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Influencers: Gary Rydstrom Brought Pixar Characters to Life with Sound

Pixar and Steven Spielberg’s longtime sound designer is one of IndieWire's craftspeople shaping the art of cinema today.

Sound designer and mixer Gary Rystrom

Sound designer and mixer Gary Rystrom

Shutterstock Rex/"Making Waves"/Universal/Pixar

From the roar of the T-Rex in “Jurassic Park” to the off-kilter, three-dimensional way Barry (Adam Sandler) travels through an off-kilter aural world in “Punch-Drunk Love,” to sound becoming the principal storyteller amidst the chaos of the D-Day invasion in “Saving Private Ryan,” Gary Rydstrom’s place on the Mount Rushmore of sound designers is secure. It’s a career that stretches back 30-plus years, resulting in 18 Oscar nominations and won seven wins, for projects ranging from “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” to “Titanic.”

Rydstrom’s most productive and longest collaboration has been with Steven Spielberg, but his most long-lasting impact was making Pixar’s digital animation come to life. Rydstrom started his career at Skywalker Sound, which ultimately led him to work on Pixar’s earliest achievements. In 1986, John Lasseter’s first experiment was animating the bouncing lamp in “Luxo, Jr.,” but it was Rydstrom’s springy creak that brought it life. Finding just the right sound grounded Luxo, giving it three-dimensionality and weight of a real object, but at the same time anthropomorphized it — the playful metal spring sound in essence becoming its voice and personality.

Rydstrom would do for Lassester’s nascent experiment what his mentor Ben Burtt had done for RD-D2 and the light saber in “Star Wars.” That sound of the metal lamp is still how we enter a Pixar film via the company’s logo, but it was bringing Woody and Buzz to life in the company’s breakout feature, “Toy Story,” that would catapult the company. While now voiced by recognizable Hollywood stars, it was Rydstrom’s sound that gave them feel of being real toys, finding sounds that bridged the gap between real-world objects and a personality.

Rydstrom’s Pixar credits encompass both “Finding Nemo” and “Brave,” as well as his own directorial effort, the Oscar-nominated short “Lifted.” He made his feature-length debut with the 2015 Lucas-produced “Strange Magic,” but his Pixar peers say that Rydstrom’s filmmaking mindset makes him a key part of the collaboration process when it comes down to finding appropriate sounds to suit the story.

“The beauty of Gary’s sound background is that his long and illustrious career has given him a masterclass from the titans of world cinema,” said Katherine Sarafian, who produced “Lifted” and “Brave.” “If you meet Gary, ask him about the dog bark or the subtle sound of the mailbox flag dropping. He’ll tell you these are things that can communicate so much.”

That skill was especially crucial for “Lifted,” the wordless tale of an alien studying how to abduct humans. “He had a canvas on which he could play out his filmmaking and comedic desires using sound design as the dialogue track,” Sarafian said. When the pair teamed up again for “Brave,” Sarafian said, “we were able to think about sound in a really creative way.”

Rydstrom’s skills became especially useful when two of the film’s mystical bear characters — Mum-bear and Mor’du — came into conflict. “We needed the audience to understand the distinction between them,” Sarafian said. “How should the two bears sound different? Gary was crucial in solving those kinds of problems with us.”

The 60-year-old shows no sign of slowing down: This past year, his credits included “Captain Marvel” and “Ad Astra,” while his upcoming work includes Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and Michael Bay’s “Robopocalypse.”

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