The humming drone of a Jedi’s lightsaber. The high-frequency pops of a Stormtrooper’s laser blaster. The warbling bleeps and bloops of an R2 unit. All unmistakable sounds from the Star Wars series. In the more than 30 years since A New Hope‘s 1977 release, these and other iconic sound effects from George Lucas’ classic science fiction franchise have transformed into what Ben Burtt, the series’ sound designer, calls “audio folklore.”
Most fans will probably take more immediate notice of the newly high-def presentation in the recently released Star Wars Blu-ray set, but most aspects of the classic films have been reapproached and tweaked to take full advantage of modern-day home theater systems. Burtt worked alongside supervising sound editor Matt Wood in bringing the Blu-ray box set together, a process which both men discussed in separate interviews with Rolling Stone.
“It’s the first time we’ll ever have the movie out in a format that is basically just a file copied right from our archives at Skywalker Sound direct to the public,” says Wood. “It’s just this uncompressed master that can finally be heard.”
Wood did the bulk of the heavy lifting on the project, focusing on the overall audio landscape of the six films. “You’re going to hear things, both frequency extension like subwoofer stuff and surround sound and all that [on the Blu-rays],” he says. “That has never really been heard before, and in the cleanest technology possible.”
Burtt is the one responsible for laying the groundwork. When Wood joined the Lucas companies and started working with the audio libraries at Skywalker Sound, he found an exhaustive database of material that had been created and stored by the original Star Wars sound designer. Yet for all of those years of experience, Burtt still has a hard time nailing down in words what his process is.
“It’s always difficult to explain it because it’s a little bit like composing music,” Burtt says. “Where do the notes come from? You ask composers and they can’t really tell you, it’s a feeling.
“I think that because of all the interest I had as a kid, just listening to movies all the time, I developed a knack for linking up a sound with what the visual it creates in your imagination looks like.”
For Burtt then, this is a constant process of observation and creation, with inspirations often coming from the most unusual places. He related a recent discovery in which he was grabbed by the sound of a faulty freezer fan while buying milk one day at a convenience store.
“I didn’t want to raise a fuss, so I turned on my recorder, put it inside the freezer, closed it and walked around the store for a little bit, pretending to shop,” he says. “That’s the process I’ve been going through for many years. I’ve found that if a sound captures my attention in the world around me that it’s worth collecting, because it will become useful to me eventually as a component.”
“Most of the process is about having an intuition about something, collecting lots of sound,” he adds.
On the Blu-ray set, Burtt spent much of his time working on the international audio mixes for the release. “I had to go back and carefully look at how I treated all of the voices in the original three films,” he says. “The processing of a robot or a pilot’s line, the way it was ‘futzed’ as we say, whether it was over a radio or a PA system on the Death Star or something.”
Wood takes on a much different sort role in his current position at Skywalker Sound and on the new Blu-ray release. Lucas continues to maintain a heavy involvement in the nurturing of the franchise, as fans know well. When a decision is made to – for example – insert the sound of Darth Vader bellowing “Nooooo!” at th end of Return of the Jedi, a decision that fans around the Internet have taken issue with, Wood is the guy who sees those changes through.
It’s easy then to see him as being in a difficult spot. After all, Wood is a hardcore fan who must also work with the series’ creator on controversial choices such as the above example. That’s not how he looks at things, however.
“You have so many people that have a vision in their mind of what the project should be, just like I did as a kid,” he explains. “I remember the films a certain way, so when I work on them now and I hear something that’s been changed, I know that its been changed.”
“It’s not really a reconciliation [to work on this added content], like I think it’s wrong, I just think it’s different.”
This is very likely a product of being close to the franchise for such a long time, more than 15 years now in Wood’s case. Wood and Burtt both feel that, over the years, fans have ceom to claim Star Wars as their own. As such, the fanfolk tend to be highly critical of any changes being made.
Both Skywalker employees interact with Lucas on a day-to-day basis, however. It’s much harder to feel like a particular film text is sacred in some way when the creator is right there next to you, actively making new artistic choices.
“People have their opinion about what they consider the definitive version,” says Burtt, “when in fact there kind of isn’t one.”
It’s a subject that Burtt has devoted a lot of thought to over the years, this idea of going back and changing a text once it’s ostensibly completed. “Initially I thought that when films are done you should just leave them alone. Even if there’s flaws in it, they’re a product of a certain creative process in their day.”
“That’s how I felt after we finished the first three films,” he explains. “But the world has changed. As I say, George has never wanted to let them sit still. He’s always had additional thoughts because I think he enjoys it.”
For any changes that are or will be made, Burtt takes a great amount of pride in the work he’s done on contributing to this work of modern-day folklore. Yet even with all of the effects he’s created, the massive sound bank that Wood and his Skywalker Sound co-workers turn to on a regular basis, Burtt doesn’t have to spend much time thinking when asked if he’s got a favorite.
“I have to say, I took particular pride in the lightsaber. I know that’s a lot of people’s favorite, but oddly enough, it was the first sound that I worked on,” he reveals. “When I saw the original artwork showing the lightsabers glowing in the Ralph McQuarrie concept paintings, I had really within a week come up with the elements that I liked for the lightsaber.”
“So it is a favorite because it represented a time of great excitement for me. I was eager to do something, and I looked at this and went right out and recorded some things and had the pieces ready to go.”
Incredibly, Burtt only recently discovered what he thinks is the original source of his inspiration for the sound. He was in the process of packing up his parents’ home for an imminent move when he came across his old record collection, the stuff he used to listen to as a kid.
“[I found] a little, yellow 78 scratchy record,” he says. “It was Rocky Jones Space Ranger, a little space episode. … It’s kind of like a radio drama.”
“In it there’s a scene where the spaceship runs into some kind of big magnetic field… and you hear this great humming sound of the spaceship locked into this beam or something. And it actually sounds a LOT like the lightsaber.”
“Everything comes from something inside you, a past experience or who knows,” he continues. “The threads of creativity are always connected to something in your life experience. I think a lot of the inspiration [for the lightsaber] came from this kiddie record [and] that is my favorite sound because it represented a starting point.”