Sound Designer and UCSC Alum Ren Klyce Makes All the Right Noises

Portrait of Ren Klyce
Ren Klyce in Peter Elsea's studio, 1984
Ren Klyce in Peter Elsea's studio, 1984
Peter Elsea & Ren Klyce
Peter Elsea & Ren Klyce
Ren Klyce talks about The Social Network with composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Ren Klyce talks about The Social Network with composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

With five Oscar nominations for film sound editing and mixing, UC Santa Cruz alumnus Ren Klyce’s career has taken a sky-rocket climb since he decided to major in music back in 1983. He credits his piano teacher at UCSC, Mary Jane Cope, and her husband of Professor Emeritus of Music, David Cope, for presenting him with a new way of thinking about music that ultimately set him in the direction that has taken him to the incredible place he is now.

“I realized when I got to UC Santa Cruz how most of the other piano students were so much more advanced than me,” says Klyce. "I went in thinking I was good, but quickly realized how many students were obviously far better and more talented. It was an adjustment for me to make as a musician. When you think of something as your skill set -- and then you realize it’s not…you don’t know if you’re really cut out for it.”

But making that profound, though tough, discovery didn’t diminish Klyce’s love of music. He really appreciates how being at UCSC enabled him to have many inspiring teachers who showed him a new way to express his talent.

"I had wonderful teachers"

He credits Professors Gordon Mumma and David Cope with introducing him to Music Concrète: a 1940's genre of music that was in many ways, like sound design. “I had wonderful teachers! Learning music theory and ear training from Professor Mary Badarak was invaluable, however some theory was at times a bit difficult for me. But what was unique about the electronic music courses, and studying Musique Concrète, was that they were all about listening and celebrating the composers who challenged the very definition of music itself. These 1940's composers considered sound as music. That really resonated with me.

Klyce also was amazed by the computer software that Cope was creating then called EMI (Experiments in Musical Intelligence) which produced musical pieces in the style of various composers. “David wrote this very complicated program that analyzed other composers’ music and figured out their styles and tendencies,” explains Klyce. “Cope was coding this while I was his student, so it was a very exciting time as it was right at the point where computers were just starting to come into the creative realm for music making.

Another major influence at UC Santa Cruz was Professor Peter Elsea, who was the director of the Electronic Music Studios on campus and who taught Klyce how to mix audio and edit analog audio tape. Editing music and sounds (before computers) was a painstaking operation that required a lot of hands-on time, patience and dexterity, as editors literally spliced tape with razor blades and then taped them back together to create the final audio pieces they wanted.

“One of the first assignments Peter gave us was to compose a Musique Concrète piece on 1/4 inch tape that had only one sound at a time and constrain ourselves to work in mono,” says Klyce. “I think that having a creative constraint was one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned in my life. And David Cope encouraged the computer aspect of it. I really got excited about computers because of him.”

Professor David Cope's profound influence

“Ren Klyce is a truly gifted man of immense talent, and no one who knows him and his abilities could possibly say any differently,” said Cope.

Even though Klyce is now a renowned sound designer, he was never formally trained. While at UC Santa Cruz, he continued to pursue electronic music, computers, and, thanks to Peter Elsea's class and access to the studio,  learned the necessary tools and techniques along the way. A turning point for Klyce was when he successfully completed a composition assignment from Cope where he composed electronic music using a computer drum machine. Cope reviewed it and liked what he heard.

“It’s interesting how at different times of your life, when you get praise from people you respect, how far that can go and David Cope did that for me,” says Klyce. “He gave me encouragement which gave me confidence. When you have your teacher tell you, without a grade, but just tell you….It was a very empowering moment for me. I was so appreciative of that.”

"Sound is fifty percent of the movie-going experience." – George Lucas

“When I was nine years old, George Lucas had rented the house next door at 8 Laurel ” says Klyce. “George was editing THX-1138 in this house. My godfather, [famed sound artist and radio satirist] Henry Sandy Jacobs was the one who told me that George was making his movie there. (Lucas' sound designer, Walter Murch, had hired Jacobs for voice work in the film).

A decade later, Klyce got what would be a very fortuitous summer job as an art assistant on an animated feature that was being produced by Lucas. While working on the film, (Twice Upon a Time)  Klyce met another young 19 year old named David Fincher, who would later grow up to be one of Hollywood’s most successful film directors.

“We were fortunate because we didn’t have to go to L.A. to get our start. Films like THX-1138American Graffiti, and Star Wars were being made here in our Bay Area backyard, and we were lucky enough to have gotten the job on Twice Upon a Time.

Fincher and Klyce became fast friends and found that they really enjoyed working together. “David is a genius…just incredibly talented,” says Klyce. But despite their talent, they still needed to manage their way up in an extremely competitive industry. Their perseverance paid off. Big time.

A smoking fetus

As Klyce and Fincher were working on Twice Upon a Time, Fincher got a side job to direct his first commercial for the American Cancer Society, and asked Klyce to work with him on it. The spot aimed at warning pregnant women about the dangers of smoking. The pitch: Fincher wanted to show the image of a fetus (in utero) smoking a cigarette.

“It was a bit grotesque,” says Klyce who did the music and sound for the commercial. “You see a baby fetus close up and think how sweet it is, and then the camera pulls back and the baby lifts up this massive cigarette to its mouth, smoking it…the music sours! It was the beginning of David pushing the controversy button on society. If you can get a lot of people to react – even if it’s negative – you can start a conversation. So we did that and it actually did really well.”

Peter Elsea was generous and allowed Klyce to use the UCSC music studio to produce his soundtrack. "I didn't own the proper tools to create the music, so I was most appreciative to Peter in letting me sneak in after hours and use the studio," says Klyce.

Fincher went on to direct music videos by many well-known artists, including Madonna, and most notably her controversial Like a Prayer video. In the early 1990s, he got his first feature film directing project, Alien 3, and wanted to hire Klyce to do the sound, but the producers wouldn’t go for it. “David tried to get me on it but I had no experience, and therefore couldn’t get hired."

But on his next film, Seven, Fincher would not take “no” for an answer when it came time to hire Klyce to design the sound. “He told the producers he wanted me as the designer and he really championed me,” says Klyce. “And so the studio finally agreed.”

“Many times people ask me, ‘how do you get into the film industry?’” says Klyce. “And the only advice I can give is to make friends and collaborate with other young filmmakers who you think are exceptional, because young filmmakers grow up, and can grow up to be amazing filmmakers, and David certainly did.”

Academy Award nominations

Since that time, Klyce has been the sound designer on virtually all of David Fincher’s films and commercials, as well as the hit Netflix series House of Cards. He’s been nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing and Best Achievement in Sound Editing for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Best Achievement in Sound Mixing for The Social Network; Best Achievement in Sound Mixing for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; and Best Sound Effects Editing for Fight Club.

David Fincher said of Ren in a Guardian interview: “I work with Ren Klyce, who’s worked on all my movies since Seven, and who I trust implicitly. He’s just responsible for the sound. He helps choose the composer, helps spot the music and where it goes, and he works with all the source cues.” Fincher adds, “on Panic Room, for instance, which is an interesting movie – maybe not from an audience’s standpoint – but from a technical standpoint: you have an entire movie taking place in one space. To have that space evolve in some kind of way over the course of two hours, part of the thing he did was … he would record all the Foley, all the footsteps, all the doorknob turns, all the hard effects of everything, in the actual set that we were shooting in on the weekends.”

Other films Klyce has worked on include the recent Alice Through the Looking Glass (directed by James Bobin), Pixar’s Inside Out (directed by Pete Docter), Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things AreHer and Being John Malkovich, and Fincher’s Gone Girl and Zodiac.

Being nominated for five Oscars, Klyce laughs that he still doesn’t really understand the process of getting selected. “I don’t know how it happens! But it’s a really interesting thing to have happen to you….The first time for me was for Fight Club.”

Along with Fincher, Klyce also enjoys working with director Spike Jonze. “I worked on Spike's last film, Her, as his music editor,” says Klyce. “That was a wonderful experience because I got to work with [Canadian indie rock band] Arcade Fire. They’re amazing people. Being with them in their studio in Montreal was a real treat. In fact, there was a moment where David Cope was going to collaborate with them. The film involves a man who falls in love with a female voiced computer named Samantha, and at one point in the film, Samantha composes a piece of music. Winn and Regine (Arcade Fire) were fans of David Cope's work with EMI, and wanted to collaborate with Cope in composing the score. How cool is that? Arcade Fire are fans of a UCSC professor! I arranged a few calls with the band and Cope, which went well, and then Cope agreed to send them a bunch of EMI's midi files to work with. Unfortunately, Spike didn't end up using any of the pieces and so Cope never got to be a part of the film."

Klyce is currently busy teaming up with David Fincher again on a new series for Netfilx called Mindhunter (which is based on the book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit and is being produced by Fincher and Charlize Theron), and is working on a documentary as music editor for Trent Reznor (film score composer/Nine Inch Nails founder). "The documentary is about climate change and is a very important topic, especially this election year."

He’s also really excited about having recently purchased two older, French toy pianos from a now extinct manufacturer named Michelsonne. “The factory sadly burned down in 1970, and since then, they have been hard to find,” says Klyce. “The Michelsonne has an unusual sound that is very different from the standard. The tone is quite whimsical yet haunting, and has inspired me to write a piece. I plan to record it with two microphones (one close, one far) in an empty concrete corridor.”

When he’s not in the studio, Klyce enjoys all that the Bay Area has to offer. Together with his family, he loves to cook as well as be outside hiking and biking, and going to San Francisco. “We pretend we’re visiting from far away, and do all the tourist things that people on vacation enjoy doing in this great city. People fly from the other side of the globe to visit this place, so it's a fun way of reminding ourselves how lucky we are to live here.”

Reflecting back on why he chose UC Santa Cruz, Ren says: “I just liked it. It was close enough to home and I thought it was beautiful, and my friends were there. My sister and brother-in-law were there, too! It was exciting to have fantastic teachers who enlightened me and gave me the tools to figure things out. The Santa Cruz period of my life is still very special to me.”