After the opening crawl of A New Hope stretched across screens on 1977, the ensuing film broke ground in several categories of filmmaking. Star Wars was a revolution on multiple fronts, including sound design. The tradition of creating a vast and rich soundscape continued with The Force Awakens; the film is nominated for an Oscar in sound editing.
I caught up with Matthew Wood, supervising sound editor, and David Acord, supervising sound editor and sound designer, to discuss their work on the movie. We spoke about the most sound-intensive scene in the movie, some of the weirdest sound sources (cat purring), creating the voice of BB-8, recording the “Traitor!” line, and developing sounds for Kylo Ren.
Nerdist: Star Wars is, more than any other film, I think, known for its unique sound. Can you talk about some of the new sounds you designed for The Force Awakens?
David Acord: I think the most obvious new sound effect in the movie is Kylo’s lightsaber. We were attempting, along with his Force power effect, to create sound effects that would mimic his persona, which is this raw power he has that’s not quite formed. He’s not well trained, but he’s extremely powerful. It’s a little wild and dangerous. The sword itself, the look of the sword has the extra darts coming out the side, and it’s really sparky and wavery and it looks a little homemade. The idea of the sound was to match that–something that sounds like raw energy, just pure power, very brutal and kind of wild and dangerous sounding.
The Force sound to go along with Kylo had that deep, raw, animalistic sound. It’s a chunky, raw growl that’s supposed to imitate the Force power he wields, which is a little more raw versus Rey’s Force power , which tends to be—in the few moments when she’s using the Force, hers is a little more smooth and rhythmic and like a heartbeat. That’s the contrast between the two.
N: What was the process of working with Adam Driver to create the sound of his voice filtered though his mask?
Matthew Wood: The Kylo Ren mask process was one of the signature things J.J. wanted to have be special to The Force Awakens. There are sounds like BB-8 or Kylo Ren’s mask that are very signature to this movie. He gave us a lot of almost hyperbole at the beginning about he how he wanted it to sound like a chainsaw mixed with a Harley Davidson with a flamethrower. The thing about Kylo’s mask that was interesting is its function is purely intimidation because it’s not keeping him alive like Vader’s mask is. We wanted to find a way to capture that feeling. We did one session where we took Adam’s dialogue and processed it through the chain of processing that was created with our plug-ins, and it didn’t sound great. It didn’t have this extra level we were looking for. Then we determined, “Well, what if we have it so he can hear the process of his mask while he’s performing it?” It was actually very method, and Adam really likes that.
So, Dave and I went and sat down with him for a few hours and went through a lot of the lines from the movie, and he could really get up on the mic and play with it like an instrument. The way that the processing would react to his voice was different depending on how he was on the mic—if he was up close and really intimate with it or yelling. You could hear the exact results of how it was going to sound. One of the first sessions I did with him in New York, we set up the scene where the officer gives him the bad news that they’ve lost the droid. We actually put this metal bar with a counterweight on it in front of him so he could hold on to the bar and shake his body as much as possible and not make any noise into the microphone that wouldn’t be correct. And he was… I think we had to cut out many, many swear words between the lines to get the intention there. That’s how he works. He’s very method, he really gets into it.
It was a fun process. The main thing is we wanted it to sound interesting and intelligible, which I think those two things we got from him. When he takes off his mask in that scene with Rey, it’s all the more powerful when you hear his real, unprocessed voice.
N: Since you do contribute to rounding out and developing characters’ personalities with your work, at what point in the story process does your work start?
DA: Once you read the script and come on board, early on there’s some obvious pieces [you know] you’re going to need to tackle. I mentioned the sword, there’s some new spaceships, some ambiances. Maz’s bar–you know that’s going to be a whole thing even before you see a frame of it. Then obviously, once you see the image, it all starts to take shape.
I think the first thing that I designed, I was asked to do—there were two things. One was the Teedo character that captures BB-8 in the beginning, the voice for him and then the two junkers that hassle Rey when she’s cleaning pieces of stuff, the voices for those two guys. Those are the earliest design pieces I made, and they’re vocal designs. That’s my favorite thing to do is alien and creature vocals; that was super fun for me.
N: When you do those vocals, do you use your own voice or pull from a library?
DA: You can take either route. The easiest way is to use your own voice. If it’s a language, using your own voice is one of the more convenient ways to do it because you have absolute control over your vocal cords and we have a lot of tools at our disposal to take our performances and tweak or cut them however we want to do it. Teedo is a vocal performance. I do Teedo; that’s my voice that’s processed heavily. But the junkers, both those guys are sound effects. The first guy is baby vocals, like a toddler trying to speak pitched way down and then cut together to form a weird language. The second guy is basically a pitched down parrot as he’s laughing. Maz’s bar, some of that is human language that’s been processed and some of that is more creature-oriented language that is sourced from a lot of mammals, mostly.
N: Along that line, what are some of the weirdest sources you pulled from to design a sound in The Force Awakens?
DA: [Laughs] Off the top of my head, the Kylo Ren Force rumble—the really chunky and animalistic rumble—is my cat’s purring. It’s heavily pitched and slowed version of my cat’s purr that becomes Kylo Force rumble.
When the rathtar has his mouth on the cockpit of the Falcon, when it’s trying to eat the cockpit, that is me literally choking myself. [Laughs] Finger down my throat in front of the mic to accomplish that and then it’s pitched down.
N: That is sacrificing for the job, sir! I want to talk about the spaceships. The film has familiar vehicles like the X-wing and TIE fighters, but it’s been 30 or so years since we’ve seen them. Technology has advanced, regimes are different. Did you alter their sounds at all?
DA: We didn’t do a whole heck of a lot to the TIE fighters for this movie. Ben Burtt transferred a ton of his old, original sound effect recordings, and in that process, we discovered some new takes of things and new versions of some of the ships. That was fun to get to use those. He also made some new versions of the TIE fighter that we used. We tweaked some of the pass bys of the TIE fighters to give them more oomph and more growl as they went by.
The X-wings, again a lot of it is the X-wing you’re all familiar with from the original trilogy but also we’ve added some elements to them and occasionally give them a flanged jet engine to give them a little extra something–especially on Poe’s X-wing. We tried to give his X-wing a little extra love to make it stand out more.
N: How much did you pull from the original trilogy era collection? You have to have an incredible sound databank.
DA: We do. At Skywalker Sound, we have every sound from all previous six Star Wars live-action movies, all The Clone Wars sounds, Rebels, and not to mention we have the Skywalker Library which has sounds from dozens and dozens of movies we’ve worked on over the years. There are more obvious sounds we’ve pulled from for the movie like the X-wings, the Falcon, and that kind of thing. Then there’s some other cool things like when the rathtar is rolling down the hallway after Han and Chewie, I put in the sound of Ben Burtt’s boulder roll sound from Raiders of the Lost Ark when the boulder is chasing Indy.
N: You mentioned Maz’s castle earlier. Was that the biggest scene as far as sound goes?
DA: I’d say yes. As far as quantity goes, Maz’s bar probably wins for the most individual pieces that had to be generated for one scene. You don’t want to hear the same sounds over and over again in the background. You want to make it sound very rich and fleshed out and not just chuck in sounds, but make them sound like calls and responses, like actual conversations are happening. That was a fun thing to craft in the background behind the dialogue.
There’s a callback to the cantina scene in A New Hope. As a kid, that was always one of my favorite scenes because of the menagerie of weird creatures from all over the place. They’ve all got a different sound and a different look—you just wanted to visit that place. It was a treat to get to do our own version of that.
N: Dave, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about voicing FN-2199, a.k.a. TR-8R. I know it was part of the “additional voices” recording—how were those recorded and how did “Traitor!” come about?
DA: Normally you have a loop group, which is a collection of highly trained, skilled voice actors, gather in a room. There are a couple of microphones, and the movie is projected on a screen and the scenes are tagged or spotted ahead of time [to say], “We need two stormtroopers talking in the background of a hangar here.” That scene will come up, two actors will walk up to the mic, and will ad-lib a performance. Matthew’s expertise is in dialogue and he was very careful to pick loop group actors that were all Star Wars savvy. There are a ton of Clone Wars alums and names from previous Star Wars movies who were cast as loop groupers because they would know what to say and how to properly deal with things like the mundane dialogue two stormtroopers would have.
And then occasionally, you’ll just be working and, “We need this guy to say this right now” and we’ll go record it. That’s another way; it’s on the spot. You find somebody that can do it, and you do it. That’s how FN-2199 happened. Originally, it was J.J. His voice was a temp placeholder, and he wanted to replace it. It went through four other actors, I think, before it landed on my performance and he was okay with it. It’s a really funny thing to me. It’s a cool scene; the stunt actor, Liang Yang, really did all the hard work in that scene, but it’s fun to be part of. I didn’t even know it was a thing on the Internet until Pablo Hidalgo emailed me and asked if he could post on StarWars.com that I was the voice of FN-2199.
N: Matt, you mentioned BB-8 as one of the other signature sounds in the film. You guys created such a distinct voice for him. You had Bill Hader, Ben Schwartz—can you talk about developing his sound and personality?
MW: J.J. was very eager for us to start work on BB-8. We all gave it our all on that. I got to sit there and play with the BB-8 on set and meet the puppeteers and see how they were going to move it around. The one thing that was interesting about Ben Schwartz’s performance that really helped is it was a placeholder to tell us what BB-8 was feeling and saying in more of an English dialogue so that we’d actually hear what his emotional states were in all the scenes. Because there’d be long periods of time where he’d be speaking with Rey, much longer than R2-D2 ever did in the previous films, so we really had to convey that she had an understanding of him and his language. And that’s what the Ben Schwartz dialogue was for, was to give the editors a space to place those lines.
Coming up with how it sounded, we were able to present an idea to J.J. to use this interface, a tactile interface for him to change timbre and pitch with his hand. It was a five point way he could manipulate the sound that would create the tone. Then, we fed that through Bill Hader–this is when he came into the scene. There was a way Acord found out to feed those tones through a tube called a talk box–right, Dave?
DA: Yep. It’s a guitar pedal, basically.
MW: It feeds that tone into Bill Hader’s mouth so Bill can perform with his mouth, not actually using any breath behind it but just the movements of his mouth. The tones would go in there, and then we’d rerecord out to a microphone again. We came up with all these little riffs that BB-8 would have and then those were cut together. It was a real big group effort on BB-8. It took a long time to get that sorted. The main thing was to have, when he goes in to talk to R2-D2 at the end of the film, a very distinct quality language for them both.