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The Sound of the Fury

Although his career has taken him to the jungles of Borneo for “King Kong” and the wilds of New Zealand for “Lord of the Rings,” Ethan Van der Ryn’s recent experience in a Los Angeles back lot recording sound for “Argo” proved particularly rich.

Photo of Ethan Van der Ryn in his studio. Photo by Ann Johansson.“These windows are supposed to be bulletproof, right?” a U.S. embassy worker in 1979 Iran asks a colleague in an opening scene of Ben Affleck’s “Argo.” He’s terrified because he is hearing (as are we) voices of thousands in protest. Who would guess they were recorded not on set in Istanbul where the demonstrators were filmed, but oceans away, in Los Angeles?

According to Ethan Van der Ryn (B.A., ’85), whose work as sound editor on the film earned him an Oscar nomination earlier this year, the vital noise of that scene had to be built from scratch after “Argo” was shot. The movie couldn’t be filmed in Iran, for obvious political reasons, but the Turkish-accented Farsi that the extras in the scene used for their shouts did not give the film the necessary authenticity.

“Fortunately,” explains Van der Ryn, “Los Angeles has the largest Persian community outside of Iran.” He and his colleagues gathered about 100 native Farsi speakers, brought them to the back lot of Warner Bros., and recorded them chanting “Down with America!” and “Down with the Shah!” The sounds, says Van der Ryn, “really become the thread through the scene, whether you’re amid the crowd or behind bulletproof glass watching it from a distance.”


Van der Ryn, who’s won two Academy Awards for his sound work on “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “King Kong,” and earned a nomination for “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” says his SF State education taught him the value of experimentation. “We were encouraged not to follow narrative rules or technical rules. It was really about exploration.”

That ethic served him well in “Argo,” which found him creating the sounds of “the cars, the traffic, the guns, the tear-gas canisters, all the footsteps, all the body movements, people’s clothes moving, someone picking up a cup from a table” — and the sirens of 1979 Tehran with a kit purchased on eBay that allowed him to build the exact siren used at the time.

“At the end,” says Van der Ryn, about recording Iranians recreating the sounds of a distant past, “a lot of the extras were hugging and in tears. Their lives had been affected in some kind of deep way by the actual events that took place in 1979. Reliving the experience was cathartic.”


Ethan Van der Ryn was one of two graduates to receive Oscar nominations this year. David Gropman (B.A., ’74) received a nomination for Best Production Design for his work on “Life of Pi.” To go behind the scenes of that film, visit tinyurl.com/gropman


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