The Oscar-Nominated Sound Mixers: Gary Rydstrom of ‘War Horse’

The veteran sound designer already has seven Oscars, and could pick up a couple more for his second trip to the battlefield with Steven Spielberg

Actors, try not to be too envious: Sound people can be nominated twice in the same year for the same film. Of course, that’s only if they did both sound editing and sound mixing on a feature, which is still something of a rarity. Gary Rydstrom is one of those exceptional double-threats and is up in both categories for “War Horse.”

Gary Rydstrom, sound mixer and sound editor for 'War Horse'

Even if he doesn’t win either, his mantelpiece won't go wanting. Rydstrom already has seven Oscars: two for the ground-breaking “Terminator 2,” two more for “Jurassic Park,” one for “Titanic” and yet another pair for “Saving Private Ryan.”

Also read: Complete list of Oscar Nominees 

That record of wins is even more impressive when you consider that Rydstrom took almost a decade off from sound work to delve into animation, which led to his nomination for an Oscar for directing for the 2006 Pixar short “Lifted.” But a certain auteur lured him back into the audiophile fold. Rydstrom talked with us about the differences between “War Horse” and his previous battle-filled, Oscar-luring collaboration with Steven Spielberg.

You’ve had a long association with Spielberg, and the relationship must be very harmonious. But is there ever a moment when the two of you are disagreeing, and you say to him, “Look, Steven, you need to listen to me — I’ve got twice as many Oscars as you do”?

[Laughs.] You know, I think it’s a safe bet to say that I would never say that. What’s wonderful about working with Spielberg is that he’s open to ideas and gives people that he trusts a good dose of freedom to try things that we think work — but he’s also incredibly honest and right about when things aren’t working. So I trust him as a real filter for anything we might try to do. In fact, I feel like I can go a little further afield, with the safety net of knowing that he can watch his own movie like an audience watches it and know  when things are working and can help guide it to its final form. So it’s a nice thing to lean on, that gut instinct.

Having done “Saving Private Ryan” with him and then doing the combat sequences in “War Horse,” was there any sense of “We’ve already done one of these; we can use a certain shorthand”? 

The movie’s really about the organic world of horses and nature up against this mechanized world of war. So it’s pretty different than “Saving Private Ryan” was, even the battle stuff. Spielberg was always clear about “This is World War I, not World War II.” World War I has all kinds of different sound possibilities. Reading up on the Industrial Age, I saw that all these tanks and machine guns and equipment had been ready to go to war but hadn’t, really, for a long time. It was like they were unique toys that people could play with. So there was a kind of a primitive brutality to the mechanization of war that was pretty amazing. By World War II, things are a little more settled in. So World War I, we thought, should sound crazier and more primal.

What steps, specifically, do you take to arrive at “crazy and primal”?

There’s things like the machine guns. I recorded some of the real machine guns that were the first ones used in battle. They fire at a slower rate and seem a little bit clackier than the machine guns we had in “Private Ryan.” We even sweetened the machine guns with things that weren’t guns at all but had a mechanical or clacky element to it. And then tanks. There’s a really great scene with a Mark IV British tank, and I don’t think any of those things are still running, so we got to make up what one of the world’s first tanks would sound like. I had this old push lawnmower that had no engine, and it makes a great rattling sound. You slow that down, and it makes a great rattling for riding on this Mark IV tank. And then some of the other classic sounds of WWI are artillery buys: we used real artillery buys, but you could make an incoming artillery whistle on a classic tea whistle. And it sounded more primitive than the real thing, which is what we were going for emotionally.

Unlike “Private Ryan,” you’ve got all these scenes set in the countryside, so it covers the entire dynamic spectrum.

We start in Devon, England, and what would that sound like? The one thing we tried to stay true to was nature and birds and the sounds that would really exist in places like Devon. Then as we travel through, the organic world of birds seems to start disappearing in the face of war. Although in the middle of the movie, we go to this storybook French countryside house, with the little girl and her grandfather. And there, the ambience of the birds and everything else becomes over the top, as if it’s Hansel and Gretel’s house on a happy day. It’s romanticized. The movie as a whole is a journey with different tones and feelings as we travel and meet all these different characters. Which is great for sound, because we could shift the tone of the sound from moment to moment.

There’s nothing that’s more of a movie trademark in people’s minds than a John Williams score in a Steven Spielberg film. How do you balance that with the organic effects you want to get across?

One of the major things I’m doing in the final — as I’m mostly handling sound effects, ambiences, foley, that kind of thing — is making what I do work within what John Williams is doing and not conflict with it. And it’s a pleasure to do it, because the music in this movie was very emotional. 

In the main battle scenes, there’s no music, which is something “Private Ryan” did as well, which makes those moments a little grittier, a little more naturalistic. I love the music but when it’s not there, I enjoy the opportunity of “OK, now it’s all ours. We’ve got to make the scene work with just sound effects.” 

Laymen always have the perennial question: “What’s the difference between the two Oscar sound categories?” And why do different people usually do the different jobs? 

It’s amazing how many people at a party or a bar will say, “Hey, you’re in sound, explain why is there two categories in the Academy Awards?” And the best I can come up with is this: Sound editing is for the creation and choosing of the sound that goes into the movie. And sound mixing is the blending of those elements into something that feels dramatic. And they’re two very different jobs. It’s kind of like the art director on a set is choosing what the set looks like and what props are there and what colors they are, and the cinematographer is shooting it and making it look good on film. They’re two different jobs, but the goal is to make something look beautiful or appropriate on film. So the sound editing is the initiation of the sound, cutting the sound, choosing it… and then mixing is making it all blend seamlessly into something that hopefully is dramatic.

You have the title of “sound designer.” Is that a title you’d like to see the Oscars use?

Well, for the Academy Awards, for the sake of getting nominated, I’m technically a supervising sound editor. But I take the extra, highfalutin' title of sound designer for almost historical reasons. Because where I work, in northern California — the same as Ben Burtt did sound design for the “Star Wars” movies, and Walter Murch did sound design for “Apocalypse Now” — there’s a tradition of people I know who are mentors to me. In the area of the country where I work, there’s a history to that term, so I come at it historically. What I like about it is that it implies someone who really is the author of a soundtrack, so from the very beginning — the first discussions with the director — to the end of the mix, I feel like it’s my job to design the soundtrack. So I like the term, although other people might think it’s a little too big for its britches. 

What theatrical sound format did you use for “War Horse”?

“War Horse” was done in 7.1, which is a pretty new format. Traditionally we had two discrete sound channels, or with Dolby EX we had three, and this gives you four. And you essentially have two side surrounds and then two back surrounds. For “War Horse” in particular, it was wonderful, because you can imagine artillery buys traveling the sidewall or traveling across the theater. It was great to articulate spatially those kind of things. So I am all for anything that is more enveloping for an audience. 

I was curious about that seven-year gap in your filmography, as a mixing guy, between “Finding Nemo” in 2003 and then “War Horse” and “MI4” this year. But you were certainly busy in the meantime doing non-sound work in animation. Now you're back with Skywalker Sound.

I’m going through my renaissance phase where I can try a couple of different things. I was a full-time employee at Pixar, so I didn’t do any other sound work. I immersed myself in the world of animation and developing stories and directing those two short films. But “War Horse” was the reason I came back to doing sound, because Spielberg asked me, and between him and the subject matter, it was an impossible option to turn down. That enticed me back, and now I’m looking forward to doing some other sound projects — including doing sound for the next Pixar film, “Brave,” in my sort of cross-pollination world. So for the first time in my life, I’m a free spirit who can do sound jobs or animation or Studio Ghibli animation directing or God knows what else. I was an employee for a long time, so now I feel like I should sew my wild oats in my career and have a little fun.