Jurassic Bark: How Sound Design Changed Our Imaginations | St. Louis Public Radio

Jurassic Bark: How Sound Design Changed Our Imaginations

Originally published on April 13, 2013 7:15 pm

Nobody actually knows what dinosaurs sound like. But if you can imagine the roar of a T. Rex or the bellow of a brachiosaurus, it's probably thanks to the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park, which turns 20 this summer.

Sound designer Gary Rydstrom won two Academy Awards for his work on the movie. His resume is both long and impressive; Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, Finding Nemo, and Lincoln are just a handful of titles on his list. But, as he told Weekends on All Things Considered guest host Jacki Lyden, Jurassic Park is the best job he's ever had.

"It scared me when I first saw [the offer] because there's so many different dinosaurs, and it was Steven Spielberg, and people would see it. It freaked me out," he says. "But there was no bigger candy store for sound design than Jurassic Park."

Rydstrom talks with Lyden about how he created some of sounds that star in the film.


The brachiosaurus is the first dinosaur viewers see — and hear — on the scientists' first tour through the park. The longnecks' bellows are a mix of elephants, cows and donkeys, he says, though the singing-like clip above is made only from donkeys. "That was my favorite part of it, because a donkey [can make a noise that] almost sounds like an animal yodeling, so it has this multiple pitch. So you slow that way down, and it sounds like song."

Tyrannosaurus Rex

You hear a lot of T. Rex in Jurassic Park. The dinosaur was a mix of sounds. It starts with something low-frequency, like a tiger. "But the key element is the high-frequency scream element, which is a baby elephant that we recorded," Rydstrom says.

When he taped that sound, he knew he'd heard something good. "We kept trying to get it to do it again, and the handlers were saying, 'We've never heard it do that before, that's a weird sound.' " The elephant refused, so Rydstrom used the same tape for each T. Rex roar.


The velociraptors are the most vocal dinosaurs in the movie. They needed to make many different sounds, so Rydstrom used a wide range of animals — African cranes, tortoises, horses — plus a friend of his, who ended up being the only human used to make dinosaur noises in the movie. Rydstrom says the friend happened to be in the studio one day. "And I said, 'You make any weird sounds?' " he tells Lyden. The friend made a strange sound with his throat, and he used it.

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If you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Twenty years ago, nobody had much of a clue as to what dinosaurs sounded like. But in 1993, summer's block was busted by a movie that changed our imaginations forever.


RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH: (as John Hammond) Welcome to Jurassic Park.

LYDEN: Yeah, those dinosaurs had a pretty good theme song too. "Jurassic Park" was a marvel of technology, and Gary Rydstrom was the sound designer for that movie. He won two Academy Awards for his work. And he joins us now from Lucasfilm in California. Gary, welcome to the program.


LYDEN: Let's start by talking about how you made these roars and squeals and hisses. Let's start by listening to the first dinosaur we hear, this huge brachiosaurus.


LYDEN: So is that an elephant trumpeting that I hear in there?

RYDSTROM: That probably is. A brachiosaurus is made up of elephants and cows and donkeys. Right after that, the brachiosaurus make a singing sound.


RYDSTROM: It was made from a donkey. That was my favorite part of it because a donkey has this - almost sounds like an animal yodeling, so it has this multiple pitch. And you slow that way down, it sounded like song.

LYDEN: So as a sound designer, where do you start reinventing the sound of the huge brachiosaurus? What comes first?

RYDSTROM: Well, the first thing you do is you record sounds. So we started collecting all sorts of weird animal sounds. And regular, I record my dog, I recorded horses. We went to zoos. I tried to get every interesting animal recording we could find, not even caring right away what they would be for.

LYDEN: And you come back with your box of scary sounds.

RYDSTROM: You come back with a box of all sorts of sounds and more than you know what to do with, and then you try to sift through it in the studio and see what's interesting. And what's fun about recording is you're discovering things you didn't expect. One of my favorite memories was there was a - at the San Francisco Zoo, they asked if we wanted to record a koala bear. And I thought a koala bear would make a cute little squeak. But in reality, koala bears make this deep growl that we used for the T. Rex. I had no idea that koala bears sounded like that.

LYDEN: Let's just hear what that koala bear is capable of. This is the T. Rex, and this is one of the scariest parts of "Jurassic Park." The two kids are hiding in the car at night in the rain and T. Rex is getting hungry.


LYDEN: I would've said tiger and trumpet more than koala bear.

RYDSTROM: Oh, that particular one doesn't have a koala bear. But the major roar of the T. Rex is a combination of a low frequency sound, which is usually a tiger or an elephant. But the key element is the high frequency scream element, which is a baby elephant that we recorded. And again, I didn't know what to expect, so I got this baby elephant.

The big elephants we recorded weren't very interesting at that time, but the baby elephant came out and made this scream. And the baby elephant only did this once, and we kept trying to get it to do it again. And the handlers were saying: We never heard it do that before. That's a weird sound. So every time the T. Rex screams in the first "Jurassic Park," that baby elephant is part of the major roar.

LYDEN: It is not going to spoil it for me. I want you to know.

RYDSTROM: It's funny how in sound that, you know, if we were to see the thing that made the scary element of that is the cutest little guy, you know?


LYDEN: Well, that's what they initially thought about the little baby velociraptors, and we learned they got pretty hungry themselves. They were the fastest-moving, I'd say, the most memorable of the dinosaurs. Let's hear the velociraptors.


LYDEN: Ooh. That's sending chills down my spine right now. Now, I thought they were the most scary because they were so smart, and they had a lot of different kinds of sounds.

RYDSTROM: And they were made from a lot of different animals. I mean, there's a lot - and even in that clip there, there's an African crane, a type of bird, that made that hooting sound. There's the - a tortoise makes that bark sound that were used for the raptors talking to each other.

And then there's some guttural sounds that a friend of mine made, a friend of mine named Dietrich Smith, who makes this pretty strange sound with his throat and happened by my studio one day. And I said: You make any weird sounds. And he did that, and I used it in the movie.

LYDEN: How do you know when you've achieved perfection in terms of dinosaur sound?

RYDSTROM: Well, it'd have to affect me. I have to like it. But then, of course, Steven Spielberg has to really like it. Early on, especially with the T. Rex and the raptor, I did some early, early tests and showed it to him. And I think I owe a lot of him buying off on the sounds to his son Max, because his son Max was with him, and we had played the scene. It had T. Rex in it and a raptor, and Max said: Cool. And now, I think once Max said cool, Steven went: This is great. Thank you. Keep moving forward.


LYDEN: Gary Rydstrom, you have worked on so many amazing movies, several Pixar titles, the new "Star Wars" series, "Titanic," recently the "Lincoln" movie. I just am curious where "Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World" falls on your list of favorite gigs.

RYDSTROM: "Jurassic Park" was - well, for sound design, there's nothing better than "Jurassic Park" because it was like a toy store of - it scared me when I first saw it because there are so many different dinosaurs and it was Steven Spielberg and people would see it, and it freaked me out thinking: Oh, my God. I'm going to have to do a good job. But there was no bigger candy store for sound design than "Jurassic Park." So it's at the top of that list for me.

LYDEN: Wow. That's the Academy Award-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom who joined us from the studios at Lucas Film in California. Gary, thank you. I'm really scared now.

RYDSTROM: I'm sorry about that. Thank you.

LYDEN: And if you want a closer look and listen to those dinosaur sounds, you can truck on over to our website at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.