Sorcerers of Sound

Photo of Oscar winner Ethan Van der Ryn on a Sony Studios sound stage at work on his latest project,

Oscar winner Ethan Van der Ryn on a Sony Studios sound stage at work on his latest project, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."
Photo by Ann Johansson.

In 2007's "There Will Be Blood," a film about a ruthless oil baron in turn-of-the-century California, there's a spectacularly violent scene involving an oil well explosion. A gusher erupts with such ferocity that the protagonist's young son, sitting nearby, is rendered deaf.

What makes the scene so horrifying is not just the injury to the unlucky child, but the rhythmic creaking and groaning that issues eerily from a wooden oil derrick as torrents of black goo shoot skyward. The ominous sound foreshadows something dreadful.

In the audience's mind, that creaking and groaning is exactly how an old-fashioned derrick must have sounded as the earth shifted underneath. But in fact it's the magic of Hollywood. The film's sound designer, Chris Scarabosio (B.A., '90), created the effect in part with a digital audio recorder and a rusty swing set in his Bay Area backyard.

"It was in the spring, after a long, rainy winter, and the kids were getting on the swing, and it was making the most horrendous creaking sound. So I got out my recorder. I'm constantly doing that, because you never know when you're going to need something," said Scarabosio, whose skill and resourcefulness were rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for the film.

"Star Wars" director George Lucas said famously that sound is 50 percent of the film-going experience. Cinemaphiles debate that assertion endlessly but assuming that Lucas is even half right, moviegoers owe a debt of gratitude to San Francisco State University.

SF State's academic programs have turned out a prodigious number of the film industry's best sound designers, editors and mixers. They're the sorcerers of sound who twist and tweak snippets of audio to produce effects so realistic you would swear they came directly from the flickering image on the screen.

Open your newspaper to the movie section on any given day, and there's a better than even chance that an SF State alum had a hand in the sound of a new release playing at a theater near you. Brandon Proctor (B.A., '98), who works at Lucas' Skywalker Sound in Marin County, supervised the re-recording mix for "Bruno," Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up to "Borat." Ethan Van der Ryn (B.A., '90) handled sound supervising for the warring-robots sequel "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." Shawn Murphy (B.A., '68) mixed the score for the John Travolta-Robin Williams comedy "Old Dogs."

If one road from SF State leads to the sound stages of the Bay Area and Los Angeles, another seems to lead to the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. Christopher Boyes (B.A., '85), regarded by many as the film industry's top re-recording mixer, has won Academy Awards for "King Kong," "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," "Pearl Harbor" and "Titanic." Van der Ryn, a venerated name in the action-movie sound effects world, is a two-time Oscar winner for "King Kong" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." Murphy, a sought-after score mixer, took home a statuette for "Jurassic Park." Scarabosio, who also works at Skywalker Sound, won a Golden Reel Award for best sound editing for "Titanic." For best sound effects editing for "Terminator 2," the Oscar went to Gloria Borders (B.A., '78), who now heads PDI/DreamWorks, the Redwood City animation studio.

Behind SF State's evolution as a breeding ground for talented "sound geeks," as Van der Ryn calls his ilk, is a confluence of factors: the right university in the right place at the right time.

"The Bay Area has been known as a haven for creative sound work ever since [Francis Ford] Coppola and [George] Lucas moved there from L.A. in the 1970s," says Van der Ryn. "They had sound designers who became icons of the business, guys like Walter Murch and Ben Burtt, who were using sound in really creative ways."

At the same time, SF State's well-regarded cinema and broadcasting programs were attracting audio buffs like Scarabosio, who as a teenager was so enamored of sound that he would wander his Glen Park neighborhood with a boom-box recorder capturing anything that caught his ear -- random bits of conversation, bats flying late at night, the rustle of leaves. "There's something about the emotional content of sound that was really intriguing to me," he says. "It's that primal sense, the raw emotion, that comes from something that is not attached to a visual that got me really excited."

As a broadcast and electronic communication arts student, Scarabosio took an internship at Focused Audio, a San Francisco recording studio where he worked on sound for "Gumby: The Movie." A few months short of graduation, Scarabosio stopped by the Lucasfilm table at a career fair. Lucasfilm is the parent company of Skywalker Sound, then and now the first-choice destination for ambitious sound professionals. Getting hired was difficult in Scarabosio's day and even harder now. Before he left the career fair, the recruiter was sufficiently impressed with Scarabosio's background to offer him a job-winning interview.

Jonathan Greber parlayed a Music/Recording Industry certificate from SF State into a job at Skywalker Sound in the mid 1990s. That was back in the days of 35mm magnetic film, long since replaced by digital recording. But Greber, now a production manager at Skywalker Sound, wouldn't trade his analog training from SF State for anything. "What I got was a really solid, signal-flow education. Signal flow is understanding how the audio signals gets from point A to point B. Getting that fundamental education really helped me understand digital audio."

The sound work performed at facilities such as Skywalker Sound is called audio postproduction. The term refers roughly to the music, dialogue and sound effects work that happens after a film is shot. A sound designer might create audio in the way that Scarabosio captured the squeaky-swing set. Sound mixers might take that squeaky swing sound and combine it with other audio elements to produce the creaking and groaning of the wooden oil derrick. Working at a huge console with blinking red lights and hundreds of levers, a supervising sound editor like Van der Ryn would take the sound effects and dialogue -- recorded during shooting and later in a process called looping -- and put it together to create the final soundtrack. The music, usually orchestral, is typically recorded separately. Murphy has recorded and mixed the music for some 300 feature films, working at concert halls and studios around the world.

Film sound is largely an art that conceals itself. "People only notice it when there's something wrong with it," says Van der Ryn. That analysis sounds paradoxical; the whole purpose of film sound is to be heard. But Van der Ryn's point is that the audio isn't there to draw attention to itself but rather to serve the story, to help the audience fall under the spell of a make-believe world.

"You're here to support the story telling," says Murphy. "People noticing an element, even if it's gratifying, is maybe not a good thing."

Van der Ryn works on the Sony Studios lot in Culver City. Strewn about his office are the tools of his trade -- magnets, cowbells, ball bearings, power tools, a trumpet, and various pieces of metal. Van der Ryn is working on the "Transformers" sequel, trying to create sounds that will conjure images in moviegoers' minds of inanimate machines transforming themselves into alien robots and back again.

"The movie has 40 robots, and I want each of them to have a distinctive sound," he says.

Van der Ryn grabs a couple of small torpedo-shaped magnets and tosses them in the air. The magnets produce a buzzing-vibrating sound as their poles repel and attack. "It's almost vocal," he says -- exactly what he was looking for.

In "Kung Fu Panda," Van der Ryn needed a "boing" sound for Po the Panda's rotund belly. "I remember as a kid I always wanted to make one of those jug-band bases from a broomstick and a chord. So it popped into my head, we should build one of those and do a big bass note."

A shopping trip to Home Depot produced the necessary ingredients. "It's all about creating sounds from scratch that can make the pictures on screen feel real and believable and come alive," he says.

Great cinema sound often happens serendipitously. In the early 1990s, Boyes was at Marine World in Vallejo recording baby-elephant sounds for "Jurassic Park." Just as he walked away, his recorder still running, the elephant let out a "great little roar" that would end up coming out of the sharp-toothed mouth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the blockbuster movie. Audiences loved the roar, which would set the standard for T-rex vocalizations and brand Boyes as the go-to guy for dinosaur sound.

"What I'm doing right now in a studio is creating sound for a giant dinosaur flying bird. I'm using a sea otter, a whale below water, and a penguin. Some of them I recorded myself. I keep [the sounds] like little pieces of food that I'm going to make a soup out of."

Proctor encourages sound enthusiasts who want to get into the film business to carve their own path. "Be flexible and eclectic. Put your thumbs in a lot of different pies," he says. But if you're looking for public recognition, he advises, you might be happier choosing a different career. If you asked a typical moviegoer to name one sound designer or mixer or editor, you'd probably get a blank stare. That's fine with Murphy.

"I think that most of us are pretty content to be anonymous and go off and do our work in a high-quality way that contributes to the story-telling, and let the public enjoy the film not knowing what it took to make it."