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Wired for Sound 

The Mill Valley Film Festival

Wednesday, Oct 6 1999
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Wired for Sound
Sound designers lament that, often, sound in a film is an afterthought. As a result, those who practice the craft of sound design find themselves in the shadow of those showy visual-effects guys, who get all the press and the offers to direct.

In an effort to turn up the volume on one of the least-appreciated, least-understood aspects of the business, the Mill Valley Film Festival's seminar "Screenwriting for Sound" brings together a panel of heavyweights, who alone and collectively constitute an Oscar monopoly: Gary Rydstrom (the sound designer for Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, Toy Story, and many other films), Walter Murch (who was both editor and sound designer on The English Patient and Apocalypse Now), Judith Rascoe (screenwriter of Havana and Who'll Stop the Rain), and Randy Thom (sound designer for Contact and Forrest Gump). Thom, who will act as moderator, has long been an articulate and vocal advocate for the full integration of sound into film.

"My soapbox in recent years has been to convince producers, directors, editors, and writers to take sound into account early on," says Thom. "There's something about the fact that the visual image came first in movies that has led sound to be a second-class citizen through most of the history of filmmaking."

Oddly enough, one of Rydstrom's pet peeves is that there is too much dialogue in movies -- he favors films that make use of visual storytelling. "I prefer sound that is subtle, that is doing the same thing that art direction is doing: trying to set a mood, to pull you along emotionally, making it evocative of a certain time and feeling," he says. But not surprisingly, both Thom and Rydstrom single out Apocalypse Now as the "Holy Grail of film sound" and give credit to Coppola and cerebral theorist Walter Murch. "Its impact was visceral," says Rydstrom.

"It kind of became the horse people rode if they wanted unusual sound for their films," observes Murch himself, a legend in his field who's spoken of in hushed, reverent tones by his colleagues. Though his work has helped elevate sound from a merely technical discipline to the level of art, Murch believes most filmmakers still need to learn to consider it earlier in the filmmaking process. "Sound is not something that should be applied later on as a coat of paint," he says. "It really has to be like certain stains that penetrate the wood. Sound needs to be part of the script."

The "Screenwriting for Sound" seminar will be held Sunday, Oct. 17, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Rafael Film Center. Tickets are $15; call 383-5346 for information.

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Sura Wood

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