The seven-time Oscar-winning sound designer discusses his animated feature film directing debut.
Disney’s Touchstone Pictures release of the animated feature Strange Magic brings to theatres George Lucas’ vision for a musical fairy tale he first dreamed up 16 years ago. Though stalled at times over the years by other projects as well as the eventual sale of ILM to Disney in 2012, the film was finally guided to completion by seven-time Oscar-winning sound designer and first time feature film director Gary Rydstrom.
Though his body of feature-film sound work is unrivaled, Rydstrom is no stranger to animation, having directed two shorts during his tenure at Pixar, including the Oscar-nominated Lifted (2006). It’s that love of animation and desire to accept new challenges that put him into the director’s chair when the opportunity came to finish Strange Magic. I recently had a chance to speak to him about taking the helm of George’s film, the second animated feature produced primarily at Lucasfilm in Singapore and the follow-up to the studio’s 2011 hit Rango. He shared his insights on moving from sound design to animated film direction, using music to help tell, not distract from, a story and how the ILM-Lucasfilm visual aesthetic makes for such nuanced character performances.
Dan Sarto: This is Lucasfilm’s second animated feature and a big departure from Rango. How did this film come about and how did you get involved?
Gary Rydstrom: Rango proved that Lucasfilm could successfully produce animation. When George Lucas first envisioned the film that became Strange Magic, one of the things he was thinking was what type of look could his people achieve at Lucasfilm. They brought together visual effects-type thinking, live action-type thinking and animation-thinking and with that in mind, thought it would be very cool to make a fairy tale with that combined style. The genesis is he wanted to make a love story fairy tale about two characters who by all rights shouldn’t fall in love but do anyway - told with a lot of songs. He loves old, great music. It would kind of be like if they had been singing in American Graffiti.
All those elements came together in his mind as he worked on it off and on for years. It stalled around the time he was selling the studio to Disney. I had already come back to Skywalker from Pixar. I was doing sound work and there was this film that needed help getting to the finish line. And, there I was! I was brought in to finish the movie and my goal was to finish in such a way that it remained as true as possible to what George had in mind.
DS: Obviously, you are “the man” when it comes to sound and sound design. Your body of Oscar-winning sound work is legendary. But you’ve also directed animated shorts such as the Oscar-nominated Lifted (2006) and now the animated feature Strange Magic. What is the creative “itch” that writing and directing animated films scratches for you? Why animation and not live action for example?
GR: The most obvious answer is sound comes very late in the process and you can’t get much earlier in the process than writing and directing animation. It’s like looking at a really nice house way over on the other side of the neighborhood and wondering, “What would it be like to live over there?” So getting involved in animation at Pixar allowed me to walk down the street and check out some other houses. And it was fun.
I love the genesis of animated films. Coming up with the idea, telling a story from the beginning. Talking of itch, I’m not sure where it comes from, maybe from years and years of focusing on sound, but I really love using part of my brain to focus on the visuals. The animation, the lighting, the color. I try to bring to it the same thing I bring to sound, which is attention to every aspect of the film to try and tell the story better - to set a mood and try to improve the story.
I really love animation. I love lighting. It exercises the visual part of my brain that my sound career never did. It’s very freeing. It’s great. I like the exposure to these other aspects of filmmaking.
DS: What perspective or artistic sensibility do you bring to animation from your sound work?
GR: One of the key things I try to do in sound is focus the attention of the audience. Often, there is so much going on that you don’t know what to look at. I like to do the same thing with visuals. Strange Magic is a very rich, detailed movie. Despite all the things you could be looking at, it’s nice to grab the audience’s attention and call out what’s most important in the story. Take the audience through the story. The same thing I do with sound I’m trying to do with the visuals and the cutting of the film.
Over the years, in sound, I learned that rhythm is really important. So I took my sense of rhythm and action in storytelling and used that for animation as well.
DS: So many animators have backgrounds in music. They have a great sense of rhythm.
GR: As a director, I have to do what I’ve been telling directors for years to do, which is to use sound to help out the story. You don’t have to show everything. You can hear things off-screen or do things with the soundtrack to help part of the story you might not necessarily have to show. One example in the film is there are scenes where the bad guy Roland is leading an army of elves into the Dark Forest. It’s expensive and time consuming to draw this big army marching and doing all sorts of things. So we came up with a solution where they’re all carrying sticks with little leaves on them that look like flags, which you see moving in close-ups and when they’re talking and marching. It’s a nice stylistic way to not have them always on screen and then use the soundtrack to hear reactions without necessarily having to see their faces. Using sound in conjunction with visuals is a key to good filmmaking.
DS: What were some of the biggest differences you experienced being at the helm of an animated feature as opposed to an animated short?
GR: We used to joke on the shorts, we had a three-act film and the first act was a page. The biggest difference for me was to sustain a good story from scene to scene across an entire feature. Because of production schedules, we had to approach this film by sending scenes down the pipeline out of order, whenever the assets were ready. Pulling them back together at the end in a way that made sure the transitions worked and the story made sense was tough. That’s part of the challenge of animation. You’re locking so many things in early. It’s like you finished the work on the guest bedroom before you began building the dining room underneath. I found that the hardest thing.
DS: Was the production primarily done in Singapore?
GR: Some was done in San Francisco, but the majority of the lighting and animation was done in Singapore. By an amazing group of people. The studio in Singapore has brought together and trained an amazing group of people, truly top notch animators and lighters. I know how animation brings together resources from all over the world and I really enjoyed how diverse and international the crew was. We were telling a love story, which is truly universal. So in a way it helped having such a diverse crew. I was amazed all the time, from the very beginning, with the quality of the work produced in Singapore.
I love working with animators. It’s one of those things where I’m probably better at it for not knowing how to do it. I can sit back and appreciate it.
What I like about Lucasfilm’s approach to animation, which is different from other studios, is that it gives us the ability to create really nuanced acting. I’m always impressed by how gleeful the emotions are that race across a character’s face, or the darting of their eyes. There’s an approach to animation, a style that this movie took, that impresses me with how genuine the acting is. I bring it up because I’m proud of it. There is a tangibility to the world, a seamlessness between the characters and the backgrounds that I think comes from an ILM-Lucasfilm visual sensibility. I just find it so impressive. I’m so proud of how that effort brings out such emotions in the characters.
DS: I would think not having a background as an animator gives you a different perspective on how to coax the best performance out of the crew.
GR: During my sound mixing days, what I’d often do, which directors sometimes thought was rude, was try to get them to go away. It was because I wanted them to step away and then come back to the mix with fresh ears. Have them look at a whole reel or whole scene in a way you can’t do when you sit there and get into every detail. So I always saw my job with this picture as being someone who could see the bigger picture and not worry so much about details of the animation. I needed to worry about the performance of the characters. Guide the acting. My job is to see the film as an audience would.
DS: How did you guys decide on which songs to use?
GR: Some predate me. George’s idea was so song-centric. The very first song of the movie, which is an Elvis Presley song, “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” has always been in there. We have a character named Marianne, so you have to have “C’mon Marianne [C'mon Marianne / Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)]” in there. I think it’s a law. We’ve had “Wild Thing” in the movie for a long time. You gotta have “Wild Thing” in there.
Marius de Vries, our music director, was constantly not just thinking about what songs would work, but producing scratch versions of songs and mashups that we’d try in production. He did an awful lot of work – not just talking about music but creating it. Somewhere along the way he wanted to release a 108 CD set of very song ever considered for the film.
Our goal was to choose songs that fit the story at that moment - what the characters were trying to do. On top of that we wanted to have the style of the song fit the mood. So when we wanted the Bog King to come back and be upset at the elf village for stealing his love potion, Marius found a Deep Purple song, “Mistreated,” which was saying the right thing in this whiny bad guy way –“you mistreated me…I’ve been abused” – this whiny teenage rock that is a great, all-out rock and roll song. So, we got the point across and for a while, you feel like you’re at a Deep Purple concert.
DS: The films boasts a tremendous voice cast. What was it like working with such great actors?
GR: Everyone knows the voice casting drives so much of what the characters become. They drive the animation. In our case, we had to find actors who could sing. Allan Cumming had been cast before I came on, which was genius. He has the hardest job in the whole movie, going from a traditional scary bad guy to someone whom by the end you almost feel is a gentleman. He falls in love and you fall in love with him. He had to change his performance over the course of the movie in order to show the change in his character.
We cast Evan Rachel Wood as Marianne. She goes from naïve, to heartbroken, to calm, to overly protective of her feelings, then finds love for real and is sure about it. She’s an amazing actress and also an amazing singer.
We also got some amazing people like Maya Rudolph, who does Griselda and Kristin Chenoweth who does the Sugar Plum Fairy. I loved working with the actors as well as the animators, trying to find what the characters were like, making discoveries, letting them go wild. It’s a very energetic process.
DS: Looking back now on the film, what were the main challenges you faced?
GR: I don’t like musicals where the songs pop-out and slow the story down, where they feel unconnected. We always knew we’d have a lot of songs; they’re the heart of the movie. How do you get the songs to come in and out of the story while incorporating dialogue and not have those moments where people just start laughing… “I can’t believe it…why are they doing that?” I didn’t want any of those moments in the film. I wanted the songs and dialogue to be seamless and it was very hard to do.
DS: What’s driving you at this point in your career? What’s left to do? What brings you the most sense of satisfaction?
GR: I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve been able to do sound, then direct animation, then go back and do sound and then direct animation. I’ve done the English version of some Studio Ghibli movies which were great. Even in my sound career, I’ve tried to work with a wide range of filmmakers, different movie styles and genres. I never wanted to do the same thing over and over again. At this stage of my career, keeping things different sometimes means doing a job I’ve never done before. Like directing animation. That has gotten me excited. I’m in a good place in terms of a company that allows me to move around and follow opportunities as they come up.
I don’t have a plan in my career of what I need to accomplish. As things pop-up, I get excited about going down a path I’ve never been down before. I’ve worked on many films directed by Steven Spielberg. What I admire about him is that he tries to make films he’s never made before. He pushes himself. I’m trying to do the same thing.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.