When Star Wars hit the screens, it took the world by storm and introduced us to an entirely new world filled with amazing creatures, unique spaceships, and one incredible story to tie everything together. So every year on May 4th, the Star Wars community comes alive to celebrate one of the most iconic phrases in the series – “may the force be with you”.
The 4th of May reminds us how Star Wars pushed the boundaries in another way – with sound design. It seems like every conversation about the movie involves a sound in one way or another, from the roar of Chewbacca, to the energy of a lightsaber, to R2D2’s bleeps and blops. We can all agree that the sounds of Star Wars has helped make the series as iconic as the movies themselves. For that reason we’re taking this post to celebrate our 6 favorite sounds of Star Wars and talk a bit more about how they were made.
Before Sound Design Was A Thing
It might be hard to believe, but before Star Wars the term “Sound Design” was not often used in filmmaking. Typically the sound categories on a movie could be broken down into two categories: the on-set production mixer and the sound editors. It wasn’t until famed sound designer Ben Burtt started his work on the Star Wars series did the term Sound Designer settle into the common vernacular.
Ben Burtt and Star Wars Sound Design
As the lead sound designer of the original Star Wars movies, Ben Burtt was a pioneer. His job entailed coordinating everything you would hear in the movie, which often involved the creation of new sounds, which he took to an entirely new level of creativity. He describes his early conversation with George Lucas about the what he was to do for Star Wars:
"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. Therefor 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 can not quite recognize immediately"
And so began the creation of some of the most iconic movie sound effects of all time. Let’s get started.
#1 Darth Vader’s Breathing
We all know that ominous sound. The slow mechanical breath in and out. Part man, part machine, and (almost) all evil. The original brief for the Vader sound design mentioned that the character would be half man half robot, but it was not fully defined. Burtt's early concept had Vader more like a robot, complete with the sounds of heart beating mixed with many mechanical movements as his head would turn, but this ended up being too much. With some adjustment the sound we know and love today was created by placing a microphone inside a scuba breathing apparatus and adjusting the breathing in and out in various ways. And of course we all know the famous voice of James Earl Jones who said “Luke, I am your Father”. Chills!
#2 Lightsaber Sound
The majestic sound of the lightsaber powering on comes at crucial moments in the film series, often accompanied by a climactic fight. Many times the score is removed from these fight scenes to let the rhythmic back and forth of the lightsabers clashing and whooshing take over for dramatic effect. It turns out that the unmistakable whoosh, buzz, and whirring of the lightsaber would not have been the same if it wasn’t for an accidental capture of an old TV set that was on in Burtt’s studio. It turns out that the microphone picked up the transmission of the back of the TV and created a distinct buzz, which Burtt quickly kept. But that formed only half of the saber sound effect. While still a graduate student, Burtt had access to old projector equipment. After a few experiments, he used the sound of a few old Simplex projector motors which formed a harmonic mechanical hum. Combined with the TV buzz, these sounds formed the core of the Lightsaber sound we know and love today.
# 3 R2D2’s Whoops and Beeps
R2D2 is one character that is truly defined by his sounds. Without dialgue, he still communicates an entire spectrum of emotion through the various pitches and frequencies of his sounds. This was quite a feat that was not as easy to create as it would seem. After many rounds, it turned out that only synthesized sounds were not delivering the emotion they needed. So Burtt ended up blending his own voice at various pitches with the sounds. In his words: "We ended up with a 50/50 mix of electronic synthesizer-generated sound and my voice making funny inflections. The combination camouflaged the two sources, and we found that we could get Artoo to act. But it was something that we arrived at very slowly.” [Source: Starlog Magazine 103]
#4 Chewbacca’s Voice
Often imitated but never duplicated, the unmistakeable sound of Chewbacca’s home language (called Shyriiwook) is one of the first sounds that Burtt developed for the film. Conversations between Burtt and George Lucas had confirmed that Chewbacca would need to have an animal-like language that was not english. After recording a variety of real animal sounds, from bears to badgers, and walrus’s Burtt took small pieces of each one and synthesized them together to form the lovable Chewbacca’s speech.
#5 Tie Fighter
The Tie Fighter is the backbone of the imperial fleet. They are small, nimble, and have a very, very distinct sound. Similar to Chewbacca, the sounds of the Tie Fighter were created the sound of an animal put through a synthesizer. In this case it was a very long, drawn-out elephant call. Try to see if you can hear it!
#6 The Blaster
In the early Star Wars films, the blaster gun was an unmistakeable sound during battle scenes. It turns out that the way it was made was actually quite simple. Burtt found that by striking the metal guide wire cables that hold radio towers, the resulting sound was a perfect fit. Check it out below.
The Force Stays Strong With Sound
We can all agree that the sounds of Star Wars hold a special place in our memories, as they are just as iconic as the vehicles, characters, and weapons that they give so much life to. We can't wait to hear what's next.
"The sound and music are 50% of the entertainment in a movie." - George Lucas
Thanks George. We couldn't agree more.