Director Gary Rydstrom: Strange Magic

I sit here scratching my head as I work on my Strange Magic post today.  I am very surprised how poorly it did in theaters over the weekend because it really is a great animated film!  As I shared in my review, this is a fun movie, full of fantastic music and a really great message, for everyone.  I was a bit surprised and really  hope my readers give this one a chance.  In my George Lucas interview, he shared how he has over 15 years into this film and why it was important to him to make a story about how everyone deserves to be loved.  And with the pipes on Elijah Kelley and the rest of the cast, I really don’t agree with the box office on this one.

Gary Rydstrom

Gary Rydstrom, the director of Strange Magic, is a seven-time Oscar-winning sound designer.  After screening the movie at Skywalker Sound, he sat down for this exclusive interview.

Director Gary Rydstrom:  Strange Magic

You’ve had an incredible career!  You’ve got seven Academy Awards for sound design and editing.


And if I win three more, I can open a bowling alley. (Laughing)

Tell us a little bit more about what it was about this story that attracted you as a storyteller and filmmaker.

Well, the karma and the irony of this movie for me is that I did have a long career, in this building mostly, a career as a sound designer, doing sound effects for movies.  Then by the end, I found that I often felt at odds with the composer, so it was kind of a fight between the composer and I to have our stuff heard.  So I thought of it as karmic revenge from the universe that I get to direct a feature film here and it’s a musical.  But I was really attracted to it as George is, and American Graffiti is one of my favorite movies and, the use of song to help tell a story was really attractive to me and this was such a great idea to tell a love story.  And, if you think about the songs in the movie that are love songs, there aren’t that many positive love songs, which I always like to point out, you know, because love is hard, it’s not always happy.  I love that part of it and making a musical was really fun.

Gary Rydstrom

Did you have a character that was a muse to you, the kind that you were most engaged by?

I think well I actually like the Bog King, because that thing we talked about earlier about having your heart broken.  And I think we all go through a thing that’s a completely natural thing, it’s when you get your heart broken, you say that’s it, I’m not going to let myself be vulnerable ever again.  He goes to an extreme but it’s something that I can relate to, you know, it’s so painful to go through something that makes you feel hurt and less than you should be, and you just don’t want to do it again.  So your solution for it is to put up this shield and never let anyone in again.  And I know we all do that, and I thought he was someone I could relate to.  So once you get past that veneer and let your real self come out, it’s, it’s so much more satisfying both for him and for the one he falls in love with.

You assembled an incredible cast for the film, we have Elijah here, but can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to work with them and what they brought to their characters.

Well casting is pretty key for a movie like this and as George said, you have to find people who both act and sing and that the whole Alan Cumming, both actor and singer amazing, Evan Rachel Wood is as good a singer as she is an actress.  Sam Palladio who plays Roland is an amazing singer as well as a very funny actor. And then Kristin Chenoweth who is funny and as I have said before, I was in the room with her as I was with all the actors when they were singing their songs and when she hit some of those high notes in Love Is Strange, it was like my glasses broke (Laughing) and it was amazing.  For years I was doing, you know, sound effects as a career and I hadn’t really worked with actors much.  Then as I started to for animation, I really love it.  Animation is the same thing, animators are actors too, but I love being in the room with actors and it’s really hard for them, because they’re acting alone, they’re not acting with other actors, it’s be great if they did but it just doesn’t work out so it’s them.  You describe the scene as best you can, you do line readings with them to set up the scene.  Elijah made me work the hardest, because I would line read with him, but he’s very active and it requires a lot of energy, so I was often playing either the Sugar Plum Fairy or Dawn.  And I was, I was actually pretty good at it.  (Laughing)  Yeah, yeah, luckily none of those videos exist.  I love what the actors brought to this and I’m actually most proud, as George said, and I’m going to quote this, I’ve never heard it before, but it’s a great idea.  “It’s that it takes twice as many actors to make an animated film”, that’s brilliant.  I’m really proud in this movie of that combination of the animators drawing on what the actors do with the voice and creating that side of the acting, and together creating a character that it’s still magic to me when that works.

One of the key things in the film is that it’s okay to be different and that your uniqueness makes you special.  This is a theme that you really integrated into the script, can you speak to that a bit, why you think that message is important?

Yeah, well if you think about it, we are really surprised I think by how we fall in love and (with) who.  I hear this over and over from people, it comes at us as a surprise.  Oh, I didn’t, didn’t expect that.  And what I think the steps when that happens, if analyzed falling in love, is that when you reveal your true self, then the other person falls in love with that true self.  Often we try to hide that true self, because you think it’s odd or different or just- it’s not in the norm, or it’s not what other people our age or group should be like.  And you hide it because you think, who would fall in love with that.  But then we fall in love with that what makes you unique. 

I read that Strange Magic was inspired by Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

What I love about that story is that people find love in one night, and our story takes place in one night, one day, people find love and it’s a multiple love story.  An unexpected love story.

The visual arts in this film is stunning, it’s beautiful.  Were you inspired by any particular artist, or fairy artists?

Well this is a lot about artwork that goes back to some of the early stuff that George did.  I think they drew inspiration from classic sort of fairy tale art and some people did classic fairies, but made it their own. There is, as George said, it has a realism to it, so it’s not quite as  ethereal as some classic fairy art might be from the classic fairy books and all that.  So I think all that was drawn together, but I think, you know, under the idea that make it a part of our world.  You know, the back yard idea, so that the fairies a lot of the design of the fairies were drawn from butterflies, so things that really exist, so that for one reason if we were to imagine the story, if we see the fairies from a distance, we just think they’re butterflies.  So that, that works for the story as well as a design thing, and then characters like Bog King and some of the others were visual mashups of insects and different creatures.  I have no idea what the Bog King is, he’s not a cockroach, he’s not, I don’t know what he is. 



Do you have a favorite song from the movie?

I’ll give two answers.  Strange Magic is my favorite musical moment in the movie because it kind of sums up the movie, it’s a beautiful song, Evan Rachel Wood and Al Cumming sing it beautifully and the arrangement of it is beautiful.  It’s a duet, and originally it’s not a duet, and it’s a beautiful duet.  It’s also one of my favorite looking sequences in the movie.  So that works.  But the moment that makes me cry, is when Elijah sings Three Little Birds to Dawn at the end.

So it wasn’t me?  It’s the song!

It’s the song, it was worth every penny buying that song, and when Bob Marley sang it, it also made me cry, it’s just, I don’t know why that gets me every time and it’s weird.  To have a movie that you know so well and then, I can still get moved by things, but it’s really it’s Elijah’s performance, of that moment and when he sings it to her, it’s just the voice is breaking.  And the magic of animation, which still astounds me, because I’m relatively new to it.


STRANGE MAGIC  in theaters NOW  (#StrangeMagic)

*I was invited by Disney to take part in the Strange Magic Event.  All opinions are my own.
Trippin with Tara
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