Constructing a Sound Film
In designing the sound composition, Rydstrom and Gold approached the project in many ways as they would a film, using the film industry’s standard three-act structure as their template. “Basically, I built scenes and shots as though it was a normal production,” Gold says. “I typically start out with way too much stuff—my initial edit of the first act alone was 20 minutes—which is what often happens in a film production. It’s not unusual that a first cut will be 5 hours long. So a big part of the process is actually going through and getting rid of a lot of things that you’ve put in, continually cutting and trimming. So in some ways it’s been very similar to working on any movie.”
Although there was a certain freedom in not having to tether the sound to any action or dialogue, this was also part of the challenge for the two designers. Instead of a rough cut, which sound designers typically use to compose, all they had to work with were the notes Discenza had compiled about Montana’s screenplay. These consisted primarily of descriptions of a handful of specific scenes, references in the script to other films and books written or set in San Francisco, and Discenza’s own comments regarding the sort of mood or atmosphere he imagined for the story. Occasionally, this left Rydstrom and Gold in uncharted territory. “On a normal production, the image can be a crutch,” says Gold. “Typically, whenever I get stuck, I always look at the screen, because that’s where the answers usually are…but here I wasn’t able to do that, so I had to invent other ways to navigate through the process. Sometimes I would just put up an image of the view from the tower and work off that.”
Ultimately, Rydstrom and Gold had to be guided by the images or associations the material conjured in their own imaginations. Part of their strategy was to incorporate sounds that they had always wanted to use but for which the right project had never come along, or sounds they had built for other films that hadn’t made it to the final cut. “In any project, there’s always elements you get really attached to that for one reason or another don’t make it in,” says Gold. “This project became a way for some of that material to have a second life…there are a few ghosts from other movies lurking in this one.”
Another component of Rydstrom and Gold’s approach was to connect aspects of the composition to some of the San Francisco locations depicted in the screenplay. Since one of the things that had drawn the team to The Companions in the first place was the way its narrative was so steeped in the city’s unique landscape, this seemed to be another way to give the work a layer of site specificity. Montana’s screenplay is filled with scenes that take place at well known landmarks, such as The Legion of Honor and the old Pacific Bell building at 140 New Montgomery. In particular, the enormous and iconic Sutro Tower (which sits directly opposite the Hamon Observatory) plays a starring role in The Companions, a sinister focal point around which the story orbits, and where it reaches its violent, transcendent culmination.
Rydstrom and Gold used these references as entry points into the sound piece. Most notably, The Companions’ opening scene at the Legion of Honor gave the designers an opportunity to access the enormous Skinner Organ, a 4,500-pipe instrument that had been built into the very architecture of the museum during its construction. The team spent several afternoons recording organist Jonathan Dimmock running through various compositions, including works by Mendelssohn and Oliver Messiaen, that eventually became central components of the project’s “score.”
The work makes extensive use of Skywalker’s vast catalog of sound elements, along with the field recordings made at the Legion of Honor. Rydstrom and Gold used over 1,500 discreet sound elements in the composition, with around 200 of those being new sounds created specifically for the project (many of these include the communication and transmission effects, along with a set of sounds Gold describes as “time/space/reality bending” elements.) Reflecting The Companions' San Francisco setting and the placement of the work in Hamon Tower, the composition also features many iconic sounds associated with the city, such as streetcars, foghorns, and seagulls. Meanwhile, in keeping with the tradition of the Marvel Comics movies on which Gold worked, the composition contains a number of hidden "Easter eggs" and other filmic references, especially to other movies set in the city (the bongos from The Conversation make an appearance).
This aspect of the work subtly highlights another practice of sound design that often goes unnoticed by general movie-going audiences: the recycling of sounds for use in different films. The most well known example is the infamous “Wilhelm scream,” which has been used in over 382 films since it was originally recorded in 1951. These hidden sonic linkages between unrelated films is reflected in Sounds for a Lost Screenplay; for example Rydstrom uses wind elements that were originally created for Pixar’s A Bug’s Life—but which would be perhaps more likely recognized by a listener as the sound of the wind from the iconic “King of the world!” scene in James Cameron’s Titanic.
The final 24-channel composition is a moody, urgent fusion of multiple cinematic genres explored through the vernacular of sound design. Using Discenza’s notes as their departure point, Rydstrom and Gold eventually constructed their own vision of The Companions, building a sequence of scenes that takes the audience from an unnerving encounter in Golden Gate Park, through the labyrinthine interior of the malign corporation Global Sequence, to a cataclysmic confrontation atop Sutro Tower. Distilling an entire movie’s worth of story into a compact 20 minutes, the composition hurtles listeners from the naturalistic sounds of crowded city streets into highly constructed effects suggestive of malignant extra-dimensional forces and fractured time. The sound composition does not “tell” the story of Montana’s screenplay so much as it channels it, immersing listeners in a sonic environment that continually articulates different tropes of cinematic narrative. Rydstrom and Gold make generous use of sounds one might imagine in the context of a “conventional” action film—motorcycles chases, circling helicopters, but usher in a wealth of stranger, less identifiable sounds less tethered to clear action. Rydstrom, who worked on the sound for films like Minority Report and AI, describes his and Gold’s interpretation of The Companions as “psychological science fiction,” but also sees the project as a consideration of his role in the film industry. “The work is definitely self-aware,” observes Rydstrom. “In some ways the project is Josh and I thinking about our relationship to movie-making as much as it’s our interpretation of the screenplay.”
When you're done reading, continue learning about the project in Part II: The Story.