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Employee Spotlight: Kyrsten Mate

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Skywalker Sound’s Kyrsten Mate: Sound Editor, Supervisor, Designer

Could you tell us your role and summarize your typical day-to-day responsibilities?

Currently, I am a sound designer and sound supervisor, which have been my roles the last couple of years. I’ve also been a sound effects editor. I started at Skywalker Sound in 1997. Every day can be very different, which is true for a lot of people at Lucasfilm! On the project we’re doing currently, I am the sound designer. I get the picture-edit of the movie from the production team, and we’ll have a meeting about what they want to convey. That can be difficult, because visual effects are often still being created, and we have to create sounds before seeing the final visuals. We help build the audio world around it. So, I could be working on something straightforward like a car chase, or building a whole world that doesn’t exist with two people in front of a greenscreen.

We have to decide the right tone for a scene. Is something scary, fantastical, quiet, or busy? We start building up all the sounds that we need, either things we record brand-new, recordings from the Skywalker Sound library, or we can create new sounds with a combination of materials. Eventually I cut all of the sound to the picture, which always changes. Then we go into a premix phase, where we put all of the effects together inside a mix room and organize them. The last part is the final mix, which we do at Skywalker Sound at the Ranch. I’ve also done them at the Disney Studios and Fox Studios.

So, I don’t really have a typical day [laughs]! But those are the usual phases of how we make a soundtrack for a movie.

Could you discuss your journey that led you to Skywalker Sound? What was your motivation to go into the film industry or sound in particular?

As a kid I wanted to do lots of things, most notably to be an astronaut. They had the space shuttle then. The other thing I wanted to do was join the Air Force, but at the time they wouldn’t let me fly the fighter jets because I was female. But when I was a kid, I saw Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I was pretty young to go to a movie like that, but my dad took me, and when I heard the sound of the Mothership flying over, and the Close Encounters communication tune was playing, and all the little spaceships were there, I can remember holding onto the edge of my seat. From that moment on, I was fascinated with movies and special effects. I don’t think I separated picture and audio in my mind, but I remember being impressed that the audio made you believe that that was a huge spaceship.

I went to film school, and decided to go into audio production, and ended up doing sound design for theater, which I really liked. At the time, a lot of people were doing experimental theater, so I got to do wacky stuff. I also took an audio for video course. Then I met a friend of mine who’d worked as a sound apprentice at the Saul Zaentz Film Center in the San Francisco Bay Area. When they asked for another apprentice, he recommended me. I met Jennifer Ware, who was an editor and supervisor at the center. They’d already filled the job they needed, but she remembered me, and got me an internship and then a job. I really loved it.

And what kind of work were you doing at the Saul Zaentz Film Center?

At the time, you pretty much learned to do everything. I kept insisting on being put in the effects department, although they wanted me in the dialogue department. I had all this experience with sound effects, and I liked that. It was right when computers were coming in. When you became an apprentice, you learned the workflow of how to work with film, and how to be a sound assistant. I assisted for effects, dialogue, helped keep the mix running, and then I moved into recording sound effects. Finally, they needed help with editing, and so I started editing sound effects.

How did you make the transition to Skywalker Sound?

I worked at Saul Zaentz for a number of years, and then Skywalker Sound became very busy and they needed help, so I was called in to work on a job. At Skywalker you work on a freelance basis from project to project, and so for about three years I worked between Saul Zaentz, Skywalker, and American Zoetrope. I was very lucky to work at all three facilities and do different projects.

Is it still the norm for employees at Skywalker Sound to work on a project-to-project basis?  

Yes, but nowadays if you’re working in sound in the San Francisco Bay Area, it will most likely be only at Skywalker because most of the other places have closed. You may also work in Los Angeles. At Skywalker, the amount of time you work depends on the project, and you could move between different roles depending on your skills.

Having worked elsewhere in the industry, what were your first impressions of Skywalker Sound?

First of all, Skywalker Ranch is very beautiful. The Technical Building is very nice. I am forever grateful for the chance to be there. Having worked at Saul Zaentz, the crews at Skywalker were often bigger because there were higher-budget, more action-oriented films. It’s also really fun to be part of that energy of Lucasfilm.

Was there anyone in particular from whom you were able to learn during your earliest time with the company?

I thought that everyone was very open. If I had questions, it didn’t feel weird asking someone. Right now, I’m working with Gary Rydstrom, and even though I didn’t work with him for a couple of years after I started, he was always so generous with his time. I’d ask him questions, and he’d say, ‘Hey, come listen to this!’ He’d get excited about something. I also worked with Pat Jackson a lot, and she is now an instructor San Francisco State University. She was definitely a mentor. She always tried to hire me as a sound designer in addition to being an effects editor. She truly loves sound for film, and was always very patient and excited.

During your earliest years at Skywalker Sound, were there any specific projects that were significant for you?

In 2005, I was hired as the sound designer for Jarhead (2005), which was edited by Walter Murch. He and Ben Burtt really pioneered the concept of sound design. Walter had never given that title to anyone on the movies that he had edited. I was very excited and grateful that he gave me the sound designer role. I’ve looked into it, and haven’t found any evidence to the contrary, so as far as I know I was the first woman to have a sound designer credit on a feature film. There are other women who’ve worked in the role, but I looked at the time and did not see any other screen credits.

What was your relationship with Walter Murch leading up to that project?

I had met Walter on The English Patient (1996) at Saul Zaentz Film Center. I worked as an assistant and did a lot of the effects recording. There was a large amount of work on that film, and the editors I assisted said I should take a reel or a few scenes to work on. I then helped Walter with the new 5.1 surround sound remixes for The Godfather Part II (1974) and Apocalypse Now Redux (2001). I was also a sound effects editor with him on The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19 (2002).

You mentioned possibly being the first woman to receive a sound design credit on a feature film. Have you seen more women taking an interest in sound in recent years?

Yes, in the last four or five years there has been a big sea change. It has not been very long, but there has been a push to get more women into creative roles and higher-paid roles. We have two female mixers that just won Emmys for The Mandalorian (2019). In the past there were very few women in effects because they would hit a glass ceiling, get frustrated and leave the business. Now there are more, mostly because they don’t see that glass ceiling, and they stick it out, which is great. We also have more sound designers such as Nia Hansen.

On Mulan (2020), we had Gwendolyn Yates-Whittle as sound supervisor and myself as co-supervisor. Outside of Skywalker, we had two female music editors, and the mixer and director (Niki Caro) were both women. It was mostly women on the stage almost all the time! Such as difference from the previous many, many years where I would be the only woman on the stage for show after show. I’m very happy to see more women get into mixing and the creative supervisory jobs.

You’ve worn many different hats in career – editing, design, supervision – but is there one in particular that you are most passionate about?

In this business, to stay working, you have to take opportunities whenever they come. But career-wise, I have always been focused on the creative and storytelling aspects. That’s why I first loved film. Sound design is definitely a part of that process.

Do you enjoy having a mix of projects between feature films, series, or animation?

Yes, I could never work at a job where all I did is the same thing every day. Not only do our roles change over the course of a project, but each job is a different kind of job. Sometimes there’s a different crew or mixers, sometimes the film is very different, or the interaction with picture department is very different.

You definitely cut and create sounds differently for an animated film versus an effects-driven live action film, like what Marvel does, or a quiet dialogue film. I enjoy the quiet dialogue films the most. I like the story and the character development and that sort of stuff. I worked on the series House of Cards, and just did a tiny bit of sound design with tones. Most of it was phone rings and doors closing! That was fun to work on because the story was so powerful. I liked figuring out how I could add a sense of place.

Are there any traits or characteristics that are important to your role?

The most successful people are flexible and let things roll off their backs. Hollywood is Hollywood and there are big personalities. By the time people get to post-production, there is a lot of stress and pressure after working on a movie for years. So, working hard in the trenches and not freaking out is a really good thing for this role. You have to take opportunities that present themselves. Keep your eyes open for creative opportunities.

Do you have a favorite Lucasfilm production?

My favorite is the very first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. I saw that movie a whole bunch of times when I was a kid and just loved it. And Star Wars: A New Hope, of course. But Indiana Jones has a special place in my heart because it is old-fashioned storytelling, it’s like an old serial. It’s got fun, humor, plenty of characters, beautiful sets – I just love all of that. That’s where Lucasfilm productions have really shined when they’ve let really great characters come through, and they create a different world that you want to be a part of.

And would Indy be your favorite character?

It’s hard to top Indy! My second favorite is Han Solo. Two sides of the same coin. Indy wears a great outfit, he’s got a whip, he’s really smart – how could you not like that? Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia is also a real favorite, and she was my idol as a child. I just thought she was really wonderful, so funny and dry, no-nonsense, just really fun and smart.

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