Collaborating with the Music Team – An Interview with Randy Thom
When we talk about the blurry lines that exist between sound design and music, it’s important to remember that we don’t work in a vacuum. Media is collaborative. The more effectively we work with our counterparts, the greater a project’s potential becomes. So, I asked Randy Thom to discuss the ins and outs building a working relationship the music department.
DS: I know you’ve had the opportunity to work with certain composers on multiple projects, but I think, if you don’t mind, we’ll discuss that a little later in the conversation. I’d like to start out talking a bit about those projects, in general, where there’s been returning staff. Same music department, same sound staff. On these films with returning teams, have you found yourself working with directors who foster interdepartmental collaboration, or is it more common that you’ve had to work to establish that yourself?
RT: Well, I think it helps if the sound designer and the composer make a push, or lobby on each project, to coordinate their efforts as much as possible. But some directors are definitely more open to the idea and tend to foster it more than others. Bob Zemeckis has always been a great advocate of coordinating the music and the sound effects in his movies. It’s one of the things that I like very much about working on his films.
DS: You used the word “push.” Is setting up those lines of communication a challenge sometimes?
RT: Well, I think it’s a challenge for a variety of reasons, and one of them is certainly the director. Many director’s, I’d say, are pretty naive about how sound works in movies. I would say some of them are not much more sophisticated than the average person who comes in to see a movie in terms of the way sound works in story-telling. I think that’s partly because it’s not really taught in film schools very thoroughly…sound design and the way music functions in film. It’s partly that all of us to some degree have this idea about sound; that’s it’s kind of a magical, ethereal, thing that is extremely difficult to analyze. So, I think the attitude that a lot of directors have is, “I’ll just hire a really good composer and a really good sound designer, and they’ll just give me the best of what they can produce. And we’ll figure it out somehow in the final mix, because I don’t quite know how to do it any other way.”
So, what some of the composers, and what I, push for is the idea that there is another way; which is to start thinking about sound design and music, and experimenting with them both, as early as possible on each project.
DS: And do you have any examples that you use in those situations to help sell that idea of collaboration?
RT: I think that there are some excellent examples; both historically and more recently. One extreme example is “Once Upon a Time in the West,” by Sergio Leone. Leone and Ennio Morricone decided very early that they wanted to actually record the score for the movie before they started shooting. The idea was that they’d be able to play back the score on the set, which would help motivate the actors. It was just an experiment in how that would affect what they shot, and they did that. Morricone composed the score, and they recorded it before they started shooting. They weren’t very happy with the opening of the score; the beginning of the movie. Ennio Morricone happened to go to a “musique concrete” concert where the guy was playing a ladder…[laughs] banging and scraping on a ladder in a musical way…and the little lightbulb flashed in his head. He called Leone that night and said, “There shouldn’t be any conventional score in the beginning of the movie. You should instead shoot that sequence influenced by the sounds that happen in this actual place.” It’s a little tiny train station in the middle of the American West.
DS: Yeah. We have the sound of the windmill creaking throughout the scene.
RT: Yeah. So, we have the windmill, the dripping of the water on the guy’s hat, etc. Leone shot each of those sequences thinking very specifically about how the sounds that were happening would function in terms of the story-telling. So, I think that’s a pretty extreme example of thinking very early and very seriously about music, and about sound effects, but I think some of that same kind of attitude can work on quite a variety of films.
One thing that helps with this approach is the trend that’s been happening over the last decade or so, and I’m happy to say that Skywalker Sound has been in the forefront of it, of instead of hiring an army of sound editors at the very end of post-production…to come in and cut madly, thousands of sounds in a few weeks…the trend has been to have a much smaller crew working over a longer period of time. That’s also helped by the fact that we have this new technology that allows fewer people to do more work. What that means is, more and more often, there is a sound designer or a sound editor…somebody who’s thinking about sound…around pretty early on in the beginning of post-production, and sometimes even before that, who can experiment with sound, try things…see what does and what doesn’t work. That makes it much less likely that the director is going to feel that he has to tell the sound designer, “It’s 100% your job to make everything work in this sequence,” and then tell the composer the exact same thing; hoping that he’ll be able to make sense of it all in the final mix. In this starting earlier with a smaller number of people approach, you actually get to try things; whether a sound design moment will work instead of a piece of music, or vice versa. Will the music carry a moment? So that it makes sense to soft peddle the sound design and sound effects.
I should say that it’s my philosophy that almost all of the really great sound sequences in movies are sequences that are dominated by one category of sound in each moment. I think another way that many directors are naive about the way that sound works in movies is that they think the thing to do is to throw as much sound at every moment as possible. Cram every moment with lots of sound effects, lots of music…and I think that rarely works very well. Sequences that are like that almost never pop up in people’s minds when they’re asked to recall the classic, iconic, sound sequences. Those sequences are almost always ones where the music dominates, the sound effects dominate, or the dialog dominates in a given moment. The trick in the design, or soundtrack, of the movie is to orchestrate that baton being handed back and forth between the three; so that the audience gets the impression that they’re hearing everything all the time. Really, they’re not at all. They’re hearing this carefully controlled focus, or change of focus, from this sound to this sound in a sequence. That’s the wise approach to coordinating music and sound effects in a movie; figuring out, as early as possible, which makes the most sense to hold the primary position in a given moment.
DS: So, when you’ve had the opportunity, how early do you get to start collaborating with the music department. Is it a tendency where it perhaps starts in a joint spotting session, or does it begin earlier in the process?
RT: On many of the Bob Zemeckis films, he , Alan Silvestri and I have had meetings in pre-production, before any shooting happened, to at least talk about which sequences are likely to be mainly music and which are likely to be mainly sound design. There are always a few question marks about certain scenes, maybe we’re not sure about the way it will work out, but we at least have a general idea that it’s probably going to benefit everyone, and the movie, to put more of our individual efforts into certain sequences than others.
DS: So it gives you the opportunity to focus your efforts.
RT: Yeah. So you don’t waste time…so I don’t waste time doing lots and lots of sound for what is really going to be a music driven sequence that only needs enough sound design to support the reality of the sequence.
DS: I know, sometimes, that it can be easy to talk around each other, despite being on the same subject. What do you find to be the best “shared language” for speaking with the music supervisor or composer? Is it talking about emotions, or is it talking about instrument tonalities…?
RT: That’s certainly another way that sound designers and composers can collaborate; assigning parts of the spectrum to each other. You can say, “In this sequence the sound effects will be mostly in the bass registers.” So, the music can be fairly brass and string heavy, and the two will work together. You can assign parts of the spectrum to each department.
Another useful way, I think, to collaborate…in an action sequence, for example…is to set it up so that each department isn’t hitting, or “Mickey Mousing,” every significant beat or moment. For instance, if there’s an explosion, I think that’s naturally the domain of sound effects. I’ll very often suggest that, if music is going to score that moment in a direct way, that maybe the musical hit should be right after the explosion. It rarely makes sense to have the music hit and the sound effects hit at the same exact moment.
DS: There’s the fear of it just turning into mud.
RT: Yeah. There are lots of places, in some films, where you do want to confuse the audience to some degree, or obfuscate or leave some question marks hanging. You can do that sometimes by supplying too much sound, or conflicting sound, and you can use that in a story-telling way. More often than not, that’s exactly what you don’t want to do. You want to make it very clear. What’s happening in a given moment? The best way to do that, in the explosion case, is to let the sound effects play the explosion and let the music play the after-effects.
DS: In this communication process, I imagine you have the director and producer involved as well…perhaps frequently the editor. Is there ever a fear of over-communication, or communicating in ways that those other parties might not grasp the same way you and the music department will? How do you control that? How do you modify your speech so that everyone is on the same playing field?
RT: Well, one thing that helps me is to say, right off of the bat, that I don’t go into the project with an anti-music agenda. I love film music, and I think music is one of the most efficient, if not THE most efficient, tools a film story-teller has in terms of the bang that you get out of it, relative to how much it costs. In fact, and I’ve heard more than one composer say this as well, I think that wall-to-wall musical score in a film usually doesn’t do itself any favors…partly because one of the most powerful things about a piece of score is how it enters and how it leaves…and where it enters and leaves. So, if you have absolutely wall-to-wall music through a film, there’s no opportunity for that to happen.
A good example of that is a Bob Zemeckis film that I worked on called “Cast Away.” When Bob and I first started talking to me about working on the movie, there was going to be about 45 minutes in the movie where there is no music, and virtually no dialog, when the Tom Hanks character is stranded on this island. I was initially thrilled, and then I was terrified. I realized that most of the sonic story-telling was going to be on my shoulders. I was especially terrified when he said, “I want this Hanks character to feel absolutely alone on the island. So, I don’t want to hear any birds, and I don’t want to hear any insects. I don’t want to hear any frogs…” So, my sound palette was limited to waves and wind. Bob also wanted every location on the island to sound different from every other location. We had to do an enormous amount of recording of waves and wind sounds to get that emotional variety to the sound effects.
There comes a time when the Hanks character finally does escape from the island. He makes several attempts to get through this reef on rafts he’s constructed. They’ve failed, and he’s gotten torn up by the coral in the process. But, finally, he makes an attempt and succeeds to get past the reef around the island. As he’s floating away, he looks back at the island…kind of wistfully. The irony is that this place he’s been trying to escape from for four years has become his home, and he’s feeling a little sad about leaving the place. There’s absolutely no way in the world that you can say that with sound effects. I tried every conceivable way that I could to push that feeling with sound effects, and I just couldn’t do it. I think Bob knew all along that the way to do it was with music. So, Alan Silvestri composed this beautiful score there that expresses exactly that wistfulness, that sentimental feeling, that the Hanks character suddenly has about the island in a way that sound effects never could. I think that’s one of the beauties of music. It can express some kinds of things that sound effects can’t.
That’s a very long way of answering your question about how I go into discussions with directors and producers and composers to push for this coordinated agenda, and that’s one of the points I make. I’m certainly not anti-music. I’m often one of the first people in the mixes to say that we should get rid of the sound effects in this moment, because music is telling exactly the story that we want to tell. But I am very much in favor of coordinating the two, and passing the baton back and forth. I think that’s where a lot of the work has to be done to figure out, on a given project, how to do that.
DS: You’ve perfectly segued into my next question, but you may have already answered it as well. This isn’t the first time that you’ve said you’re frequently the first person to suggest sound effects just be removed in certain situations. When do you make the case for sound effects over music? Do you feel that music always has an advantage, or a stronger connection to the emotional context of a scene?
RT: Well, I think music, inevitably, mediates a scene. By which I mean, on some level, the audience can’t help but be aware that they’re being manipulated by music. I think that’s one of the dangers with music; it’s very easy to overuse it in a very manipulative way. I think if the composer is clever enough about how it’s used, and the director is clever enough about it as well, that doesn’t have to happen…but it is a danger.
DS: So, is that then the context for the argument one way or another?
RT: I might have, if Bob Zemeckis hadn’t already said right off the bat that he didn’t want there to be any music on the island in “Cast Away,” I probably would have lobbied for there to at least be long stretches on the island without music…partly because what he was after was almost like a documentary feel. You’re really watching some guy who’s stranded on this island. Using music in some of that would have at least reminded the audience that, “Oh yeah. I’m watching a movie.” I would have lobbied against that.
Generally speaking, I think when you see action on a screen that is more or less unambiguous, that you don’t really need to have explained to you, it’s reasonable to question whether there should be music accompanying that action. The magic of music is that it can, like sound design, give you some emotional information that isn’t necessarily on the screen. So, that’s when I lobby heavily in favor in music; when I think music can bring something to it that the sound effects can’t. If what you’re seeing on the screen is a series of explosions, or cars racing…I could list any number of kinds of action…I think the case for music is less strong.
DS: You’ve touched on your work with Alan Silvestri in Robert Zemeckis’ films, let’s shift over to your actual relationship with him or Michael Giacchino, who you’ve worked with on several films in the past. What are your relationships with them like? How do you avoid stepping on each other’s toes?
RT: Sure. And I can say the same thing about John Powell, who I’ve worked with on several animated films. I have very good relationships with both of those composers. I haven’t worked with Michael in a while now; we did “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.” I’ve had more recent experience with John Powell…both composers I have a huge amount of respect for.
On “Rio” John invited me to come to the recording session, and I spent a day there when he was experimenting. He had a percussion specialist, and this guy had brought a huge variety of exotic percussion instruments that John thought might be useful in this South American influenced score. We played with these instruments and threw ideas around. It was a heck of a lot of fun. It was great to actually be in the same room at the same time, which is actually pretty rare for sound designers and composers; at least, on films as big as the ones that we’re talking about. That’s another factor in, another obstacle to, the kind of collaboration we’re talking about; which is how busy both the sound designer and the composer are.
Very often we find ourselves, if we’re not working on multiple projects at once, we’re jumping back and forth between two or three projects over a very short period of time…projects that are at different stages of development. Sometimes it’s just difficult physically to even arrange a phone call, but it is certainly so to be in the same room at the same time. I think that’s another impediment to the kind of collaboration that should happen. We usually go into these projects with the best of intentions, and both the composers and I are thinking, “Absolutely! We’re going to coordinate what we’re doing and have discussions with the director.” Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. The times it doesn’t is, very often, simply because of scheduling conflicts.
DS: In those situations, or even in situations where things ARE working out to the hopes of the ideal, do you trade temp materials with each other?
RT: Oh yeah! That’s another element of collaboration that’s very important. As I said, it’s best if the composer and the sound designer start as early as possible. The composer can do musical sketches, do a lot of experimenting with synth elements. These days, they can sound very close to the real thing, if you’re trying to imitate an orchestral score. I, as a sound designer, can make all kinds of speculative sounds and send those to the composer. The composer can send the early musical sketches to me, and that gives each of us a great idea about what the other has in mind tonally and in terms of rhythms.
It is difficult to talk about sound in abstract terms. Even composers and sound designers often don’t have a good enough vocabulary for each other’s work to communicate very well. So, that’s why having something concrete to listen to is a huge advantage to. So, as you suggest, the composer sending a musical sketch to me early on, and me sending some speculative sound design elements to the composer, is an incomparable advantage. You have something to actually listen and react to.
So I can say, “This rhythm that you’re experimenting with in the sequence, I think is a great thing.” Which I can follow up with by saying, “I want to stay out of the way, so I’m not complicating it or confusing the audience…rhythmically,” or I can say, “There’s a sound that I think might actually help that.” I can send that sound to the composer and he or she can experiment with that. A good example of sound effects and music, literally collaborating, was on Atonement.
The composer was Dario Marianelli. Joe Wright, the director, had this idea that since the movie is about this young writer and the way she complicates other peoples’ lives…and keeps coming back to this theme of writing and typing…his idea was that maybe the sound of a typewriter could be incorporated into the score. The composer was, I’ve read, initially skeptical of that idea, but started experimenting with it. In that case, the composer himself went out and recorded some typewriters, and incorporated them into some of the score in a really interesting way.
Another thing I’d like to say in this context is that some of the barriers between music and sound design really don’t make any sense. I would like to see more composers doing more sound “effecty” things, and I think it’s perfectly appropriate, occasionally, for the sound design department to play with tonal and musical sounds…as long as it’s coordinated with what the composer is doing, and the composer is on board with that idea. I think it makes a lot of sense to dissolve some of those artificial borders between sound design and music.
DS: I’m trying to remember who it was, I’m thinking maybe it was Coll Anderson was telling me at one time…he actually developed some instrumental sounds for a composer on a project he was working for. He was the sound designer and re-recording mixer for that particular project, and he developed a whole set of sounds that the composer could work with to write the music…or, at least, one particular song.
RT: I think, on some projects, that makes perfect sense. If both people are into it, and the director is into it. It is supposed to be a collaborative medium, after all. Too often, not much collaboration actually happens. We’re all marching more or less in the same direction, but don’t talk to each other enough…or collaborate enough.
DS: Do you ever see any overlap in the way both the music and the sound design is developing over the course of a project? Do you feel there is a parallel between the two processes that can be exploited?
RT: In a previous e-mail to you, I think I had mentioned that you might want to talk to Ren Klyce about some of his work on the recent Fincher films. Ren has worked extremely closely with the music department on those, and, in some of them, you can’t even tell the difference between the music and the sound design. You wouldn’t be able to guess which department a particular sound came from. For certain kinds of movies, that’s a wonderful thing! Ren edits, or at least has a lot of influence on the editing, of the music in those films. So, he’s really in a great position to coordinate what comes from the music department and what he generates in the sound design department…and make it one thing. That’s usually the goal we’re aiming for in film anyways; to make the borders between the different crafts and disciplines dissolve so that you get the impression that what you’re experiencing is all one organic thing.
DS: I think that even goes back further in Ren’s work on David Fincher’s films. “Fight Club” is still one of my favorite sound films. That one has an extreme overlap between designed tonal sound effects and the music that was involved.
RT: Yes, I agree.
DS: So, to wrap up our discussion…Aside from the fact that film is a collaborative process, and no one department can take credit for a picture’s success, what would you say is the most important thing to keep in mind when working with the music department?
RT: I think it’s fair to say that most sound design departments are a little intimidated by working with the music department. We should get over that. We are all collaborators, ideally. Though we don’t want to waste each other’s time, of course, it’s to all of our benefits to collaborate as concretely as possible. So, I would urge sound design departments to not be shy about approaching the composers and the music departments and proposing ways that collaboration can happen.