Randy Thom is one of the most acclaimed sound designers working in movies. So his take on who creates cinema’s best sound scenes may surprise you.

“Most of the great sound sequences in the movies have been sound designed by the director,” Thom says in a podcast with Glenn Kiser, director of the Dolby® Institute.

It’s not that Thom doubts the abilities of his fellow sound designers. But he concluded long ago that great sound scenes aren’t just a matter of creating cool sounds. “The film itself, or at least scenes within the film, need to be designed with sound in mind,” Thom said. And that usually means that the director must think about sound from the beginning.

A dream goes awry

When Thom started working with director Robert Zemeckis on Cast Away (2000), he thought the job would be a sound designer’s dream come true. Zemeckis told him that during the 45 minutes in which the Tom Hanks character was marooned on a desert island, there would be no music and only 8 to10 words of dialogue. Figuring that would give his sound design a chance to shine, Thom says, “I thought I’d gone to heaven.”

But then Zemeckis told him that he wanted to heighten the sense of Hanks’s isolation by eliminating any insect sounds or bird songs or frog calls. “At that point, I really started to panic,” Thom says. “You’re taking every arrow out of my quiver.”

Thom went back to the essence of sound in movies. The key is not to think literally about sounds, he says, but to think about how the sounds make you feel. When Hanks was in a certain cove on the island, for instance, Thom used a wind sound whose musical quality was melancholy. The audience identified it as just a wind, “but I knew it was going to have an emotional effect on them.”

Thom has won two Oscars® for his work on The Right Stuff (1991) and The Incredibles (2004) and has been nominated numerous other times.

The best film school

In the podcast, Thom, who didn’t attend film school, talks about his introduction to the movie business as an assistant to legendary sound designer Walter Murch on Apocalypse Now (1979). “I had the best film school you could possibly have, which is spending about a year and a half on Apocalypse Now, where just about anything that could have gone right or could have gone wrong did.”

Also in the podcast, Thom talks about what he learned on the Apocalypse Now set, a great sound scene in the movie Barton Fink (1991), and the prospect of filmmakers running out of natural sounds.

The interview with Thom is the first in a series of podcasts about the craft of sound from the Dolby Institute and the Soundworks Collection. Upcoming interviews will cover video game sound, soundtracks for documentaries and the art of television sound. You can subscribe to the series on iTunes.