Two things gave Gary Rydstrom the keys to an Oscar-winning career at Lucasfilm.
First, he grew up in the Midwest, right here in Elmhurst. (We'll explain that in a moment.)
Gary Rydstrom's Oscar historyWins
"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991) Sound, Sound Effects Editing
"Jurassic Park" (1993) Sound, Sound Effects Editing
"Titanic" (1997) Sound
"Saving Private Ryan (1998) Sound, Sound Effects Editing
Other Oscar nominations:
"Backdraft" (1991) Sound, Sound Effects Editing
"Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace" (1999) Sound
"Monsters, Inc" (2001) Sound Editing
"Minority Report" (2002) Sound Editing
"Finding Nemo" (2003) Sound Editing
"Lifted" (2006) Animated Short Film
"War Horse" (2011) Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
Second, a professor at the University of Southern California recommended him to George Lucas' sound department, called Sprocket Systems before it became Skywalker Sound.
Tonight, Rydstrom could receive his eighth -- and even ninth -- Academy Award for his work on Steven Spielberg's "War Horse." As the film's sound designer, Rydstrom is nominated for Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing.
"The real challenge here," he said, "was getting horse vocals, breathing, body shakes, footsteps, galloping and all that stuff to give the horses character. We had to combine horse vocals to communicate that the horse was in pain or happy or sad. I hope I got it right."
None of the horse noises -- the whinnies, footsteps or tail swishes -- sounded right when originally recorded on the set. Rydstrom and his sound team added those later in a studio.
"Weirdly enough, we had success with miniature horses, which are strange creatures," Rydstrom said. "When you slow their vocals down, stretch them out and reduce the frequency of the vocals, it had some emotion that I couldn't get from a full-sized horse. Horses make a variety of sounds. It was all a matter of giving them personality."
If you listen carefully to Joey, the equine star of "War Horse," you might hear him grind his teeth. That sound came from Daisy, a horse belonging to Rydstrom's wife Cindy.
"It's ironic I ended up in sound," Rydstrom said. "The thing that got me hooked on films was silent movies. On Channel 11 in Chicago they played 'The Gold Rush.' I thought it was beautiful. It was funny and poignant. I'd never seen anything like that before."
Film fans know what a gateway movie Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" can be. It led Rydstrom to Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields.
That, in turn, led to the harder stuff: the work of Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. Rydstrom had become a film addict.
After graduating from York Community High School, Rydstrom went straight to USC's prestigious film school.
There he met a professor with the power to open doors and create careers with a single recommendation.
In 1975, Lucas called professor Ken Miura looking for someone to do sound for an upcoming movie. He gave Lucas the name of Ben Burtt, who went on to become the creator of great sound effects for the "Star Wars" movies.
When Lucas reps came calling again, Miura gave them Rydstrom's name. Yes, the Elmhurst kid had talent. But he also had a secret weapon.
"I honestly think he recommended me because of the Midwest thing," said Rydstrom, now 52.
Uh, Midwest thing?
"Honestly, I think he recommended me because he thought I wouldn't embarrass him, that I wouldn't get too crazy going to George Lucas' place," he said.
It was 1983; "Star Wars" mania had taken over the earth.
After releasing the sequel "The Empire Strikes Back" in 1980, Lucasfilm was finishing "Return of the Jedi." Every geek in the galaxy went gaga over the chance to work there.
"I would say, to put it diplomatically, that a Midwest personality is less showy, less self-promoting," Rydstrom said. "I think I have a good sense of values and work ethic. Not too showy about things. I attribute that to my great Midwest upbringing. It does you some good in the long run."
Rydstrom began at Sprocket Systems as a machine room operator, maintaining the recording and editing equipment.
By 1985, he'd become a sound designer, in charge of creating sound effects for an incredible list of films.
He won his first two Oscars -- one for sound, the other for sound effects editing -- in 1991 for "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."
He first worked with Spielberg on 1993's "Jurassic Park," which brought Rydstrom two more Academy Awards.
So, how did he create the frightening T. rex scream?
"We had this cute little baby elephant," Rydstrom said. "His handler said the elephant never made any noise. But then he came out with this screech. And that screech became the main element in the attack scream of the T. rex.
"We added low frequency lions and alligators to give it weight. So, the scariest sound made by the T. rex came from this really cute little elephant. But he only did it once. So that sound had to be manipulated in various ways to give it some variety."
His greatest sonic challenge?
"The Normandy invasion in 'Saving Private Ryan,'" he said. "It wasn't so much about people shooting guns as people being shot at. That allows you to hear the bullets going by, like what it's like to be one of those men."
To get the sound of "pass by" bullets, Rydstrom went back to an earlier film he worked on, "A River Runs Through It," with lots of fly-fishing sounds.
"You get these great whistling whooshes. I could extract really sharp whistling pass-bys. They work for bullets going by the ear. They also work for bullets underwater. They were recorded with different fly-fishing."
"There's a way where you leave your line on the water, then you whip it off. It sounds kind of like a whip, but it has water in it. So you get this ripping water sound for bullets underwater.
"In 'River,' these sounds have a gentle, nostalgic feeling. In 'Saving Private Ryan,' they have a horrifying feeling. Sound is all about context."
His work on that film won him two more Oscars, just a year after a win for "Titanic."
Rydstrom has worked on several current movies besides "War Horse." He directed the English language version of the animated Japanese fantasy "The Secret World of Arrietty" with Carol Burnett voicing a housekeeper character.
He also created the sounds in "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol." Remember Tom Cruise using electromagnetic gloves that allowed him to climb up the world's tallest building?
"I needed the sound of something magnetic hitting the building, and I remembered a year earlier I had an MRI and that big magnet sound -- ca-chook! ca-chook! -- it made. I recorded the MRI sound and used it for the gloves hitting the building."
The golden rule of sound design: "It doesn't really matter what the sound actually is, it only matters how it works in a movie," he said.
By the way, whenever you see the Pixar movie logo with that desk lamp beating down the I in Pixar, you're hearing Rydstrom's work. He did the sound for that clip 20 years ago.
"That's the most fun I ever had, creating that sound for the lamp," he said. "Then it became the logo. I feel like I created the MGM lion roar for Pixar."