In sonic terms, most tend to jump straight to John Williams' music when considering the sound of Star Wars...
...But behind the scenes a team of editors/designers beavers away at Skywalker Ranch on almost everything else not touched by the great composer's baton. Initially known as Sprocket Systems before the move to George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in 1987, the company provides its services to anything from film & video games to theme park attractions, and remarkably every year since 1977, and the release of the first film in the series that exposed them to a wider audience, a member of staff has secured a nomination in either the Best Sound or Best Sound Editing category at the Academy Awards! Even before the Sound Editing category was in place, though, Ben Burtt snaffled himself a Special Achievement gong, again in '77.
A behind the scenes feature by Fortune makes clear,
“We do all of post-production sound, but the ranch is also set up as a creative community.” So says head Josh Lowden.
And among their works are the pulsating hum of a lightsaber and many other sound effects.
The process is a mixture of real-life, organic effects (think sound designers tinkering with sand, pots and pans and many other materials to create noise) and high-tech sound mixing.
Teams start working on projects like The Force Awakens and Jurassic World as early as possible in the moviemaking process—it has been done more or less this way since 1977’s Star Wars, the origins of Skywalker Sound."Burtt's hiring was a big part in that, as George Lucas searched for someone who could realise the sorts of sounds he heard in his head. The man himself would remember,
"In my first discussion with George Lucas about the film, he - and I concurred with him - that he wanted an 'organic', as opposed to the electronic and artificial soundtrack.
Since we were going to design a visual world that had rust and dents and dirt, we wanted a sound which had squeaks and motors that may not be the smooth-sounding or quite. Therefore we wanted to draw upon raw material from the real world: real motors, real squeaky door, real insects; this sort of thing.
The basic thing in all films is to create something that sounds believable to everyone, because it's composed of familiar things that you cannot quite recognize immediately."
In light of which it won't surprise you to learn that R2-D2's various bleeps & whistles are in part created by treatments of Ben's own voice as just one example, repeated for Wall- E & subsequently reused with BB8 in The Force Awakens. The rest is from natural found sources such as pipes & whistles.
Chewbacca requires nought but the natural world & clever editing, his array of sounds stemming from animals such as walruses, lions & tigers. Similarly a TIE fighter's sound is actually an altered elephant's bellow!
"You have bits and fragments of animal sounds which you have collected and put into lists: here is an affectionate sound and, here is a angry sound and, just like with R2-D2, they are clipped together and blended. With a Wookie, you might end up with five or six tracks, sometimes, to get the flow of the sentence"A similarly fragmented approach was taken in the construction of the language of the Ewoks.
"I broke the sounds down phonetically, and red-edited them together to make composite words and sentences. I would always use a fair amount of the actual languages, combined with purely made-up words.
With a new language, the most important goal is to create emotional clarity. People spend all of their lives learning to identify voices. You became an expert at that, and somewhat impossible to electronically process the human characteristic, and retain the necessary emotion.
To fool the audience into believing this is a real character as the basis of the sound, although you may sprinkle other things in there. It varies from character to character."
Darth Vader on the other hand needed to be that bit more mechanical. As the man who came up with that breathing sound among others for him remembered in a DVD commentary,
"The concept for the sound of Darth Vader came about from the first film, and the script described him as some kind of a strange dark being who is in some kind of life support system. That he was breathing strange, that maybe you heard the sounds of mechanics or motors, he might be part robot, he might be part human, we really didn't know.Speaking of mechanics, there's also Matthew Wood, a fellow sound designer & voice of General Grievous, the robot stooge of Count Dooku!
And so the original concept I had of Darth Vader was a very noise producing individual. He came into a scene he was breathing like some wheezing wind mill, you could hear his heart beating, you move his head you heard motors turning. He was almost like some robot in some sense and he made so much noise that we had to sort of cut back on that concept.
In the first experiment the mixes we did in Star Wars he sounded like an operating room, like a, you know, emergency room, you know, moving around."
He'd started out as a games tester before a sideways move into sound & then vocal performance. Which is better? Both have benefits, as he told Wired.
"They both work two different parts of my brain, and it (performing) is something I’ve always done. I really enjoy performing, but with my job at Lucasfilm, it’s hard for me to go out and audition with my body because I’d have to leave work.A quest which continues through Skywalker Sound post THX & Sound Droid, an editing system Wood had previously worked on for Lucas. Mentored almost predictably by Burtt - sound master & apprentice done good!
But with sound, I have the same equipment that I use to do my sound work to do my auditions with. So in the morning, I’ll get a bunch of auditions with my agency, and I’ll record them all there and send them out as mp3s.
It’s fun to be able to perform something, and then go do the tech after that, which I really enjoy. Lucasfilm has always been great for exploring and trying new ways of doing tech."