Gary Rydstrom is a wizard with sound. In the last three decades, he’s worked with James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Pixar, racking up seven Oscars and nine more nominations for his contributions to such films as “Titanic,” “Minority Report,” “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” and “Finding Nemo,” among others. Although the new film “The Secret World of Arrietty,” the latest production from Japan’s revered animation house Studio Ghibli, finds Rydstrom in the director’s chair for the second time, he’s sticking close to his field of expertise — he directed the actors as they recorded the audio portion of the English-language release of the film, which Disney is opening in the U.S. on Feb. 17.
Hayao Miyazaki co-wrote the Japanese screenplay for the film, which is based on “The Borrowers,” Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s book about tiny people who live in the nooks and crannies of human homes, “borrowing” what they need to survive. Rydstrom says it’s a bit more straightforward than many of the myth- and fantasy-filled films to come from Studio Ghibli, which Miyazaki co-founded in 1985.
“It’s a very simple story, but it’s beautifully told,” Rydstrom said. “It comes from an English book from an English author, from a Japanese studio. We threw in our American cast, and the music, which is beautiful, is done by a lovely French composer [Cécile Corbel], so it’s incredibly international.”
Like many in the industry, Rydstrom describes himself as a “huge fan” of Studio Ghibli’s productions — he previously helmed the audio for the U.S. release of Ghibli’s film “Tales From Earthsea,” based on the book by Ursula K. Le Guin. “It’s nice when a studio has such an identifiable sensibility,” Rydstrom said. “They make movies like no other animation studios make them. I love movies that feel like they are done by human beings that have such a personal and sometimes quirky and unique style to them, and all their movies do. … There’s also a beauty in how they use animation to study the most minute moments of life.”
“Arrietty,” Rydstrom says, is no different.
“It’s full of little moments about how the raindrops hit the leaves, and how nature reacts to humans and tiny humans running through it. There’s an observation to life that Studio Ghibli has, a beautiful observation to life that’s completely unique.”
“Arrietty,” the directorial debut of Studio Ghibli’s youngest director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, was critically praised and a box office hit when it opened in Japan in 2010. The film received three subsequent translations: a French dub, a U.K. dub featuring the voice of Saoirse Ronan, and Rydstrom’s American release.
“It might be a weird thing for me to see the U.K. version, the same way it probably is for the Japanese filmmakers to see our version. Probably disconcerting to see your movie with completely different actors,” Rydstrom said. “I don’t feel in competition with it at all. It’s funny, this is a way that various people then, with a new cast, a new director, a new writer, can reinterpret the same movie. Someday maybe it will be a good term paper or a thesis for someone to figure out how the U.K. and American versions differ.”
Karey Kirkpatrick, whose credits include “Charlotte’s Web” and “Chicken Run,” wrote the U.S. screenplay, producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy cast the film, and Rydstrom worked with the actors to make the unnatural, mechanical process of voicing a character in a vacuum more organic.
“If this was my movie, my animation movie, we’d be working with the actors first,” Rydstrom said. “We’d be finding the lines and the characters and what was good, and then once we’d cut that and liked that, we would animate to that. This is already animated. We have to make English fit into the timing of the original Japanese, make sense to us as an audience, and then the actors have to make it seem natural. A lot of what I was doing was making sure that the actors felt comfortable enough with the process to still be natural. Because they have to pay attention to timing as well as emotion, and that’s a hard thing to do. It’s a weird, backwards way of approaching a movie, and it’s also not my movie. It’s Studio Ghibli’s movie, and we want to be true to the original spirit of the movie as much as possible.”
Rydstrom says his job was made easier by a talented cast of experienced comedy actors, including Amy Poehler, Will Arnett and one of Rydstrom’s heroes, Carol Burnett. “What I liked is every one of these famous-in-comedy actors worked against what their normal type would be in a movie,” Rydstrom said. “Carol Burnett, who’s usually such a nice, lovable person — she’s played a few bad characters, like in “Annie” — but she really sunk her teeth into this role, which is the bad guy in the movie, this maid, who is this underhanded, sneaky, cruel character. And she played it to the hilt, so that was my favorite.”
Arnett, usually seen in quirky or sarcastic roles, played an “earnest, direct” father with a dash of “cool dude” action hero, he said, and Poehler played a high-strung, worry-wart mother. “She made the character, which could have been shrill and annoying, she made this character lovable,” Rydstrom said.
But the real star, who “carries the movie,” he said, is Bridgit Mendler, the 19-year-old “Wizards of Waverly Place” actress who voiced Arrietty, a naive and curious 14-year-old Borrower girl who befriends a human boy.
“Bridgit was able to act with her voice and give a real personality and sparkle to the performance, and you like her the moment you hear her,” Rydstrom said. “I was utterly impressed with her the whole time that we worked on this. When you’re doing this kind of thing, you watch actors come in and start doing their lines and start building up a character. It’s amazing to see what they bring to the movie with their voice acting. … There’s a difference acting with your voice only, and your voice has to carry all the funniness and warmth and personality that you can sometimes rely on your facial expressions and your body actions for.”
Rydstrom, who is currently working on sound for the upcoming Pixar film, “Brave,” said he’d love to direct more features. He was slated to direct “Newt,” a Pixar film he co-wrote, but the project was pushed back and then presumably canceled.
“That’s not happening, or at least not happening now, but we developed it over a couple of years,” Rydstrom said. “I’m trying to be open to any possibility for things in the future, but right now in my career, I’m getting a chance to do a variety of things, which is nice to do. Sound design, which I’ve done for years, and still love to do, and these Studio Ghibli movies, I really enjoy the challenge. It uses talents I have from my sound career in post-production in an interesting way, and I get to work with actors, which it turns out that I really love. So I’m open to any and all opportunities down the road.”
— Noelene Clark
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