‘Lincoln’ Mixer Had to Balance Sound of Clock Ticks With Congressional Blowhards

Now on his 17th Oscar nomination, frequent Spielberg collaborator Gary Rydstrom loved delicate work on "Lincoln" — he's glad he got to remix his old T. rex roar for "Jurassic Park 3D," too

Gary Rydstrom has been working with Steven Spielberg as a sound re-recording mixer since 1989's "Always," and his mantleful of seven Oscars includes four that he picked up working on Spielberg films, including "Saving Private Ryan" and "Jurassic Park."  And last year he was nominated again for a Spielberg picture, "War Horse," which represented another chance to get loud. 

All those epics couldn't stand in starker contrast to the audio minimalism of "Lincoln," where Rydstrom had to figure out how just how loud to make the shuffle of Daniel Day-Lewis' slippers and the whirl of his pendulous pocket watch.

This year, his nod for sound mixing for "Lincoln" (shared with Andy Nelson and Ron Judkin) marks Rydstrom's 17th Oscar nomination. He spoke with TheWrap about how, in lieu of much combat footage to work with, he relished the idea of dialogue as warfare. 

Ticking clocks are a big element in the sound design of "Lincoln," right?
Exactly. It was true to the time — you heard clocks in all sorts of rooms. My job, I guess, is to take a simple sound effect and then give it some metaphorical meaning. So to me ticking clocks sort of exemplified the weight of time.

Lincoln’s trying to get something done, and history is moving forward, and he’s got only a certain amount of time to do it in. Plus, old clocks just sounded great. There’s a real ping to them, a tick, a clink. (Sound designer)

Ben Burtt found none of the actual clocks that existed in the White House then, but he found a pocket watch that belonged to Lincoln and recorded that, and we used that for the scene where Lincoln is swinging his pocket watch like a pendulum and thinking about what to do. That’s his actual pocket watch — which is great historically but also great because it happens to sound great. 

But you presumably didn't want to turn the clocks up so loud that people consciously considered the metaphor. 
Yeah, the soundtrack for the movie tries to be as realistic as possible, so we’re not trying to make an overt point. The dialogue drove the sound of this movie — everything from Lincoln’s voice and understanding every syllable he says to the congress scenes where they’re all shouting at each other.

It took me a while to realize this when we were putting the track together, but the left and right side of the House of Representatives were the Democrats and the Republicans, so the reactions from the crowds are very different on one side of the chamber from the other.

In the stereo sound world, it’s great to be able to take advantage of having people shouting angrily on the left and cheering wildly on the right. Clock ticks and all that are great, but the driving sound of this movie is the sound of the actors’ voices.

It does sound like the two sides of the House are ready to rumble.
I was joking early on, when we first talked about working on "Lincoln," is it gonna have some Civil War scenes, gonna have some fighting? It had no fighting in it, no real battles. But the House scenes are the equivalent of D-Day. They’re battle scenes unto themselves, but they’re verbal battle scenes.

How challenging is it to make single voices intelligible in a sort of political mob scene? How do the elements come together?
There are a fair amount of recordings from the set that we usually use. Then loop group will try to get certain kinds of voices, and they do research and have the secondary characters behind the main characters say things that make actual sense.

On top of that, we put effects crowds — crowds we’ve recorded for sound effects that are, in this case, all men, doing everything from cheering to hissing to laughing to booing. It is one of the harder things to do in sound work, to make a believable crowd, and the way they start, the way they stop.

Monty Python used to have this thing where they would hit a button and it would be this crowd cheer, and then hit another button and it would stop. That's the danger in crowds: How do you get in and out of them and not make them sound artificial?

So in the back of your mind, you're always thinking of avoiding the Monty Python effect? And then you have a score potentially competing for attention, too –although it is by no means wall-to-wall in "Lincoln." Didn't John Williams write more score than was used?
John Williams was at the mix with Steven every day, which was wonderful. It’s fun for me to watch them talk about where music should stop, when it should stop, try different cues, see what kind of feeling that is. 

I know that John Williams, in a very gracious, John Williams-like way, recorded various pieces so they could experiment even into the final mix with what type of music would work here and there. He gave more than a regular composer would have done. But in addition, the quality of the sound of the score, recorded by the Chicago Symphony in their symphony hall in Chicago, was gorgeous.

Everything else, even the parts that aren’t music, sounds more beautiful when the music is that beautiful. 

Didn't Spielberg's discussion with you about the plan start with his desire to hear the sound of slippers? I guess that's something it would be hard to put John Williams' score over.
Obviously in his and Tony Kushner's research and working with Doris Kearns Goodwin for a long time, he got to know Lincoln pretty well. Lincoln had a lot of quirks. It was the first thing that he mentioned to me long before I ever did any work on it. I’m thinking, “What kind of sounds should we be thinking about for Lincoln? Cannons, church bells,” whatever.

But the first thing that Steven mentions is, “Lincoln had these slippers, and he would walk around the White House.” So Daniel Day-Lewis walked around the set in slippers, and we dutifully matched that sound when we did foley. And he also wonderfully walked in the way Lincoln supposedly walked, which was a flat-footed shuffle, instead of a traditional heel-toe walk. And we had to go along with that as well for the soundtrack.

It was funny to get the first perspective that Steven had about the sound of this movie, and it involved slippers.

You collaborate with Spielberg on one project after another, and they're all so different, it must be like working with a lot of different directors, stylistically, with the benefit of not having to get to know so many new ones.
In the last few weeks, I also was working on a remastering of "Jurassic Park," because they’re re-releasing that in 3D. And I worked on that 20 years ago, so the fact that Steven Spielberg will make both "Jurassic Park" and "Lincoln" in his career is pretty amazing.

So he’s a good guy for someone like me to work with, because he doesn’t make the same movie over and over again.

Are you doing a different mix for "Jurassic Park"?
No. My philosophy with old sound work is, we can update it, make it a little bit bigger, more dynamic, do a little more panning. But the content of the sound mix is the same.

We did update for today’s technology, using somewhat the excuse that 3D pushes that movie into a different territory. Maybe it’s a little more spatial and intense, but it’s not a different mix at all, just enhanced.

But boy, it was fun to go back and revisit. And it was fun to be doing that around the same time we were thinking about "Lincoln." So, I got to do my clock ticks for Lincoln, and as long as I got to do a T. rex roar for "Jurassic," too, I was happy.