rydstrom used a Kyma digital signal processor, a new technology he introduced to blend sounds. In one case he himself growled into the microphone and the words were mixed with other digitally stored sounds from the Skywalker Sound Library to give the ocean environment a distinct character presence during the shark chase sequence. In a Beatles sort of in—joke, those who listen carefully can hear the ocean rumbling, “Nemo, Nemo.”
Rydstrom didn’t wind up winning the Oscar this year for Nemo (the Academy Award for best sound editing went to Richard King for Master and Commander). But as he shifts gears in his career from sound designer to director, he couldn’t have gone out on an higher note.
By Jack Egan