Culture

Creating the Sounds of Star Wars

Last month, when I was putting the finishing touches on my post on the classic British Cinesound sound effects library from the 1960s and 1970s, I did a quick Amazon search to include a link to the sound effects from the original 1966 iteration of Star Trek, which you can download as an MP3 collection for use in your own DIY video productions. That was when I came across this:

The Sounds of Star Wars? I had to have it.

Written by J.W. Rinzler, Lucasfilm’s in-house historian, who has previously crafted well-readable guides to the making of each of the Star Wars movies, as the title implies, this edition focuses solely on their sound effects.

While Star Wars quickly became legendary upon its initial 1977 release for revolutionizing visual effects, and phrases such as “Industrial Light & Magic” and “the Dykstraflex” became household words, Star Wars also revolutionized movie audio as well. Building on the pioneering efforts of Walter Murch, who has worked on a number of Francis Ford Coppola’s productions and Lucas’s first two movies to bring the world of the recording studio to movie sound and sound effects, Ben Burtt created a distinct sonic palette for the Star Wars universe. Largely eschewing the sounds that Star Trek and other previous science fiction productions made famous, Burtt armed himself with Nagra recorder and a series of high quality microphones, and ultimately crisscrossed the country to build his own library of organic sound effects. While many of the sounds he captured were ultimately sped-up, slowed-down, and electronically-processed, the Star Wars sonic universe sounded remarkably believable, because it was built on an astonishing variety of real-life sounds.

Creating Chewbacca's voice.

In his interviews with Rinzler, Burtt recounts the story of how those sounds were captured: how Chewbacca’s voice was based upon growls recorded from a series of bears. How the lightsabers’ hum derives from an old film projector, and how the TIE fighter’s Stuka-like banshee wail was a combination of a slowed down elephant roar and car driving on wet pavement.

You’ll also learn how Burtt created R2D2’s unique voice from a mixture of an ARP 2600 synthesizer and by electronically processing his own voice while making child-like sound effects. As Burtt said, “Artoo had to act with Alec Guinness. So there had to be a certain amount of credibility and performance in order to sustain a conservation with such a terrific actor, who is talking to what looks like a drinking fountain or a wastepaper basket.” And since R2’s physical movements basically consist of turning his head from right to left, the audio has to carry the rest of the load.

Creating the sound of R2 in motion dovetails into a brief mention of Star Wars’ other sound effects man. Just as the James Bond series made John Barry a star while leaving fellow composer Monty Norman in the lurch, in The Sounds of Star Wars, you’ll also learn a bit about Sam Shaw, the first Star Wars movie’s lesser-known other sound man, who, while coming from a more traditional movie industry background than Burtt, used an equally radical approach for one of Star Wars’ signature sound effects. Shaw recorded the motors driving the power windows and power antenna on a Cadillac Eldorado as the basis for the servo motors whenever R2 and C3PO turn their heads or walk.

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Talking Book

As you might have noticed from the photo on the previous page, and in the tail-end of the above video, The Sounds of Star Wars has a rather unusual design. It’s a hardcover book that contains 304 glossy, heavily illustrated pages, but attached to the back cover on its right-hand side is a plastic case that’s as thick as the actual book and looks a bit like a boxy version of a lightsaber. But it’s actually a digital playback device, programmed to accompany the book. As Rinzler and Burtt explain the origins of each sound effect in the book’s text, a still photo from the movie in the book’s text is accompanied by a number, which can be dialed up in the audio player. Press play, and you’ll hear banthas and ‘speeders and TIEs — oh my! (And over 250 more sounds.)

Those who would like to incorporate Star Wars’ sound effects into their own YouTube productions should take note that the digital audio player has an 1/8th-inch miniplug headphone jack, and can thus be plugged into a digital audio recorder or your computer’s mic jack.

And Then Came the Prequels…

The book covers how Burtt and his associates captured the sound for all six of the Star Wars movies. Though paging through The Sounds of Star Wars, I was reminded that while sound and visual effects are important, they’re ultimately there to support the characters and the story. Once the book started to focus on the disastrous Star Wars prequels, I found myself fairly quickly losing interest. I know those films are a technical milestone. But as video maker Mike Stoklasa thoroughly demonstrated with his marathon video deconstructions, Lucas these days is more concerned with his digital effects than either creating characters that we can invest ourselves in, or telling meaningful stories about them. The sound and fury are both awesome, but in the hands of a now creatively exhausted Lucas, unwilling to bring in outside directors, as he did with his first two sequels, they signify nothing. (Or to put it another way, which would you prefer to watch over and over again: Casablanca, filmed in black and white and recorded in scratchy, hissy mono on the Warner Brothers backlot, or one of Lucas’s zillion-dollar digital Star Wars prequels?)

But we all have fond memories of seeing Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back for the first time (or the first 20 times), and witnessing a revolution in moviemaking. Those who’d like to relive those memories, and incorporate their sounds into your own efforts, know who you are. And you will love The Sounds of Star Wars. At least the first two-thirds of it.