The credits of the recently released film “Lincoln” read like a who’s who of Hollywood—Daniel Day-Lewis, Steven Spielberg, Sally Fields, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, just to name a few.
There is one name listed under the Sound Department that puts Chattanooga one degree closer to the 16th president of the United States.
Cleveland native and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate Dustin Cawood worked as the sound effects editor for the critically acclaimed drama. The professional works full time for George Lucas’ company Skywalker Sound, which is rustically headquartered on a ranch in Marin County, Calif.
At home visiting family for the holidays, Cawood spoke with Nooga.com about his career, working on “Lincoln” and creating the world through sound.
You are originally from Cleveland. How did you get from there to California?
I grew up in Cleveland area and went to Bradley Central High School. I then went to UTC and wound up in the Communication Department. From there, I did internships while I was still in school at Channel 9 doing audio. I worked for WRCB for a year and then came back to Channel 9. Then, I went to graduate school for film school at Florida State University.
One of my professors was Richard Portman. I guess you could say he was my sound guru. Between he and his father—they encompass film sound. His father, Clem Portman, worked on the original “King Kong.” Anyway, Richard thought highly enough of me to make a few phone calls, and right after graduation, I started working at Pixar.
I was doing story reel-type work. Before the animation work is done on a film, Pixar has a storyboard for each film, and they maintain a soundtrack for the board as if it was film. They can screen it every couple of months to see how the story is working.
“Cars” was the first film I worked on, and I wound up from that working on the early stages of “Up” and “WALL-E.” It was a great experience. From there, I would up at Skywalker [Sound] in 2004.
For someone who experiences sound in a movie only as an audience member, can you explain what you do to make what we eventually hear?
There’s a lot of things you don’t even think about. You basically look at the film and determine what kind of things you need—what kind of background noises, field recordings, creature vocals. Then, you go out and gather those types of sounds and manipulate them.
You’re taking real world sounds and manipulating them into things that don’t exist. You basically have to build a library of things in order to build a story.
When you’re making a film, you’re manipulating time. There are multiple takes from multiple angles, and the Audio Department makes all of that seem as if it is happening from your perspective in real time as opposed to a patchwork of takes.
For “WALL-E,” Ben Burtt was the character voice designer, so he designed all the movements and voices and turned those sounds over to me. In animation, I’m essentially building the world from the ground up. Nothing [sound-wise] exists in animation expect the recorded voices. The movement of the robots, the sound of the wind, the lasers—those are all created.
Some people say the sound is like knitting or creating a quilt, putting the elements together into a whole that is stronger than the sum of its parts.
What movies have you been a part of?
In the last couple of years, I’ve worked on “Alice and Wonderland,” “Toy Story 3” and “Super 8.” I did the sound effects for “Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.”
I also just designed the sound for a documentary called “Chasing Ice.” The film is about [National Geographic photographer] James Balog and his quest to photograph the glaciers as they are disappearing. So, they set up all of these time-lapse cameras to do that.
I am really proud to be a part of that.
How did the opportunity to work on “Lincoln” come up?
Ben Burtt, who was the sound designer on “WALL-E,” “Red Tails” and “Super 8,” wanted me to be a part [of the film’s Sound Department]. In a lot of ways, this was a very different soundtrack from the work I had done.
I had done mostly animation and action or science fiction pictures, and this is an accurate historical drama. So, we were trying to be really accurate with the sound effects. We had to think about what you would hear in Lincoln’s day and time. It would be the normal traffic of cars and the normal sounds of downtown Washington, D.C.
We have to replace those sounds with horse-drawn carriages and off-screen people shoeing horses and church bells. We created a library of things we thought Lincoln would have heard.
We were actually granted access to the White House and recorded the clocks. The office Lincoln used is now known as the Lincoln Bedroom and still has the clock he had, so we recorded that. We had access to his carriage at the Studebaker Museum, so we recorded the doors of his carriage opening and closing. We [also] recorded the doors in the White House.
The Kentucky Historical Society actually had one of his pocket watches, so we recorded that, and you can hear it throughout the movie.
In many ways, the movie is all about the subtlety for me and trying to be accurate and transparent at the same time. The sound doesn’t lend itself to be about the sound, and well-done sound shouldn’t really call attention to itself. But in some movies, the sound is a more obvious player: You want a spaceship to sound big and cool.
“Lincoln” needed to be an elegant, simple piece of sound that puts you in that time.
Keeping that thought in mind, what is the role of sound in a general scene?
It’s a very powerful tool [with which] to tell a story. You’re often unaware of it, and with good sound, you should be unaware of it—but being guided by it.
It’s been said that sound is 50 percent of the experience. If you take away sound, what do you have? There’s so much going on in sound from a storytelling perspective when it's done well. That’s why I was drawn to it as a student. I was also drawn to special effects, and that [discipline] is fun because of the magic of things you can do, creating a reality that doesn’t exist.
Sound is similar in that way, but the senses are so different between sight and sound. There’s much more going on that you’re not even aware of. It tells a story in a way that is like a great magic trick you don’t even see.