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Randy Thom, Sound Designer,
'What Lies Beneath'

By Elina Shatkin

"I'm always amused when I'm introduced to somebody as a sound person. They often say something like, 'Well, sound is so important to film.' Saying that tells me that they don't really think sound is important at all, because they would never, if they were introduced to the director of photography, say, 'You know, visual images are so important to film.' Clearly somebody who says that doesn't understand how important sound really is."

That's the pronouncement from Randy Thom, one of Hollywood's premier sound designers. His latest collaboration with director Robert Zemeckis is "What Lies Beneath," a thriller from DreamWorks starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford. Thom previously did the sound design on two other Zemeckis films, "Contact" and "Forrest Gump," which earned him two of his eight Oscar nominations in the sound categories. He received an Oscar in 1984 for his work on "The Right Stuff."

How did you split the responsibilities between you and your supervising sound editor, Dennis Leonard?
Dennis' main job on this film -- I could say the same of the film that we did before, "The Iron Giant" -- was to supervise the rest of the editors who were working on the project and take care of the constant rescheduling. That always seems to be necessary because everything is constantly changing -- when you record foley, when editors come and go, etc. He was also reporting to DreamWorks and to Bob Zemeckis' producers, Steve Boyd and Steve Starkey, about expenses and deadlines. Dennis certainly had some creative input, but his job was mainly administrative.

Did you talk with Robert Zemeckis about the sound design?
I always try to get involved as early as possible on projects. The sound people are typically not brought on until the last possible minute, and I think that's a terrible way to organize things. It's symptomatic of the fact that sound isn't taken very seriously in filmmaking. A certain amount of lip service is paid to sound, but that's usually as far as it goes. I think if you really take sound seriously, you start thinking about it as early as possible, and Zemeckis certainly does that. You get people involved -- the composer and me and a variety of other people -- as early as possible so that you can begin figuring out how the sound is going to work in the film.

I think another misconception about sound in movies is that the director knows from the beginning exactly how everything is going to sound; that's almost never the case. As with any work of art, you discover the most important things as you go. You learn by trying things that don't work, going down dead-end streets and doing a lot of experimentation. What I typically do on Zemeckis films is I have some initial conversations really early, ideally before the shooting starts. That way, from looking at the script and talking with the director, I can say, "How about if we do this? Since the camera is going to be doing this according to the script, how about if I try this?" Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

What do you talk about with a director in these early conversations?
Let's use "What Lies Beneath" as an example. It was clear from reading the script that Claire (Pfeiffer) hears things in the house. But it wasn't clear exactly what she was going to hear. At one point, voices are mentioned, so we assumed that she would hear voices of some kind. But what kinds of voices? Would they be wailing voices or people in conversation or whispering? It turned out to be whispering. That was an early topic of discussion -- exactly what is she going to hear? And should the house develop a set of voices, too? That is, since several of the scenes happen in the bathroom, should we figure out a way to make the pipes creak and groan in a way that sounds like voices? Or should we just use eerie and sinister sounds? I often begin by brainstorming and knowing something about the script in terms of what sound will nudge along the story and heighten the drama or emotion of a scene.

You bring up an interesting point, because I wanted to ask you about the bathtub scene. What kind of sounds did you include in that scene to heighten the tension and push along the story?
There are several bathtub scenes. I assume you mean the one where Claire nearly drowns in the bathtub?

Yes. I'd like to talk about all of them, but let's talk about that one first.
From the earliest discussions, we knew that we didn't want to overdo it. We didn't want to make the near-drowning sequence too "sound designy." As an overarching rule, I think the most important factor in determining the degree to which sound will participate in the storytelling is how point of view is handled. The reason I say that is because I think the most powerful sound sequences in movies are POV sequences. POV sequences are great for sound, because once the audience gets the impression that what they are experiencing is being filtered through somebody else's consciousness, the filmmaker can do almost anything he or she wants and viewers will accept it.

Filmmakers can take all kinds of artistic license in determining exactly how a person sees something or hears something. In an extreme example, things can get out of focus, indicating that a character is beginning to lose consciousness. Or things can get very dark, or the colors can change. And you can do analogous things with the soundtrack. Even though this near-drowning scene in the bathtub is a POV sequence, we didn't want to go too far out on a limb. But we were able -- partly because at a certain point her ears go underwater -- to alter all of the sounds the audience hears at that point. We muffled them to sound like they're underwater. After that point, even though there are more shots above the water, you hear everything as if you were underwater and inside her brain.

I should mention that this POV thing has a lot to do with how dialogue is used in a sequence. It almost always works best when there's no dialogue or when the dialogue is sparse. I can't tell you how many times I've tried to wedge sound design into sequences that are filled with people talking to each other, and it virtually never works. I don't pretend to know all the reasons why it doesn't work, but one of them is that when people talk, it activates a certain part of people's brains as they shut out the nonliteral stuff that I'm talking about. You can't do both things at the same time unless the dialogue itself is altered in some way.

Before her ears go under the water, you're hearing pretty much what you would hear in that room. You're hearing the faucet filling up the tub, and you're hearing Norman (Ford) walking around the bathroom and talking and moving things. When her ears go under the water, we muffle the sound -- that is, muffle everything you do hear -- so you hear a muffled version of the water going into the tub, and you hear muffled versions of her movements because she tries to manipulate the shower device, which is lying on the bottom of the tub, so that she can use it to turn the faucet off. You hear the little squeaks and scrapes that that makes in kind of a muffled and slightly reverberant way. We added some bubble sounds and a couple of what I hoped were going to be subtle, nearly musical tones.

Bob decided early on that there probably wasn't going to be any music in this near-drowning scene. We did a similar thing in "Contact," when Jodie Foster first gets onto the device that's going to take her into another dimension. Bob felt strongly that he didn't want music there, because on some level music always tells you that you're watching a movie, and he wanted that sequence in "Contact" to feel like an amplified documentary. So he didn't use a score there. In a sense, the score was the sound effects. The bathtub sequence in "What Lies Beneath" is similar. There are a couple of musical stings to frighten the audience before it happens, but once she goes under the water, there's no music in the traditional sense. There are a couple of slightly sinister musical tones that I put in on top of the bubbling and the water flowing into the tub.

How did the sounds in this bathtub scene differ from the effects in the other bathroom scenes?
The others are very literal and straightforward. The first scene in the film after the main title sequence is Claire in the bathtub. The scene begins with her face bursting out of the tub as if she's coming out of a dream. You hear her splashing around in the tub, and the bathroom has a normal tonality.

The scene that's probably the "sound designiest" in terms of the bathroom is the one where she leaves the bathroom, walks through the other room, comes back into the bathroom, and the bathtub is mysteriously filled in the 30 seconds that she's left the room. She creeps into the bathroom, and you hear crickets outside the house. As she goes deeper into the bathroom, the tone of the crickets changes to a sinister one. It's a little cricketlike, but it isn't crickets at all. Those cricket sounds function like music; they have a musical sense about them, but there's no melody. It's just a sinister musical tone.

In that scene, the bathroom is filled with mist, which is another visual technique that opens the door to more subjective sound. There's a number of things that you can do visually to open the door to creative sound design. Darkness is one of them. The darker a shot is, the more you can do with the sound, because there's a certain mystery about it. Smoke and mist tend to make me happy as a sound designer because they allow me to do more things.

You mentioned that you and Robert wanted to have whispering voices in the house as opposed to wailing voices. Why?
There's this question in the story of whether Claire is really hearing this stuff or not. Is she somehow hearing the people next door? Are there really people inside the house? Are these voices only in her head? Is she going insane? We decided after some experimenting that the whispering helped maintain that ambiguity in the best way. We knew that we didn't want to understand the voices.

I wound up using bits and pieces of many things to make these whispers. Some of it is Michelle Pfeiffer whispering, some of it is the woman who played Madison, Amber Valletta, and some of it is the voices of old Mexican-American women who were praying. That had an interesting sound about it to me, so I cut that into pieces and played it backwards, so that even if you listen to it all by itself and you speak Spanish, you won't be able to understand what they're saying. Somehow it comes across as mystical or spiritual.

What kind of effects did you need to foley or rerecord to enhance their effect? Were there some specific instances where that was very important?
You probably know what foley is, but there are a lot of misconceptions about it, so maybe I should do my 30-second explanation. Foley is a particular way of recording certain kinds of sound effects. That is, it's recording sound effects while looking at visual images of those actions taking place. You could do an entire film without any foley and still put in all those sound effects. You simply go out and record individual footsteps without looking at the picture while you're doing it, and the editor then has to cut every single footstep into sync. That would be very labor-intensive for the editors, so in the '30s, a man named Jack Foley started recording sounds while watching the scene. If you have a really good foley performer who can get stuff in sync quickly, then it's a labor-saving device. Some people think that foley is just footstep sounds.

I wonder how much sound has to be rerecorded on a typical Hollywood film.
Lots of things. Virtually everything. That's partly because any time there's dialogue in a scene, you eventually have to lose the English dialogue to create dubbed versions of the movie. So every sound that you recorded on the set while there's somebody talking is unusable for the foreign version of the movie.

I never realized that.
You have to eventually create an artificial soundscape for everything in the movie anyway. Much of that stuff doesn't get used in the domestic release of the movie. It only gets used in the foreign-language or dubbed versions.

So you had two separate versions of the sound? One for the domestic release and one for the foreign release?
Oh, yeah -- you have to do that for every film. In the domestic version you use as much as you can of the dialogue that was recorded while the camera was rolling. In the dubbed versions -- and most people in the world still see dubbed versions of movies -- you have to lose all of the English. So you find all of these sounds that were recorded and edited but didn't go into the domestic version and put those into something called an M&E, a music and effects track, which is combined with the foreign-language dialogue to make the foreign mixes for the various countries.

For instance, the sequence I mentioned a minute ago, where Claire walks into the misty bathroom, contains close-ups of her bare feet. There were not good enough recordings of that made on the set, partly because the camera was noisy and there were other off-screen sounds. We recorded those sounds in post-production and put them in, but they're the kind of sounds that people might assume were recorded while the camera was rolling because there's nothing really special about them. When Michelle, in one of the scenes that's a kind of tip of the hat to "Psycho," pulls on the shower curtain and falls onto the floor, that's actually the sound of Dennis Leonard, the supervising sound editor, falling onto a bathroom floor.

It must be a hard thing to get the rhythm down right when you record footsteps in foley. Do you go back to the same foley performers again and again?
A supervising sound editor or a sound designer typically uses the same foley walkers. It's like everything else; some foley performers are very good at prop sounds; that is, finding imaginative things. Let's say a character in a film is operating a black box with knobs and buttons on it; a really good foley artist will go out and find something they can use to make the sounds for it. Some foley people are great with props, and some are amazing at getting footsteps exactly in sync in only one or two takes. Denny Thorpe and Janna Vance performed the foley for this film and most of the films that I've worked on. They're great.

Oftentimes with horror films and thrillers, there will be a set of audio cues that occur every time the supernatural presence appears. Did you do anything like that?
The whispering is really the only thing. There's a lot of whispering in the movie, and there are a lot of water sounds. It's called "What Lies Beneath," and ultimately, we find out that one of the meanings that has is that this body is beneath the surface of the water. For instance, when Claire goes to Madison's mother's house, it's next to a river, which you hear only a bit when she's outside the house. You don't hear it at all in the living room, where Claire and Madison's mother are having their initial conversation, but in Madison's room I included a very loud sound of flowing water. It's the kind of thing that probably doesn't register with many people who see the movie, but it's a clue that water is important to solving this mystery.

When in the editing process did you start putting in the sound, and how did your job intersect with the editor's, Arthur Schmidt?
It intersected a lot. Good, imaginative picture editors do a huge amount of this sound experimenting that I talked about earlier. Artie is certainly one of those. Picture editors often don't get enough credit for doing sound design, because a picture editor doesn't simply cut out the boring stuff in the movie -- it's their job to make the movie work. One of the tools that picture editors have at their disposal is sound. So the editor working with the director often does amazing sound work before any sound people ever actually show up. Since I try to get involved early on the Zemeckis films, Artie Schmidt and I are often exchanging ideas. He'll say, "What if we try this?" and I do some experimenting. I play things for him, and he plays things that he's done for me. It's a great collaborative process.

How did your job intersect with the composer's, in this case Alan Silvestri?
It's a good question. Unfortunately, the composer and the sound people typically never have a conversation. It's one of those things that I think is just ludicrous about the way movies are made. There are many practical reasons why this is the case. The composer is in the same boat as the sound people. He or she isn't brought on until the last possible minute. They're crazed trying to come up with 90 minutes of music, and the last thing they want to do is have a meeting to brainstorm about how the music and the sound effects are going to work together. The sound effects people typically feel the same way. But that's a tragic thing.

Like I said before, you never really know what's going to work until you try things, and the only way to try things is to try them in collaboration with what other people are doing. So Alan and I talk, and Bob talks with both of us. Some directors -- especially the young ones who don't quite know what they're doing think, "If I tell the composer that it's 100% his job to make the scene work, and if I tell the sound effects people that it's 100% their job to make the scene work, then each of them will build an arsenal of sound, and in the final mix we can weed out what works and what doesn't."

I think that's a completely wrongheaded way of going at things. You'd probably be amazed at how often that is the case. Both teams do build this arsenal of sound, and it's kind of a logjam battle in the final mix to see what's going to wind up in the scene. On the Zemeckis films, we go out of our way to try to avoid that. On "Contact" and on "What Lies Beneath," we had many discussions early on about whether a given scene was going to be driven mostly by music or by sound effects. We would decide in most cases which it was going to be, and that was great for me. It's great for the composer, too, because we can both concentrate our energies on the scenes where our work is really going to be heard. We don't waste our time coming up with a lot of stuff that is never going to wind up in the movie.

On this next project that we're working on, "Castaway," we're going to try to do more collaboration, where the two of us come up with sounds together. We hope that some of these will not be immediately identifiable as either music or sound effects, but will fall somewhere in between. That's a level of collaboration that almost never happens, but I'd like to see it more.

You said earlier that you were careful to avoid making it too "sound designy." How do you think that sound designers overdo it?
I've certainly overdone it enough. The same thing happens with visuals all the time. I think when something calls attention to itself rather than serving the story -- that's what I'm talking about. You never want the audience to think, "Wow, what a cool sound that is" when they're watching the film, because if they're doing that, they're not really watching or listening to the film. They're thinking about the techniques behind the film, which is fine on the third or fourth viewing, but it's not what you want them to be doing when they're initially in the movie theater. You want them to be lost in the dream of the movie.

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