Spotlight — 29 September 2008
Sounds Like Success: Dustin Cawood

Dustin Cawood works on a ranch, but you won’t find him in the saddle, enjoying the scenery on a 5,000-acre spread in Marin County, California, north of San Rafael. You will find an insider at Skywalker Sound working outside the crazy Los Angeles lifestyle.

“Northern California filmmaking has always had an independent spirit,” Cawood says. “I like where I work. The San Francisco Bay Area has a very different geography. And we are far away from the Hollywood scene, since George Lucas built Skywalker Ranch as a filmmakers’ retreat.”

Cawood’s creative career demands 10-hour days, and the idea of “going out to the movies doesn’t exist anymore” for Cawood and his wife, Patti, but this Cleveland, Tennessee, native is not complaining. For the last 4 years, he has worked on animated feature films at the facility Lucas built following the success of the Star Wars films. Skywalker Sound contributes to 40 films annually, from big-budget animation to small indie films.

Cawood works in preproduction or postproduction of movies in sound design and sound editing. “Sound editorial work is typically done after the film has been shot and while the picture is in the final stages of editing. Sound design, however, can start earlier in the conceptual stages of the film. In animated feature films, as well as in some live action, we often contribute sound-design elements years before the final product is released,” Cawood says.

He earned degrees from Bradley Central High School and UT Chattanooga (communication) and honed his technical skills by working at two Chattanooga television stations and Atomic Films, a video production company in Chattanooga. After he received an MFA from Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture, Television, and Recording Arts program, his considerable talent and networking strengths allowed him to quickly compile an entertainment business resume that is already astonishing and continues to grow.

Cawood served as supervising assistant sound editor in the award-winning animated movie Ratatouille (2007), the story of a young rat who dreams of becoming a French chef. Ratatouille won an Oscar for best animated feature film, was nominated for best achievement in sound, and was also honored at the Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel Awards ceremony for best sound editing for feature film animation.

Considering the number of films made annually, it is rare to work on one that receives multiple awards, which makes Ratatouille a great addition to the resume. “An Academy Award”-winning film is very helpful,” Cawood says. “In a field like mine, it’s almost like winning the lottery.”

Cawood also worked on the sound in the animation of the movies Cars and Horton Hears a Who! As assistant sound designer for the movie Enchanted, he worked with a team to create sounds not heard in the real world.

“I worked closely with Randy Thom, a multiple Academy Award-winner and the director of sound design at Skywalker Sound, on the creation of new sounds for the various creatures and atmospheres of Enchanted, such as the dragon transformation,” Cawood says. “We had to create a believable transition for Susan Sarandon’s becoming a giant fire-breathing dragon through sound. The trick was maintaining enough of Susan’s performance in the dragon’s screams that you didn’t lose that aspect of her character, while at the same time having a fierce and aggressive dragon that had enough weight and substance to its vocalizations to make you believe that they were coming from this extremely large beast.”

In the movie WALL-E, the story of an adorable forgotten robot who finds a new mission, Cawood was asked to be sound-effects editor by multiple Academy Award-winner Ben Burtt. Considered a pioneer in the business, Burtt is the first person to be credited with the term “sound designer” as a result of his groundbreaking work in the original Star Wars movie. Burtt was the sound designer on WALL-E, and as sound editor, Cawood took direction from Burtt.

He is candid about what it takes to break into the business of making movies, stressing the importance of learning the technical side and studying the art of motion pictures.

“Learn all of the aspects of how to tell a story through visuals and sound. Find a way to cultivate an overactive imagination. Listen even when you think there is nothing to hear. Be willing both to sacrifice and to be persistent. Learn how to network and try to find a good mentor. I was lucky enough to find two great mentors at UTC, Dr. Betsy Alderman and Dr. Elizabeth Gailey.”

Chuck Cantrell, assistant vice-chancellor for university relations at UT Chattanooga, was one of Cawood’s instructors in video production.

“Dustin was a student here at UTC as we were in the process of making the switch from old analog video production equipment to what was then the new digital editing systems. He jumped in with both feet and became a tremendous asset to all of us as we learned the new technology. He was one of those students who would not let anything hold him back. I’m not at all surprised with his tremendous level of success in the film industry,” Cantrell says.

Cawood says he feels fortunate to work at Skywalker Sound. It’s nearly as difficult to get a job at Skywalker Ranch as it is for the average person to visit this protected sanctuary for artistic talent.

“As a kid, I remember seeing Star Wars and hearing the sound from the movies,” he says. “I also remember the Jedi design of light sabers and thinking, That looks like so much fun! It’s amazing that the guy who got me interested in this business is now my employer.”

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