The silly Strange Magic behind the world of Hollywood

‘Strange Magic’ director Gary Rydstrom and producer Mark S. Miller share the weirdest things they’ve done in their illustrious careers

The silly Strange Magic behind the world of Hollywood
Animation supervisor Kim Ooi, Gary Rydstrom, George Lucas, Mark S. Miller and VFX supervisor Nigel Sumner

Photos: Lee Wei Lin, Walt Disney Studios

Video: Vina Chia

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to work with George Lucas a.k.a. the man behind the legendary Star Wars, it can be pretty stressful, according to Gary Rydstrom, the director of George’s new animated brainchild Strange Magic.

But it’s not because the noted filmmaker himself is a formidable, whip-cracking slave driver, or anything of that sort.

“When you realise that you have to live up to a certain history, it pushes everyone to do better work,” he told reporters in a roundtable interview at The Sandcrawler, which houses the Singapore campus of the flick’s production company Lucasfilm. “(So) I was absolutely scared from beginning to end, and I’m still scared, because you’re responsible for presenting something that you want the whole world to like and appreciate.”

Gary will know if his fears are unfounded when Strange Magic opens in the States today, and here in Singapore on January 29. The fairy-tale cartoon features the voice acting talents of Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Maya Rudolph, Kristin Chenoweth and more, and talks about finding love and beauty in the most unexpected places.

Unlike the world in this charming CGI comedy involving fairies, goblins and love potions, such fantastical wizardry does not exist in our reality, much less in the realm of Hollywood productions. Watch enough behind-the-scenes specials of box office offerings, and you’ll probably have noticed that a lot of the time, all kinds of peculiar labour is required to achieve an effect that appears more stylish than the work that went into creating it.

Butterfly fairies Dawn and Marianne from 'Strange Magic'

This was something Gary, a seven-time Academy Award-winning sound designer, was only too happy to talk about regarding his experiences with weird experiments for the sake of creating movie audio magic.

“I would often find interesting sounds from really bizarre sources,” he said. Choosing the villainous T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day as his example (“This story always makes me laugh”), Gary recounted having to scout for a noise to replicate the liquid metal composition of the shape-shifting android.

The idea came to him when he was – of all things – feeding his Jack Russell terrier. “When dog food comes out of the can, it makes this disgusting, metal suction sound, which was perfect. So I spent days looking for something similar – from jellied cranberry to tomato aspic – in containers and took turns dumping the contents [he mimics a wet, squishy sound] onto the floor,” he explained. This simple ingenuity was part of what helped him score his first Oscar statuettes for Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing in 1992.

While he didn’t get to play around with such things for Strange Magic, his expertise proved useful when it came to managing the songs in the madcap musical, which features refreshed renditions of classic and contemporary hits – from Elvis to Kelly Clarkson – alike. “I think my background in sound helped me to ensure that the music won’t take audiences out of the movie,” he said.

Producer Mark S. Miller also had to deal with a string of strange projects before his impressive involvement, mostly in visual effects, in silver screen titans such as the Transformers, Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises.

“I managed a team of people gluing feathers on Howard the Duck [from the 1986 film of the same name] early in my career – that was a very strange thing,” he shared. “I also spent time diving into swimming pools to retrieve (mechanical) whales on Star Trek IV, which was strange too. Those were the old days!”

The Bog King, his mother and Marianne from 'Strange Magic'

Strange Magic had its fair share of strange “magic” behind it as well. “Every day you see a different challenge,” said Nigel Sumner, the flick’s visual effects supervisor, in another media session with producer Mark S. Miller. “One thing that comes to mind is a scene where Griselda [the froglike-faced creature mother of main character Bog King] sticks out her leg.”

Nigel went on to reveal that, because she wasn’t designed to reveal her lower limbs at first, one of the animators specially took a photo of his own hairy leg to use as the model for the impromptu sequence. “Gary loved it – I think he asked for more hair,” laughed Mark. “That’s about as strange as you can get!”

Strange Magic opens in cinemas on January 29 and is rated G.

WATCH: 'Strange Magic' is a reflection of George Lucas's love life?

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