With nearly 40 years of cinema history, a die-hard diverse fan base that spans both time and globe, countless spin-offs, spoofs and robust merchandising that was set to generate $3 billion in sales in 2015 alone, Star Wars is a super continent among the islands of cultural icons. Other film franchises have managed to stay relevant for decades —
Jurassic Park, Mad Max, Rocky and
Star Trek to name a few, but they somehow lack that infectious essence that makes grown people want to dress up like Stormtroopers or Wookiees and build working replicas of a certain astromech droid.
Star Wars fandom is not limited to the general public; it’s also prevalent among those with the privilege of working on the films, series and games the franchise produces. At Skywalker Sound, in Marin County, CA (www.skysound.com), the post sound crew knows that crafting sounds for Star Wars is what the company, literally, was born to do. Originally called Sprocket Systems, George Lucas established the company in 1975 when he and Gary Kurtz hired Ben Burtt specifically to handle the progressive soundtrack they imagined for the first Star Wars film. Today, Burtt is still a creative force in Star Wars sound. He’s joined in the new era of Star Wars by supervising sound editors Matthew Wood and David Acord, and sound designer/re-recording mixer Chris Scarabosio, who are no strangers to the Star Wars universe, having worked on all three prequel films, the TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, as well as on Star Wars-related games, TV movies and more. “We all have a lot of Star Wars experience and it’s a great thing being able to bring the fandom from our youth into the filmmaking process,” says Scarabosio.
As a sound supervisor, Wood focuses on the dialogue and teams up with other sound supervisors who handle the sound design, like Burtt on remastering the original trilogy for Blu-ray/DVD and creating the prequels, and then with Acord on The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels TV series. Sound-wise, Acord and Wood have basically held down the franchise fort for the past 10 years. “We both have a really big understanding of what has come before in the Star Wars universe so we have a great checks-and-balances system for going forward and making sure that everything new sounds like it’s in the right universe,” says Wood.
Early sound design work on Disney’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (a Lucasfilm production) was motivated by merchandise, notes Wood. They wanted to make sure they had new sounds for the toys that were coming out, like Kylo Ren’s lightsaber, BB-8, and new Stormtrooper vocals. “It caused early dialogues to happen about how things were going to sound, and that gave us an opportunity to work on their sound before any focus was put on it. I’m fully able to be motivated that way,” confesses Wood.
The Force Awakens is filled with franchise fighter favorites — ships like Solo’s Millennium Falcon, Imperial TIE fighters and Rebel X-wings. Acord says that how they sound in this film is the same as how audiences have known and loved, only beefier. “We added sweeteners to give them a dimension that maybe wasn’t so useful in 1977, which was a lot of low-end bass frequencies. So the TIE fighter sound is the same, but now we have an added low-end element. It’s the same with the X-wings. There is a heavy, throaty jet sound that was added to those on occasion,” says Acord. For the Falcon, the ship sounds are a combo of classics and sweeteners, but there’s been an important update to its gun. “The old Falcon gun sound just didn’t match what we were trying to accomplish. The new Falcon gun sound is more percussive,” says Acord. The new design combines recordings of a .50 caliber gun, captured by sound designer Gary Rydstrom, with traditional Star Wars ‘pew-pew’ laser elements that make it fit right in with the ship.
Also from previous films are the sounds for R2-D2, originally created by Burtt using an ARP 2600 analog synth and his own voice, as well as Burtt’s classic lightsaber sounds for the blue lightsaber in The Force Awakens, which have been embellished with low-end sweeteners.
In the film, nemesis Kylo Ren wields a lightsaber too, but his is very different, in both look and sound. The energy flickers and jumps, like electricity arcing. It’s not static; it seems unstable. “Kylo’s saber is more raw sounding. It’s meant to shadow his way with the force, which is crude, unrefined and dark. That is what we were going for with his lightsaber,” explains Acord.
The final sound of Kylo’s lightsaber was a combination of designs by Burtt, Rydstrom and Acord. “Ben, Gary and I all sent ideas for the lightsaber to director JJ Abrams. There were ideas for the ignite, and for the steady, and the swishes. This became a dialogue with JJ about what he liked and didn’t like. We converged on what was a group effort to create Kylo’s lightsaber,” says Acord. In detailing the lightsaber swishes he contributed, Acord says he manipulated samples of metal screeching and scraping, like a metal chair on concrete, using Native Instruments Reaktor, which he then processed using a Doppler plug-in to add movement.
Another new face in The Force Awakens is the droid BB-8. Although similar to R2-D2 in that BB-8 communicates in beeps and tones, the sound of BB-8 needed to be instantly distinguishable from his droid cousin. “If they had a conversation it had to be obvious who was speaking,” says Wood. It was no small task following in the tracks of R2’s sound. Rydstrom, Burtt, Acord and Wood went through numerous permutations on BB-8. They came up with loading sounds into a custom tactile interface that can change timbre and pitch. Director Abrams was able to use the interface to perform sections of sound for BB-8’s scenes. Additionally, they employed two ‘BB-8 voice consultants,’ Ben Schwartz and Bill Hader. Schwartz set up the timings for how the droid would speak to the other characters. “There is a lot more dialogue that happens between a droid and the other characters than ever before in a Star Wars film,” explains Wood. Once they established a pattern for BB-8’s responses, sound editor Lindsey Alvarez cut Abrams’s samples to picture. Acord had the idea to pass some of those samples through a Heil Talkbox by Jim Dunlop, and have them performed through the mouth of actor Bill Hader. “Then we recorded those performances using a microphone to give it a rounded, analog effect. Some of those samples ended up in BB-8, too. It was a long process with BB-8. Many levels of design came together to create the final product,” says Wood.
In addition to helping craft the voice of BB-8, Wood was also tasked with inventing vocal processes for Kylo Ren’s mask, Captain Phasma’s mask and the Stormtrooper helmet futzes. Intelligibility was paramount in Wood’s quest to find a unique, character-appropriate sound for each. For perfidious Kylo Ren, Wood notes, “Early on we knew we wanted the sound of the mask to be something the actor could be motivated by.” He made a version of Kylo’s vocal process — a combination of five different plug-ins from Waves, like the Chris Lord-Alge CLA Effects, and Soundtoys, and fed that into actor Adam Driver’s headphones during the ADR session. “He could really play on the mic. The plug-ins were able to affect his performance in a way that was positive and real. It wasn’t just him reading the lines dry and then we post-processed them. He actually got to play while we recorded,” says Wood.
Abrams wanted Kylo’s mask to sound like a reflection of his lightsaber, which sounds broken and imperfect. Unlike Darth Vader’s mask that served to keep him alive, Kylo’s mask only functions as a means of intimidation. “JJ would use big words like flamethrower, chainsaw and Harley-Davidson — sounds that are really, really big — to get that across emotionally. We used distortion, compression and side-banding to get that quality out of Kylo’s mask.”
For Captain Phasma’s mask, Wood chose a combination of delay and ring modulation plug-ins from the Waves diamond bundle. Additionally, he notes C-3PO’s voice is treated with EQ to roll off the top and bottom frequencies, and a short delay. All of C-3PO’s lines were post-recorded by the man-in-the-suit himself, actor Anthony Daniels. “Anthony can always up his performance. That is when looping is really doing its job, when you are improving a scene and it doesn’t feel like you are just doing it from a technical standpoint. It feels like, creatively, it is helping the movie and that is something we did with C-3PO,” says Wood.
Chewbacca’s voice in The Force Awakens was edited from Burtt’s classic Chewbacca sounds that he created using a slew of animals like walruses, rabbits, camels, lions, tigers and bears. Acord and sound effects editor Terry Eckton, who worked on the original and prequel Star Wars films, had the challenge of cutting the existing material into new ‘lines’ for Chewy. “There were a couple of moments there that required them to craft a line with a particular cadence we were looking for and I think they pulled it off pretty well,” says Wood.
It wouldn’t be a galaxy without different alien species, all speaking different alien languages. To keep track of them all, Lucas Licensing keeps a Holocron — a continuity database that catalogs all the elements from nearly every officially sanctioned Star Wars source. The keepers of the Holocron, Leland Chee and Pablo Hidalgo, were consulted on The Force Awakens to make sure the proper Star Wars vernacular and recording techniques were adhered to for particular aliens, like character Tasu Leech, whom Han Solo encounters in The Force Awakens. For Leech’s sound, established in a prequel project, Woods explains that they record the actor speaking his lines in a gibberish language invented by Sara Forsberg. Then, they reverse those recordings. The actor learns the lines backwards, and then performs them that way. They take those recordings, and reverse them again to fit in the mouth of the character. “It gives a nice, weird effect that is achieved purely through performance and an analog-type approach to the processing. That’s fun when sound design can work with dialogue like that,” says Wood.
Another interesting alien is Teedo, a small scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku. Acord, who was preparing for a trip to Thailand, says Teedo’s language is a mish-mash of poorly pronounced Thai phrases with a few names of his friends thrown in for fun. Teedo’s lines also include a hidden Easter egg of dialogue, the words “jub-jub,” as per Abrams’s request. For those familiar with The Simpsons, “jub-jub” is the name of Selma’s pet iguana, a name bestowed by then-writer on the series, Conan O’Brien. During director Abrams’s appearance on the talk show Conan in 2013, he promised O’Brien he’d work “jub-jub” into the upcoming Star Wars film. “Teedo says it as he is walking away from BB-8 and Rey,” reveals Acord.
Re-recording mixers Scarabosio (on effects/Foley/backgrounds) and Andy Nelson (on dialogue and music) mixed Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the Howard Hawks stage at Fox Studios in Los Angeles using an AMS Neve DFC console. After completing the native Dolby Atmos mix, they translated that to the Imax 12.0, Imax, 7.1 and 5.1 formats.
Scarabosio says the biggest challenge for the mix was to balance the energy of the effects with the magic of the music while keeping the charm and nostalgia of the Star Wars legacy. “The sound of Star Wars is probably as much John Williams score as it is about all the phenomenal sound effects that have been created over the years,” Scarabosio says. “It all came together to create a harmonious track that makes people so excited and helps tell the story.”
The immersive Atmos surround field offered Scarabosio the opportunity to create an interesting atmosphere, particularly on the aerial attacks where starfighters and lasers abound, all while using sound to pull the focus onto important story points. “Part of mixing is thinning sounds out because if you put too much in, then it all starts to get muddy and you lose focus. We often referred to ‘using sound to pull the focus,’ so that we could find amongst all this chaos, what the audience is supposed to be focusing on in any one given moment,” he says.
Their goal for the mix was all about keeping the charm. Parts of the film harken back to the original film of the '70’s, and parts feel very modern with fast pacing, but ultimately director Abrams didn’t want the audience to feel overwhelmed. “There’s just this charm to it that the Star Wars movies have always had that makes it fun,” says Scarabosio.
“Star Wars is such a special thing. When you’re working on it, you know it’s not your average film,” says Wood, who notes that nearly all of the ‘additional voices’ listed in the credits of The Force Awakens have a Star Wars history, either from the original films, the prequels or the Clone Wars. “That was fun to have everyone back in the studio and contributing their part for this movie.” From the cast and crew to director Abrams, Wood feels that everything just came together for The Force Awakens. He concludes, “Kind of like the way Star Wars the story does, where these groups come together out of seemingly random occurrences and they are all brought together to help this amazing story. For us to be part of that, it all felt right.
That we were all on the stage there bringing it together. We were working on something that is special. JJ certainly delivered a picture that is very special so we hope we complemented it with our sound.”