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July 1, 2013

'Star Wars' Sound Designer: Interactive Devices Are Our Friends & Should Sound Friendly

randy thom skywalker ranch oscar winner winning sound design designer audio post production interactive technologyMicrosoft has a history of recognizing the importance of elegant design. In January, the creators of the Windows 8 logo announced that they were to redesign NYC's "notoriously confusing parking signs." This sensitivity has also extended to sound design in the past, when experimental composer/producer Brian Eno was approached to create the Windows 95 start-up sound," familiar to many I'm sure. Now, Microsoft's YouTube channel has posted an interesting little video featuring Oscar-winner Randy Thom (The Incredibles, The Empire Strikes Back), the current Director of Sound Design at Skywalker Ranch, on the importance of the sound design of interactive technology. Simplicity -- and, as it turns out, friendliness -- are key.

This share comes to us via Filmmaker IQ, featured on Microsoft's official YouTube channel. Coming from decades of experience in the artful articulation of that other half of our medium, Randy Thom discusses how interactive technologies become like our friends and why they therefore need to sound -- well -- friendly.

Randy's thoughts here have significance for the designers of the devices we will use on a daily basis, but this extends to filmmakers as well. The believability of technology in science fiction films, for instance, really hinges on the performance of the sound designer. It doesn't get more literally 'artificial' than future tech in film, because everything from the VFX animating it to 'life,' to its role in the narrative -- its personality, even -- must be, by definition, artificial. This makes the characteristics of a sonic performance all the more vital for the credibility of that device, interface, or robo-buddy.

Speaking of robo-buddies, I'm reminded of one of my personal favorite films, Forbidden Planet, and perhaps its most famous character: Robby the Robot. I was recently fortunate enough to catch a theatrical screening of the film, and was struck by just how empathetic Robby, a piece of technology, truly is as a character -- just as I was as a young kid watching for the first time.

Given Robby's deficiencies in traditional expression -- we can't read his face in quite the same ways we can any human character -- I would argue a major part of Robby's empathic character comes from sound. A great portion of this is due to the (uncredited) voice acting of Marvin Miller, certainly, but the rest comes from Robby's tendency to pause and compute, with a characteristic 'processing' sound accompaniment. Just as much as one can see the gears turning in Robby's head, so too can one hear the gentle clunker crunching numbers with his lovable transistors and gyro-thingies. All of which cumulatively create a believable, and as Mr. Thom says above, deceivingly simple, imitation of functioning -- and friendly technology.

Metropolis excluded for obvious reasons, what films have struck you for the believability or empathy of their technological characters? How would the effect have suffered with a different approach to their sound design? What technical devices or robotic characters could have benefitted from a decidedly simpler sound design?

Link: Microsoft YouTube Channel

[via Filmmaker IQ]

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May 30, 2014

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