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Mixing A Different Box of Chocolates 

by Randy Thom, C.A.S. 
Working in Northern California, I'm lucky to be able to wear several movie-sound hats. I think it would slowly drive me nuts to be a rerecording mixer all the time or to edit or "sound design" all the time. So I try to alternate between these different jobs, trying to be facile enough in each while keeping a kind of useful innocence and naivete at the same time. Though all movies have some things in common, it is usually a big mistake to assume that what worked on the last one will work on the next one. Doing the sound for Forrest Gump may have been the most pleasant working experience I've had. Steve Starkey, the Line Producer of the film, approached me about working on it at the Lucasfilm July 4th picnic in '94. He knew I had grown up a Louisiana redneck and he figured I would know what kinds of sounds to put into this movie about a southern guy.  

On Gump I began working pretty soon after principal photography finished. It was being edited in Santa Barbara, and I went down to help put together a temp track to be used for preview screenings. We used some sounds from the usual libraries, and recorded things on DAT in the neighborhood. We edited the temp dialog, sound effects, and music onan 8 channel ProTools system we had set up in the dining room of the house in Santa Barbara and did the temp mixes there as well, actually mixing inside ProTools. The temp mixes were mono, which obviously simplified bussing and monitoring. The picture was being cut on a KEM, so we slaved the ProTools setup to a timecode track running on the KEM,and used the workprint on the KEM as our picture during the mixing.  

My getting involved fairly early on the project helped me and the movie because by the time the real sound editing and mixing began I knew pretty well what Bob Zemeckis expected, and I had been able to influence the editorial process a little bit by giving them examples of how sound effects could occasionally shoulder quite a bit of the storytelling responsibility. A good example of this is the Vietnam sequence, where there is a minimum of dialogue and music. I edited the final sound effects for this sequence and all of the ambiences for Gump on ProTools with the great help of my assistant, Phil Benson. The success of the battle scene in Gump has everything to do with the consistent and compelling point of view presented there. As soon as the first shot is fired all of the American soldiers hit the deck, and the camera goes there with them. Virtually every shot in the sequence strongly supports the point of view of either Forrest, or another soldier nearby, who are overwhelmed by the Vietnamese soldiers we never actually see. Since the camera is crawling around on the ground it is easy to justify hearing the bullets whiz by the ears of the audience. And since we are not constantly using camera reverses and jumping around the geography of the battlefield, it is easy to get a sense of distance when at first the mortars explode far away, then gradually closer and more intense until the Americans have no choice but to retreat.  

I couldn't have done anything as interesting with the sound if the visuals hadn't been done the way they were. The same goes for the transitions between the bus stop where Forrest tells his story, and the flashbacks to the action he describes. Bob and Tom Hanks knew that when Forrest was telling his story on the bench he shouldn't be looking at the people he was talking to before or after the flashbacks. The fact that he is looking straight ahead at nothing in particularputs him into the action he is describing and reinforces the idea that what we are hearing is usually his point of view. That opens the door for the sound of the bench to blend a little bit into the beginning of the story he tells, and for the sound associated with those stories to bleed over onto the bench as well. The most obvious example is the helicopters flying over our heads in Vietnam and continuing their flyby over the city park where Forrest waits for his bus. In moments like that it becomes clear how powerfully picture and sound can work together.  

Tom Johnson mixed the dialog, which was edited on mag, as were the sound effects I hadn't cut myself. The music arrived at the mix on mag and ProTools. Dennis Sands had recorded the score by Alan Silvestri, and Steve Starkey and I wanted him to be the music rerecording mixer too. There were about fifty pop songs in the movie. Trying to integrate those and the score was tricky to say the least, and Dennis worked miracles. Gloria Borders was the Supervising Sound Editor; she also cut the hurricane effects as well as most of the effects in the scene where Forrest first loses his leg braces.  

We mixed the film at Skywalker North, on an SSL 5000 console equipped with Flying Faders automation, which is very simple, powerful and doesn't require a professional typist. We premixed for three weeks and finaled for four weeks, including the Print Masters and the M and E. Gump was released in both Dolby Digital and DTS, with a Dolby SR analogue LT-RT. Wemonitored during most of the mix in Dolby Digital format. I don't think it is wise to release in Dolby "A" anymore. Any theater that still has only Dolby "A" equipment probably doesn't give a damn about sound anyway. I would rather the movie sound great in the best theaters than sound mediocre in every theater, so no Dolby "A" or simulated Dolby "A" for me if I have any say in the matter.  

Surrounds were an interesting issue on Gump. What with Pro Logic and AC3 there has been a flood of interest in surrounds, and the tendency now is sometimes to put lots of stuff into the surrounds just for the sake of novelty. Some movies can benefit from heavy use of surrounds and some will suffer from it. Bob Zemeckis and I agreed that Gump was in the latter category, so we used surrounds sparingly. Most of the score was bled into the surrounds, some ambiences, a couple of aircraft fly-overs, some bullet-by's, and that's about it. I'm not against surrounds, but we thought there was a danger of distracting the audience from this particular story by feeding too much material into the rear of the theater.  

Forrest Gump was a dream project for me. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to work on it. Receiving the CAS Award as best film mix of 1994 was a great honor for all of us on the sound crew. It was also a humbling experience, given the beauty of the sound in the other nominated movies.  

Forrest Gump:


Through the Ears of Forrest Gump
Sound designer and supervising sound editor Randy Thom has worked with director Robert Zemeckis several times now. You can hear him on the commentary for the "Cast Away" DVD, where his discussions provide almost a "mini-school" for sound design. During these featurettes, Thom is interviewed about his role in the sound for several different scenes and takes the viewer through how sound was mixed and made for each of the scenes. The specific sections are "the bike", "crowds", "vietnam", "rain" and "ping pong". Aaron Beierle (disc 2)

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