A degree from UMBC can take you anywhere — even a galaxy far, far away. Kimberly Patrick ‘08, recipient of UMBC’s 2019 Outstanding Alumni of the Year award, has a geek’s dream job, working as a sound editor and foley artist for Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Sound.
Just reading the experience section of this alumna’s resume will make you crave popcorn. In it are Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as well as the Marvel movies Captain Marvel and Thor: Ragnarok, all indelible parts of modern pop culture. She was nominated for a Primetime Emmy award for her sound editing for the animated series Star Wars Rebels.
Studying music technology at UMBC kick started Patrick’s interest in film sound.
“I realized how much I enjoy recording and adding sounds to moving images,” she says, and after graduation she went to film school at the University of Southern California to get her MFA in film and television production. She started as an intern at Lucasfilm in 2012 and advanced from there.
“I was able to make some fart sounds!”
For Patrick, a typical day as a foley artist might include shaking together rollerblades and running around to make the sounds of stormtroopers on the move. As a sound editor, she might be helping to decide the exact amount of fire sound in Captain Marvel’s superpowers.
In a documentary on YouTube about the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Patrick can be seen making those sounds and talking about her experience with such a seminal franchise. “It’s really exciting to be a part of that and to know that you’re part of this future generation of Star Wars movies,” which are iconic for sound and filmmaking in general, she says.
And then there is her work that slightly less auspicious — like the fart noises she made for Despicable Me 2. “There’s an end credit sequence with three of the minions and you know how… they’re always doing crazy things, one of them pulled out a trumpet and they wanted the trumpet to sound like a fart.” Patrick put her musical background to work and made it happen. “It definitely makes my parents super proud,” she says, “all those trumpet lessons. I was able to make some fart sounds!”
“Is it going to be lasery?”
Most of what she does, however, is edit previously-recorded sounds together to achieve the right effect. For the recent Captain Marvel, Patrick was given about a third of the movie to work with and tasked with deciding what sounds needed to go where.
“With these movies, you do get direction from the directors of what they have in mind, how they imagine it to sound, and then you have to sort of translate back.” Sometimes they might ask, “Can you do a woosh kind of thing? Or it should go like vroom pow!” Other times they use emotional direction, like “This needs to be powerful but have weight to it,” and then she might use a low-end sound.
For the superpower effects used in Captain Marvel, “You have to decide is it going to be like electrical, it is going to be fiery, is it going to be lasery? You generally give a bunch of options to the directors like, here’s this version where it’s very fiery and here’s this version where it’s a lot of electricity,” she says.
Star Wars fans will recognize her work from an eerie scene in The Last Jedi in which the main character Rey snaps her fingers in a hall of mirrors. For that effect Patrick had to use cloth and snapping sounds to create an echo. “I couldn’t just copy-paste the same sound over and over again; it would sound mechanical. There had to be a distinct rhythm, as well as a sense that her reflection repeated indefinitely away from her into the cave, so the quality of the sound would need to change as it got further and further away. It was a bit of a painstaking process to cut each individual repeated sound and sculpt it all into a believable performance that had some nuance, but it ultimately became a pretty cool sound moment in the film,” she says.
“You have to be an experimenter.”
UMBC may seem like it’s pretty far from that world of Jedi and superheroes, but Patrick says she uses her time as a Retriever to inform her work. “Having a degree in music from UMBC has been beneficial in so many ways. The music tech program emphasizes both the creative and technical sides of music-making which prepared me for the work I now do every day,” she says.
Patrick credits Professor Alan Wonneberger with encouraging her to pursue a career in film sound and the Linehan Scholars program with giving her much needed financial help and an introduction to artistic collaboration. “It exposed me to a large group of artists that I got to work with, which ultimately is what I do every day now — I get to work with a bunch of different artists from different departments and… we can just make beautiful things together.”
To give back to the school, Patrick coaches current students on how to get into the business. She has gone back to UMBC to speak to music classes and did a foley recording exercise with Professor Wonneberger’s class. She also spoke with Dr. Lisa Cella’s professional development classes about her career path. Recently, current student Jenna Polignone ’19, information systems and music technology got to pick her brain via Skype about applying for a summer internship at Skywalker.
To succeed, Patrick says, “I think you have to be an experimenter. And you have to have an ear for what things work and what things don’t and be able to describe why things work and why they don’t.” It can be rewarding artistically when it all comes together, she says, particularly when she works on a documentary with social impact like the 2016 film Looking at the Stars. But being part of blockbusters brings Patrick’s work to the hearts of geeks the world over.
“It’s really awesome that I get to work on these movies that are well known — I think that’s part of what makes my job very exciting… you get to be a part of this thing that’s bigger than you and say, yeah, I contributed to that.”
— Karen Stysley
All photos courtesy of Kimberly Patrick.