If Columbians embarking on the “Avatar” adventure find Pandora a strangely familiar world, there’s good reason. Some of the sounds used to bring the planet to life were recorded right here in Columbia.
“There’s a lot of Columbia woven in there,” says the film’s supervising sound editor Addison Teague. “You take familiar sounds, like the cicadas of Columbia, and combine those with more tonal sounds to get a world that’s familiar but different.”
Teague grew up in Columbia and recorded the sounds on visits back to his hometown. This successful Hollywood sound editor recalls his early years in CoMo and describes the path that took him to a career he loves, the perks of movie work and the challenges of life in Los Angeles.
What is your connection to Columbia? Do you ever make it back?
I come back to Columbia at least once a year. My parents, grandmother and some of my closest friends live in Columbia. Shakespeare’s Pizza is in Columbia, too!
My parents and older brother moved from Atlanta to Columbia before I was born, when my father took a job at Stephens College. I spent my entire childhood in Columbia, attending Shepard Boulevard, Jeff Junior and Hickman High School.
My parents always stressed the importance of finding something I love to do and going after it. I feel like I won the lottery being born in 1972, because I got to grow up with “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jaws,” and “Poltergeist,” just to name a few. My dad took me to see just about every movie that came out. When I was 10, he took me to see “E.T.” at the Campus Twin two-plex, which used to be downtown. That movie connected with my emotions in a way I’d never experienced. I couldn’t shake the power of that film and soon realized there was nothing I wanted more than to work on movies.
After graduating from Hickman in 1990, I moved away to attend college at the University of South Carolina. Each year away at school, I’d write a script and then spend the following summer back in Columbia making it into a movie. My best friends to date are the guys who were there making those projects with me. The movies were never good, but we had a blast making them. We did things you wouldn’t see happening now, like staging a holdup at a local liquor store during business hours without telling people the guns were props. We were granted access to the roof of Ellis Library to film a fight scene. A classmate’s dad even loaned us his DeLorean for a “Back to the Future” spoof. Those labor-of-love projects were some of the best summers of my life.
In 1994, after graduating college, I returned to Columbia for eight months. During this time, I filmed one last Columbia project, a documentary following the Hickman High School marching band. In January 1995, I left Columbia for the last time, moving to Los Angeles, where I began my graduate studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.
What was your first introduction to sound work? What made you want to pursue it for a career?
I arrived at film school with the same goal as everyone else: to become a director. The USC faculty works hard to urge students to open their minds to other areas of filmmaking. With access to pretty much everything you need to make a movie; this was the perfect place to explore.
Many successful alumni come back to USC to speak and share their experiences. My first semester, sound designer Gary Rydstrom came down from Skywalker Sound. His presentation absolutely blew me away. It was one of those life-changing moments, and I knew that night I had seen a glimpse into something that really spoke to me.
Gary showed us how he created the sound effects for such movies as “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator 2.” His stories of collaborating with all these amazing filmmakers were fascinating to me. When he began to show clips of his work, I realized his behind-the-scenes contribution was actually a huge component of what made these movie moments work. Try watching the D-Day sequence from “Saving Private Ryan” with the sound muted, then turn on Gary’s sound and you are instantly on that beach.
There is a misconception, even within the industry, that sound people are all technicians. What Gary’s lecture taught me was how incorrect that stereotype is and how powerful creative sound choices in movies can be. One example he showed was a shot from “T2,” where the liquid metal terminator morphs through jail cell bars. It was a million-dollar visual-effects shot, and Gary came up with the perfect sound by inverting a can of dog food and recording the sucking sound as the goop slid out. Getting the appropriate sound had nothing to do with fancy equipment or computing power; it was just a clever human solution that cost almost nothing. That is movie magic to me.
Over a couple years, I completed every sound class the school offered. By the final class, we were observing on mixing stages at working studios, and I couldn’t get enough.
I spent the last year and a half at USC doing the sound work for many students’ films. Just like my work now, I found it exciting to move from genre to genre, each film having new challenges. By this time, I was a teaching assistant. After hours, TAs had access to the entire [sound] department for as long as we chose to stay. On weekends I would stay locked in all night. I had access to a Foley stage, editing rooms, recording equipment, sound effects libraries, an ADR stage and mixing rooms. Spending hundreds of hours locked away, I became obsessed and soon my interest in sound overtook any desire to do anything else [including direct].
I imagine you had some important breaks or key decisions that led to your current success.
Right out of school I worked at a sound company in LA called Creative Café. I was an intern and got my taste of paying dues. I wasn’t making enough money to live on, but I was being exposed to a great sound crew, many of whom welcomed me and taught me a lot. Finally, using more USC connections, the door cracked open at Skywalker Sound for me to take a job as an assistant editor. I moved to Marin County (just outside San Francisco) and began working at Skywalker Ranch.
My first job at Skywalker was as first assistant for Tim Holland, a long-established supervising sound editor. Tim took me under his wing and began to teach me the process of the craft, while I helped him with some of the new digital technology that was changing his tools. Tim gave me lots of first experiences, letting me record and cut sound effects on all the films we did together.
One of the last films we did was called “The Ring.” Some scenes I cut made an impression on picture editor Craig Wood and director Gore Verbinski. While we were completing “The Ring,” Gore was in preproduction for the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” film. Craig seemed to take to my enthusiasm and had the idea that I should come back to LA and cut sound effects in the “Pirates” picture editing department. I did it and had the time of my life. Rolling Stone predicted the theme-park-based movie was the sure bomb of summer ’03, but I was coming to work and seeing Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow character come to life before anyone else. That was great fun for me.
“Pirates” was also my first time working with Chris Boyes, another acclaimed Skywalker sound designer. Chris and I hit it off, “Pirates” was a success, and this is where everything began to snowball in a positive way for me. Months after completing “Pirates,” I was being flown to New Zealand to cut on “Lord of the Rings.” Over the next four years I found myself working on films from Steven Spielberg (“War of the Worlds,” “Munich”), David Fincher (“Zodiac”), Chris Columbus (“Rent”) and more Gore Verbinski movies (“The Weatherman” & “Pirates” 2 and 3).
In summer 2006, while we were finishing up “Pirates 2,” my supervisor Chris Boyes (who had won his first Oscar for “Titanic”) received a call that Jim Cameron was finally making another movie, and he wanted a sound editor to work with him in Malibu for the duration of the shoot. Chris, who was to head up the sound crew, put me forward for the Malibu job with Jim. My wife (whom I’d met at USC and had moved to San Francisco when we got married) loved the idea of returning to LA where many of our friends still live.
There was no shortage of war stories about how demanding and tough Jim can be. This made me a bit nervous, but I was ready for a new challenge, so we moved back to L.A. in March 2007 for me to begin work on “Avatar.”
How did the work on “Avatar” compare/contrast with your work on other films?
A long job for a sound editor is about four months. I was on “Avatar” for two years and eight months! It was a dream project for me. We usually have to edit as quickly as possible because the mix deadline is looming, so to start a job the same week they were beginning official filming was liberating. I felt like I was back in that USC sound department some days, experimenting and playing with ideas with a sense of freedom because our release date was so far away!
As one of the supervising sound editors on “Avatar,” my role was much more complex [than on previous films]. Jim shot and edited the movie in a parallel process, so the shoot and edit both went on for years. The first phase of the job was spent providing sounds for Jim for everything in the movie, so he could place the sounds himself as he cut the scenes for the first time. Some sounds never changed, while others we never got right until the final days of the mix in November 2009. As sound editors, we prepare 10 times more sound than will ever be heard in the final track. You never know what direction the director might want to take a scene sonically, so during the editing phase, we cover every possible sound. The last phase is called the final mix. This is where music, dialog and sound effects are merged, placed and balanced to create the finished sound you hear in theaters. We might edit the same 10 minutes of film for a month, then mix the same footage for the better part of a week, and then suddenly time runs out and you are done. That’s it; that is how it will sound forever because tomorrow labs are striking 10,000 prints! The time leading up to that deadline can become quite intense.
And you have a family. How many members are in your family?
My wife, Amy, and I have two children, Oliver and Mila. Amy was pregnant with our son when we moved back to LA to begin work on “Avatar.” We successfully timed our daughter to be born just after “Avatar” was released because I knew I would be taking time off. So we’re adjusting to having two right now. It is easier to make a movie!
How do you balance family life and work?
Amy is so supportive. Now that we have children, it is going to become much harder and it is something I worry about. The final mix of “Avatar” — well, I might as well have been in another country. We worked seven days a week for 3½ months to make the release date, and I was gone at least 15 hours a day. I only saw my son asleep, and he never saw me. The only silver lining to those intense work periods is you usually get enough money in the bank to take some time away from work and enjoy life for some time.
What do you most like about your work?
If you think about it, of the hundreds of names you see in the end credit crawl of a movie, only a handful of them can watch the movie and see or hear a creative choice they made. I love that I get to be one of those people.
“Avatar,” with an estimated budget of $280 million, is one of the most expensive movies ever made.