We’re starting off this month’s special with an exclusive interview with our guest Tim Nielsen, discussing influences, creative methods, techniques, and much more. Hope you enjoy it.
Designing Sound: How did you get started in sound design? What’s been the evolution of your career?
Tim Nielsen: I have to blame my dear friend and brilliant sound person Addison Teague. At USC in the graduate program, you have to crew on a student film in one of a handful of positions: director, producer, editor, cinematographer, or sound. Addison came to me one day, said “I’m thinking about crewing up in sound, but need a partner, are you interested?” To be honest until that point I hadn’t given sound a lot of thought. I entered USC sure I wanted to be a cinematographer, but quickly realized that I hated being on set, hated the energy and the insanity of it. So I thought, sure, I’ll give it a shot.
About a year later, while still at USC, I did an internship at Skywalker Sound with Gary Rydstrom. That was I believe in 1996, and actually I think I might have been the first summer intern Skywalker ever took. When I graduated a couple of years later, I was hired by a supervising sound editor at Skywalker named Tim Holland. His first assistant was going off to explore work in the picture department if I remember correctly, and he needed a new first assistant. I came up to the ranch in April of 1999 to work on Liberty Heights, a Barry Levinson film.
Tim Holland was about the best person in the world to work for, in the sense that even on that first show, when I asked Tim if I could cut something, he was totally open to it, and so I cut a reel. On my second film, Galaxy Quest, I cut more, and Tim being the incredibly great person that he is, went to bat for me and got me my first Effects Editors credit, on only my second film.
From there it’s been a combination of hard work, lots of luck, and having the honor of working with some really wonderful people who have and continue to give me incredible opportunities, even leading up to the project I’m involved with at the moment. I’ve certainly worked hard, and have a pretty good ear for this line of work, but I would be really foolish not to acknowledge the lucky breaks that I’ve gotten that plenty of others haven’t. USC led to an internship which led to my career. That needed have been the case, I had to do my part too, but I’ve been very lucky.
DS: Has working at Skywalker Ranch changed the way you think about sound and film industry in general?
TN: Since my first job ever in the professional world was at Skywalker, I’m not sure how it changed my way of thinking and working, as much as it forged it. I’ve been lucky to have some great opportunities outside of the ranch as well, Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, Journey 3D, and Prince of Persia were all projects done outside of Skywalker. But certainly my way of working was forged at Skywalker, and I’ve always carried that forward.
Certainly working at Skywalker, where the bar is set so high for all of us, continually reminds me what good film sound can do for a film.
DS: What are your biggest influences inside and outside the world of sound?
TN: I certainly find myself inspired by the work of others in sound. It’s very humbling to hear something and think, “Wow, not only do I wish I had done that, but I wish I was capable of doing that!” When I saw Rango for the first time, which was a film that I was involved with a tiny bit early on, I heard some work in there that I thought was very well done. I find Ren Klyce’s work incredibly inspiring, his tracks have such amazing detail, and all the sounds are just perfect. I remember seeing the film Hero, the Jet Li film, and hearing work in there that I was really in love with at the time. So when I hear inspiring work in other people’s tracks, it certainly inspires me to do better myself.
Outside of sound and film industry, this may sound strange, but I find myself influenced by excellence in general. I tend to really admire people who are just really good at what they do, whatever that may be. I find it inspiring to find people who’s dedication results in something extraordinary, be it a writer, a musician, a scientist. I find it both inspiring and incredibly humbling, since I’m not sure I would ever classify myself as excellent at what I do.
DS: What do you love most about sound design?
TN: First and foremost I love the power of it, and by this I mean sound for picture in general. As much as it’s been said, sound really is one of the most powerful tools available to any filmmaker wise enough to embrace it. And the lower the budget of your movie, the more of a bargain it is. I love the moments when sound can give you goosebumps. I love when a really well executed sound or scene elevates the entire movie. I love when you put a sound to picture, and it just sticks, and you know it’s the right sound. I love the happy accidents that come when you just start throwing sound all over the place. I love the creative freedom of it, although it’s also the part of this job that cause a lot of stress, stumbling around trying to find or make or record the sound that ultimately just works. But while stressful, it’s also the fun of it, the hunt for that right sound. And I suppose selfishly I love that when I do make a sound, or cut a scene, that it’s my work up there, and I know that no one else could or would do exactly the same thing, so I do enjoy that bit of ownership.
We recently screened The Fellowship of the Rings in our theater at Skywalker. I didn’t stay, but as they were doing a sound check, I went in, and it was a scene that I had cut. I jokingly started saying, “I cut that water splash, I cut that door, I cut that….” It was a joke, but I do enjoy that on the projects I’ve been involved with, I get to say ‘Hey, I helped make that’, even if my part is rather small in the grand scheme of things.
DS: How do you deal with writer’s block? What kind of methods you have for getting ideas?
TN: Procrastinate. Put if off as long as you can, and only at the last second, when the deadline is looming and there is no way out, do you pull out all the stops, and just go for it. Some of my best work was done in the last days of a project, or under the time crunch of a looming temp mix. Somehow when you know you can’t let it go anymore, the creative Gods will bless you and it will all work out. But honestly, I do tend to put things off if the creative spark isn’t there yet. When the crunch time comes, then you start just trying anything and everything. You start searching for sounds based on emotion, you start trying sounds that have no business being there, you start mimicking the sound with your own mouth, at least to find that shape, and then fill in with real sounds later. You fire up your recorder, and you just start making noise!
It’s daunting, that first pass creating a sound for something that doesn’t exist. I find that the hardest. If I’m working on a sword fight, maybe I don’t have the right sword sounds, but at least I know in my mind what I want the swords to sound like, and it becomes a scavenger hunt to find the right pieces. Some of the things I’ve been lately are creating sounds that are much more fluid and vague. They could literally sound like anything, as long as it feels right. These are huge challenges. All you can do is find that creative spark of an idea, make a pass, and start getting feedback, and hope that it can steer you to where you need to be.
I find just listening to raw recordings inspiring too, it’s a real treat for me on the project I’m on now to have an assistant, Nia Hansen, who has done a lot of really fantastic recording for the show. I love to listen through to things I didn’t record, and let it trigger ideas.
DS: How has been the evolution of you as an artist of sound? How is the balance between your craft and art in your career?
TN: Well certainly with the years comes confidence. At first you never want to play anything for anyone, you second guess everything you cut, you go through periods of hating it, and thinking, “Well I guess it’ll have to do.” Now I’m more comfortable making sounds, cutting them, preparing them and presenting them. Which isn’t to say I don’t get plenty of notes and direction, we all do. And I still hate playing things for anyone else, but I’m getting better at it. But I suppose that’s the main thing, as you do it more and more, your own taste gets refined, you realize what your taste is, and you embrace it more, you’re comfortable with it.
As for the balance between art and craft, I wish I could say that Art reigns supreme, but the truth is, Craft is becoming increasingly important. And by craft I would say the ability to cut fast, manage huge amounts of sounds and tracks through edits and rebalances, continuing visual effects changes, etc. Art sometimes feels like it has to take a back seat. What I hope for these days is to have enough time on the front end of the project to have some fun with Art, and then let Craft take over, carry the project through to completion and make sure it’s all done on time. But to be good in this line of work, you absolutely need both. The best technical abilities will do you well, and you’ll need them, but beyond that, you need some creativity of your own as well.
DS: I know that you’re doing a lot of sound effects recording. Any special tricks, tips or methods?
TN: Nothing that probably hasn’t been said a lot before, but I’ll say it again. Record a lot. Record a huge variety of things as well. And nothing will teach you more about recording than having to edit your own sounds. I’ve had people record for me before, let’s say doors, I get back four door opens, and four door closes, and they all sound exactly the same. I want to take them back to that door, and show them, ‘Look, first soft, then loud, then rattle it, then kick it, then pound on it, then slam it, then just the handle by itself’. Never stop listening for great sounds just because what you thought you needed from something, you got. The best sounds will almost always be accidents, or things you weren’t looking for, so after you’ve recorded whatever it is you’re recording, immediately start thinking, ‘Now, what else could I do with it.’
I’ll give one example that yielded one of my favorite sounds. I was recording for a show, recording a variety of simple sounds on the foley stage. One of the things we needed was an electric razor, just normal shaving sounds. And another was the sound of an organ (a Kidney) being dropped into a metal bowl. So I recorded both. And then for some reason, I touched the electric razor to the bottom of this cheap aluminum bowl. And it started to sing. And it made the most amazing complex music. And I’ve used that sound a lot, it’s in Lord of the Rings when the Ring Wraiths are entering the tavern in Bree. It’s this haunting, spooky ethereal sound, but it was ultimately a complete accident.
So open your mind to those accidents, and actively search them out!
DS: What would be your advice for any sound designer out there?
TN: Have fun, and experiment a lot. Learn early on that the simplest solution is almost always the best. Be judicious with plugins and processing and mucking around, especially as you get started. That stuff certainly has its place, but these days I think nearly everything I’m hearing has been processed too much. Great recordings are way better than great processing chains or great outboard gear in my opinion. If you’re just getting started, it’s paramount that you get a recording rig and start building your library. Nothing will prepare you better for your career than a sound library of your own creation that you know well. And having your own library will help you develop your own style, and your own sound.
And then learn when to stop. This has been my hardest lesson learned. I’ve always had a problem with over cutting and over thinking, and certainly I did my own fair share of over processing. Almost always, when a path I’ve put myself on doesn’t pan out, starting over, and starting with something much simpler, almost always turns out better. Some creatures I’ve been working on for the project I’m on now turned out more powerful, interesting, dynamic with much less ‘mucking’. We have some amazing new animal recordings on the show, and truthfully the recordings didn’t need a whole lot, they yielded what I was needing with some gently manipulation on my part, but very little processing.
Oh and I’ll give up one tip when working on animal or creature vocals, take your work file of sounds, and then erase out all the loud one. Then take what’s left and normalize it. The best sounds are likely to be the very quiet ones that you might otherwise have discarded. When an animal vocalizes, the loud ones actually tend to all sound the same, but the very quiet ones will have much more variety.
DS: Which are your favorite tools?
TN: I’m a bit of a microphone junkie, but truth be told, today $250 can buy you a recorder that will yield completely usable sounds. I’m in the Philippines for a month at the moment, and am carrying around a little Zoom H1, a $99 recorder that sounds surprisingly decent. That’s where these small pocket recorders are really fantastic, they enable you to get sounds that otherwise you might miss. And even if it’s not the most pristine recording, at least you’ll have it. They’re also great for sending out to other people to record for you. We’ve sent a couple out on the project I’m on now, and gotten fantastic sounds from people that we couldn’t afford to fly out to ourselves. And I truly believe you often get better sounds letting people record for themselves. First they’ll have more time to get interesting things. Second if they’re recording their own animals, those animals will almost always vocalize more and more interestingly than they will with you standing there, pushing a large microphone into their space.
I have a handful of plugins that I find useful, and samplers from time to time I find useful, although honestly these days I’m doing a lot less with both plugins and samplers. I’ve built up a pretty silly microphone collection over the years now, and it’s fun to go back and start recording again. I often think I should quit working in film, just so I can go and record sounds. That would be pretty much my dream job. Maybe one of these years…
DS: What’s your favorite films for sound?
TN: Well certainly I grew up with some of the classics, Star Wars, Raiders, a lot of Ben Burtt’s work. And also of course Gary Rydstrom’s work including Jurassic Park, Toy Story, etc. So of course those are all influential and remain some of my favorites. But some others I really enjoyed as I mentioned before, the film Hero, has some brilliant sound. Almost all of Peter Weir’s films I think tend to sound fantastic, in no small part to the fact that his films have so little music. I suppose though, my favorite films for sound are simply films that have a place for sound in them, where sound is really an integral part of the films themselves. This excites me, when a director thinks ahead about sound long before we’re sitting on a mix stage.
This is not in any way, shape or form designed to take anything away from Gary Rydstrom’s genius, but when I think about some of his more amazing and iconic work, the T-Rex attack of course, the opening and closing battles of Saving Private Ryan. In those Spielberg films, in those scenes there is no music. Which means that Spielberg had the foresight to trust sound in a very early stage. I wish that happened more. There is simply too much music in most Hollywood films these days. Master and Commander sounds fantastic, in part due to the amazing recordings they made for that film, but more in part to the fact that Peter Weir chose not to score the majority of the film. That opened up the track, and the sound in that film really elevated the entire experience of living at sea.
I just did some work on War Horse as an effects editor, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had cutting, getting to cut a long intense battle scene that we knew was going to have no music. That was a real treat.
DS: You’ve worked in several different genres – drama, comedy, sci-fi, horror, adventure, animation, computer games – have you got any favorites to work in?
TN: I don’t really have a favorite. I tend to end up working on a lot of fantasy movies, I’m not exactly sure how that happened. Strangely enough, one of my favorite jobs was working on There Will be Blood, which is a drama. But I was asked in pretty short order to recut all the backgrounds on that show. I was living in Vancouver, working on a project there, and had a small break when a friend from Skywalker called. I think I had about two and a half weeks, but had such a blast on that one. Anyone who knows me knows that backgrounds are my absolute favorite thing to cut. Ken Fischer, tied with Brent Burge for the title of World’s Greatest Effects Editor, he and I joke that all we want to do is cut backgrounds. So anyway, the genre doesn’t matter as long as I get to cut the backgrounds. Nia Hansen, our recordist on John Carter, promised me that someday she’s going to make an entire movie set in the rain, just so I can cut it.
DS: What has been your most challenging project and why?
TN: Each film you do presents challenges, they’re just always changing. At first, the films present plenty of craft challenges. I’ll never forget at the end of Liberty Heights, my first show, as we got ready for the print master, when the mixer Tom Johnson turned to me and asked “Are the pull-ups ready.” I’m sure the blank stare that I presented him with didn’t win over any confidence, but honestly, no one had told me what a pull-up was, let alone that someone should have cut them. I remember seeing an Avid change note for the first time and suspecting I was looking at something devised in the deep dark basement of NASA. Later the challenges become facing your own self-doubt, then later learning to juggle egos, especially your own, and later the challenge of running a crew, and learning what to do when people come to you and actually want you to tell them what to do! Politics can always be challenging on any show too.
Fellowship of the Ring was probably one of the most challenging, but for all good reasons. The scope of it, that we did that first film with a relatively small crew. That some of us found ourselves in a different country, with a group of people who didn’t necessarily work like we did. That at the time technically what we were trying to do taxed the equipment and hard drive space and everything else to the point of near collapse. But of course that film will always have a special place in my heart for many reasons, getting to live in New Zealand, being a part of something that so many people enjoyed. And most importantly meeting David Farmer, who would become one of my best friends. Friendships that come out of projects like that more than make up for any challenges.
DS: What exciting things do you see happening in our line of work at the moment?
TN: There are two things I find exciting. The first, I mentioned already, is the amazing variety of good quality and low cost recording equipment. There just isn’t excuse now for someone starting out not to be building their own library right from the start.
The second is the proliferation of what I’d term ‘micro libraries’. I had thought of doing it years ago, and I will still probably enter the market myself at some point, but Tim Prebble is the one I remember starting it off first. I think it’s a brilliant idea, small cost effective targeted libraries. I just was a funding partner on www.kickstarter.com for a Tolley recording in Texas, and I think ideas like this are brilliant. For $50 or so, you’ll get a small but hopefully high quality library. I’ve found some great stuff there, and I know this site has been a big help for a lot of people to find those libraries. I’m sure we’ll see more and more of this, and I think it’s fantastic.
DS: What are you currently working on? And what’s next for Tim Nielsen?
TN: At the moment I’m working on a film called John Carter that Disney is making, and Andrew Stanton of Pixar fame is directing. It’s a blast, and is turning into a long project for me. As for what’s next, at the moment I’m looking for a show, so let me know if you hear of anything! I’ll probably take off a bit of time after this one is done, regroup and hopefully something interesting will come along. It always seems to. Or maybe I’ll just go spend a year recording!