You might not know who Gary Rydstrom is, but you've certainly heard him before. This is a man whose pioneering sound work has won him seven (!) Academy Awards and brought to life groundbreaking technological advancements like the first film presented in DTS sound ("Jurassic Park") and re-crafting sound mixes in 5.1 surround (after his breakthrough work on "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," he and James Cameron created a new multi-channel mix for the original "Terminator"). He's also directed a pair of Pixar short films ("Lifted" and "Hawaiian Vacation") and overseen the English language dubs of four Studio Ghibli movies ("Tales from Earthsea," "From Up on Poppy Hill," "Arrietty," and last year's Oscar-nominated masterpiece "The Wind Rises"). In short: he's kind of the coolest dude around.

And this weekend he adds another accomplishment to his already unfathomably long list, when his debut feature film "Strange Magic" debuts in theaters nationwide. This bizarre, George Lucas-produced animated fairy tale, centered around mythical creatures in a land divided by dark and light, is also a full-on jukebox musical, featuring tunes from everyone ranging from The Four Tops to Kelly Clarkson. It's crazy. And if you make the leap, you'll certainly be rewarded. It feels very much like an old school animated film from the '70s and '80s, one that wasn't afraid to get dark and, well, strange.

We got a chance to sit down with Rydstrom (who couldn't officially confirm that he was busy working on a mix for a film that takes place in a galaxy far, far away) and talked to him about his failed Pixar feature "Newt," what he drew on from Pixar and Studio Ghibli for "Strange Magic," what his influences were, and what he'd like to direct next.

Moviefone: You were at one point going to direct "Newt" for Pixar. What was that going to be like?

Gary Rydstrom: It was going to be a romantic comedy about the last two of a species that are forced together. What's nice about "Strange Magic" is that I got to do a love story. I realized that love stories are hard to tell. That's what I was working on with "Newt" -- trying to do a good, old-fashioned romantic comedy. There were a lot of ideas there... Again how many times can a story be told about two unlikely characters getting together... But "Strange Magic," which was George's idea, not mine... But it's too unlikely characters getting together and I could get the feeling that I enjoyed with "Newt," I could get from doing "Strange Magic."

How did you come aboard? You came on in the last couple of years but before that "Brave" director Brenda Chapman was involved, right?

Well, Brenda Chapman came on because she's a great story person and she really shaped the story for the final stretch of the movie and she brought in the storyboard artist team. A lot of what's in the movie came from those storyboard artists. Brenda brought in some amazing people who came up with a lot of ideas that are in the movie now. So she was hugely influential in terms of getting the movie on track and shaping it into the story she became. She had to go off and do her own projects.

And you came over from Pixar?

I was at Pixar and I had just come back to Skywalker Sound, not to do this movie but to work on "War Horse." I have a longstanding relationship with Steven Spielberg so I was doing sound for "War Horse" and the opportunity to direct this film came up. And like every other opportunity in my career, I couldn't say no. So I jumped on it.

In addition to working for Pixar, you also oversaw the American dubs of several Hayao Miyazaki / Studio Ghilbi movies. What did you take from those two experiences when making "Strange Magic"?

I got into the Studio Ghibli English language directing because of Pixar, because of John Lasseter. Because he has a love of Miyazaki, which is great because what Pixar did to revolutionize computer-generated animation is so different, stylistically, than what Studio Ghibli did. But every animator loves Studio Ghibli. So for me it was a perfect opportunity for me. To me it's like the art student who goes to the Louvre and copies a great painting. I get to go do that to "The Wind Rises," which is an amazing movie, and you get to learn it and soak it up. That's your job -- to learn what Miyazaki was trying to do and then do that with your own cast. On top of that, all of the ones I've done, they attract the best actors. So if we want someone to do something for Studio Ghibli, they come do it. They're not saying yes to me. They're saying yes to this great project. So I get the experience of working with great actors, something that I continued to do with this one. I know that it helped me with great actors like Alan Cumming or Evan Rachel Wood because I've had so much fun times working on the Studio Ghibli films.

This movie has music pretty much nonstop. Was that something that was appealing to you, as a sound designer?

Well, I joked with Marius [de Vries, composer] when I took on the film that it felt like revenge from the universe, because as a sound effects guy, I would always fight with the composers -- in mixes you're always trying to get your stuff heard. Music and sound effects were always considered enemies in a lot of the mixes. I love my composer friends but that was always a struggle. So that was a weird karmic thing that the first feature I get to direct is an out-and-out musical... not just a little musical, it is a musical! But I loved doing a musical, just the energy of it. When the music is great, and the music really is great, then you get even more energy. So much of moviemaking is trying to get a drive to a film but with musicals, they're fun. Plus working with actors I like, but working with actors who can sing... Then I'm not directing or working, I'm just enjoying a concert I'm paid to attend.

You mentioned "Labyrinth" as one influence on "Strange Magic." What were some of the other films you looked to?

The other movie that George talked about, going back to Lucasfilm movies, was "American Graffiti," just in terms of songs being super strong and driving the story, was a big influence. And then "The Princess Bride," one of my favorite movies, was a big influence. It's a fairy tale that was magical and funny, so tonally it was nice. "Labyrinth" was nice because it was a Lucasfilm production, but it was weird. Thematically we wanted things that were weird but that you loved later. So weird is important.

Was there ever any fear of the movie getting lost after Disney bought Lucasfilm?

Well, it was an odd thing -- I had already started on this movie when Disney bought Lucasfilm. So they had this movie too, and they had to buy into it, which, to their credit, they did. We showed what we had and pitched the idea to them and they essentially re-green-lit it, and they did. Alan Horn, who is the head of Disney Studios, was wonderful both advocate for the movie and note-giver. He was a nice guide. Disney turned out to be a wonderful resource. They gave us great ideas and great notes.

What did Lasseter think?

I only showed it to John once it was done. He's helpful because he's within Disney and he helped with what Disney could do with marketing. I like the fact that it's a Lucasfilm animated film. There's only been two, really -- this and "Rango." So it has a feel all its own and I like that it's not Pixar and it's not Disney, it's its own thing.

You'll presumably be busy for the next few years on "Star Wars"-related projects, but is directing another animated feature something you'd like to do?

I don't need to direct just for the sake of it but I want to make movies. So for the right idea, the right project, sure. I also don't think that what I do has to be animated. Animation is great and I love it but there's so many ways to make movies, from a technical standpoint, that are animation-like or hybrids and digital and virtual and Lucasfilm is on the forefront of a lot of that thinking. I don't know what that future project might be but if it's animation, I'd love it.

Do you have fluidity within the company to go here and there? Is there a chance you could go back to Pixar or Disney Animation Studios?

Oh, for sure. That's what I like about the company. I have fluidity. I am liquid.

"Strange Magic" is in theaters nationwide.
categories Interviews, Movies