Greg Russell has worked as a sound engineer on more than 200 movies, from the Transformer series to the edge-of-your-seat thriller “Con Air” and the Bond film “Skyfall.” 

He learned the art from some of the folks behind every whip crack, bottle break and horse gallop in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and he’s still having fun several decades later. 

“I was like a sponge,” said Russell, who got his start recording albums for the likes of Ringo Starr before turning to making sound magic for movies and TV shows. 

“You have to learn how to navigate,” Russell said in an interview. “I watched people work, and how they treated people. I am a composite of all the great people I have worked with,” said Russell, who has been nominated 16 times for Academy Awards for his sound work. He’s worked for Warner, Sony and now Paramount. 

When the Los Angeles resident appears at Des Moines Community College’s ciWeek8 — Celebrate! Innovation Week — at the West Des Moines campus in a few weeks, he’ll have some simple messages to inspire the students in attendance.

“To show up to a job you love is the greatest gift ever,” Russell said. “Find something that you can make a decent living and that you enjoy. My days go by so fast.”

And here’s a bonus tip from the Emmy winner: “There are no dumb questions. Ask the question.”

Russell is on a ciWeek8 lineup Feb. 27 to March 3 that includes beatboxer Kaila Mullady, Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden, rock climber Kevin Jorgeson, Olympic gold medalist Dan Gable, Apollo 16 astronaut Ken Mattingly (played by Gary Sinise in “Apollo 13”), best-sellng authors Max Brooks and Joy Hakim, and ciWeek founder Anthony Paustian, provost of DMACC West.

“The theme this year is ‘To the Nth Degree,’ ” Paustian said. “The speakers are all people who have been willing to push the bar a little further and not settle for the status quo. The entire purpose of ciWeek is to inspire. We bring in a broad range of speakers each year whose stories will resonate differently across a broad audience regardless of age, gender, race, background, etc. If this event can inspire just one person who will make our community a better place, then it’s done its job.

“With the recent passing of Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, who spoke at ciWeek5, meeting the two Apollo astronauts this year holds greater significance,” Paustian added. “Their story is one of a kind and represents a period in this country of incredible creativity and innovation, the results of which surround us every day in the form of thousands of products we all take for granted. Next year, we plan to have an exploration focus, one that includes the farthest reaches of the Earth and perhaps even Mars. There is so much yet to be explored that can provide so many insights into humanity’s past and future.”

Russell’s work is among the last touches before a movie hits theaters. He paints with sound, layering everything on with just the right balance.

“The production mixer is there to record the dialogue, and that’s it.,” Russell noted. Everything else — the footsteps, the teacups clicking, gunshots, boat motors, the door shutting — is added later. That process is very creative. This is movie magic. These sounds are what makes the movie believable.”

He “flies the sound around with a joystick,” leaving the effects you’ve heard when a sound travels from the front of the theater to the back, for example. He makes sure the balance is right — after all, you can only slam a door so hard. And the cow doesn’t moo with the force of a supersonic engine.

When the most recent “Transformers” was wrapping up, he lived in a trailer on the lot for three weeks, dodging both the need for sleep and the world-class egos that are part of the Hollywood fabric. “We work around the clock sometimes. It’s not all painted in rose, and it’s demanding as hell. But I love it.”

Sometimes he is working with sounds recorded just for that movie, but often he’s pulling from thousands the engineers have in their digital library. 

“I get to work with directors who work on a movie for maybe three years, but it doesn’t really come to life until I add the sound,” Russell said. 

His conversion from a guy who “just wanted to record music” to a sound engineer came after he saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which featured the state of the art in sound at the time. “I sat there not comprehending that this would change me. I was profoundly impressed hearing all the sounds. They buzzed around my head.” When the giant ball threatened to run Indiana Jones over, “the whole theater was shaking” with deep bass, he added. 

Another lesson: “You never know where the inspiration will come from and the light bulb will go on. We need to give kids a chance to observe people in a difficult field.”

That experience led Russell to lay the sound down for such intense movies as “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor” and “The Rock.” 

And he’s not stopping now. “I revel in what we have done. I still love what I do. It is like a fire that is constantly burning in me,” he said.

“It’s so satisfying when an audience is seated on opening day in Italy, Poland and China, and they are going to experience what I’ve been working on for three or four months. When it’s successful, it’s a pretty great thing.”

Beatboxer Find your voice
Champion beatboxer, dancer and multi-instrumentalist Kaila Mullady said students need to find their muse, and follow it. 

“The most important thing is finding the power of their own voice,” Mullady said in an interview. “Stand up for yourself and what you consider is right. Know what you believe in, and stick to it.

“Not everyone will be right all the time. Follow your head and gut.”

Mullady was a lifelong beatboxer before she dropped out of school and combined other arts into her act. “I never thought I would be a professional beatboxer. I was going to be a teacher, but I wasn’t connecting with that. I really just wanted to perform.

“We went on to teach in a way that resonates. It is more mentoring than teaching.”

Mullady is known for combining beatboxing with dancing, drama, poetry and singing. “I don’t think anybody is just one thing. I am about music and theater and teaching. When I focused on just one thing, I felt unhappy. I decided not to follow the rules. 

“I do a synthesis of all the things I like to do.”

She’ll speak to the area students at ciWeek through her videos, too. “The stage is a place I can have a discussion with all people to find their own voice.”

Astronaut Worden We need Mars — for living space
For retired astronaut Al Worden — one of the headliners at the coming ciWeek8 festivities at DMACC’s West Des Moines campus — the world of technology and innovation includes the mission to land people on Mars. 

He doesn’t see it as a mere scientific experiment, as you might think. He doesn’t necessarily see it as a science arms race, though he does worry that the Chinese are looking to show everyone up. 

Worden, who flew the command module for NASA’s 1971 Apollo 15 mission to the moon, sees it as finding a place to live. “I say the space program is all about finding a place to live when we can’t live here,” he said in an interview. “We have to find another Earth-like planet. The moon is a step — or Mars. I think they are just steppingstones. I think they are goals and objectives to develop technology to go further.”

You might think he’s talking about the chance that climate change will make Earth too hot to live on, but Worden doesn’t seem convinced that climate change is a permanent problem (despite the decades of warnings from his onetime NASA colleague, Iowa-born climate scientist James Hansen). “Climate change is a temporary thing,” Worden said. “I’m not sure people are right.”

No, Worden sees another problem: “The sun will burn up all its energy. It might be a billion years, but it will,” he said.

Worden said the space program is one center of technological advances, but the nation needs many. “The huge jump we made was in solid-state electronics,” he said of the past. “The government supported silicon chips instead of vacuum tubes. It’s very reliable. Now we need another jump, in propulsion,” Worden said.

“There is no question that we need to develop a lot of technology to get where we need to go. It  might take 1,000 years. People are too impatient. The day will come when we can go everywhere.

“We’re entering an era of a lot of commercial flights to orbit and back. SpaceX is trying to plan trips to Mars. Long-duration flights are government business because it’s so darn expensive. It will take a year and a half to go to Mars. It will take several countries working together. How do you keep people alive for a year and a half?”

It’s the type of question ciWeek is supposed to inspire.


Paustian finishes book based on Apollo
Anthony Paustian, provost of the Des Moines Area Community College campus in West Des Moines, in May will release his latest book, “A Quarter Million Steps,” which uses the experiences of the Apollo moon missions as a call to action. The 240-page book will be published by BookPress Publishing in Des Moines. The subtitle is “Creativity, imagination and leading transformative change.”