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Experience the Sounds of a Galaxy Far, Far Away with Mac
Skywalker Sound artists share their creative process, the origins of R2-D2’s voice, and their journey to creating an extensive sound library
In the rugged terrain of Nicasio, California, home to a thousand people, visitors to this remote corner of Marin County are surrounded by a spirit of limitless possibility. Miles of hidden cables and gadgets swarm underfoot.
This is the site of Skywalker Ranch, the sprawling facility owned and designed by George Lucas, creator of the epic Star Wars universe. The cornerstone of the ranch is Skywalker Sound, a world-class sound design, editing, mixing and audio post-production facility. The 153,000 square foot red brick building, surrounded by vineyards and the man-made Ewok Lake, is a monument to the maxim, often repeated by Lucas, that sound is at least 50% of the cinematic experience.
The Soundminer sound library system, which allows descriptive keyword searches that are almost poetic in their specificity, keeps pace with Skywalker Sound’s ever-expanding library of nearly one million sounds.
With the power of approximately 130 Mac Pro racks, as well as 50 iMacs, 50 MacBook Pros, and 50 Mac mini computers running Pro Tools as their primary audio application, plus a fleet of iPad, iPhone, and Apple TV devices, Skywalker is made advancing sound art and reshaping the industry.
“I started with a Macintosh SE, a long time ago,” says Ben Burtt, the legendary sound designer of the original “Star Wars” movies, the prequels, and the “Indiana Jones” franchise. “Word processing was a huge leap forward for me as a writer.”
“Sound editing is sort of the same as word processing; cutting and pasting files,” Burtt continues. “All the experience I had on the Mac immediately trained me in what was going on in cutting digital audio. I started cutting using a Mac with Final Cut in the late 90s, and I now have four Mac computers Each runs a different process: one for photo editing, sound editing, handwriting, I’m completely surrounded They are labeled Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta.
Talk to any Skywalker Sound artist and it quickly becomes apparent that they all house a personal library of valuable recordings. “Sounds that evoke emotion are what we’re always looking for,” says Al Nelson, sound editor and supervising sound designer.
For sound designers, even outdated equipment creates opportunities. “I like happy accidents and I like breaking technology and getting unexpected results,” Nelson says. “I love playing with digital systems that malfunction, ie the way bits flow. It’s broken, looks like a bad radio. I have a very old PowerBook, and it contains some old software that I like to use; I can insert records into it and break them digitally.
You never know when inspiration will strike. A contractor who knew Burtt was always on the lookout for unique sounds once called to say he heard a strange broken ceiling fan in an apartment he maintained. Burtt’s recording of the wobbly blades then morphed into the eerie sound of laser gates momentarily dividing Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul during the climactic lightsaber duel in “Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.”
Sources sometimes materialize out of thin air. “People have written to me on the internet and said, ‘My aunt has a really weird cough, do you want to save it for a creature? ‘” Burtt said. (Nelson calls these components “creature sweeteners.”)
While collecting field recordings in the wild, supervising sound editor Baihui Yang emphasizes the usefulness of having a MacBook Pro on site. “We can take the Pro Tools session with us to the field and watch it, record it, and quickly set it up, to test whether it’s working or not,” she says. “If you take all the recordings back to the studio, you don’t know if you missed the moment.” Apps like Keyboard Maestro are also integral to its process, as is the Matchbox software.
With a background in classical guitar, among other instruments, Nelson often seeks musicality in the outside world, as well as inside the mixing room. “We are all musicians, either literally musicians or sound musicians,” he says. “Everything is very much a tonal approach or an orchestration approach. You can’t just throw noise on the screen; you have to articulate and choose your flavors the same way you would orchestrate something symphonic.
The sounds we associate with Apple — the iconic F-sharp startup chime of a Mac, the swoosh of an outgoing email — share an essential, underlying characteristic with many of Star’s most recognizable sounds. Wars, and it is that of activation. Think how often an idle droid comes to life with warnings and beeps. Or how the elegant sleeping hilt of a lightsaber suddenly turns into a glow. Or a ship, sputtering and heavy in space, hurtles at the speed of light.
“What I learned from Star Wars was that Ben was using all natural sound to make science fiction,” says Gary Rydstrom, a seven-time Oscar-winning sound designer who started working at Lucasfilm in 1983. It kept the sounds of the Star Wars universe gritty and realistic, based on real sounds that you were manipulating into something you’ve never heard before, which was inspiring.
A key distinction in Burtt’s work is the element of performance. “When it comes to fantastic sounds, especially — alien voices, creatures, weapons, weird things like that — a performance helps,” Burtt says. In the early stages of researching the voice of R2-D2, which set the standard for how sound design can influence character development, Burtt felt increased pressure knowing the droid would be sharing stages with Alec. Guinness.
“When I sat down and started experimenting with R2 on the first film, I suddenly realized I was in dialogue,” Burtt explains. “Timing is very important. Once we realized we had something working, the image editors went back to the film and started re-cutting a lot of scenes, changing the timing slightly. It started to figure into the actual beat, like any dialogue would. Burtt continued to refine the performance in the prequels, for which he served as both sound designer and image editor.
As the artists of Skywalker Sound have settled into the digital age of cinema, their advice to budding and professional filmmakers is limitless. “I tell young people who want to work with sound in movies, ‘You should listen to the world around you and create a collection of sound effects,'” Burtt says. “Get a recording and categorize it, because every time you build a sound library, you make creative choices. The other thing is that because there are so many inexpensive apps you can access now on your iPad or MacBook, you can actually do all kinds of sound cutting and mixing at home. I could never do that. If I was a teenage filmmaker again, I would be amazed. I would have drones, I could do all kinds of sound recordings. I couldn’t do any of that in my formative years.
Nelson even attests that iPhone recordings are “perfectly usable” in a professional context.
“However you do it,” says Rydstrom, “think about sound early on, because it’s one of your storytelling tools. I’d say it’s one of the most effective storytelling tools once you get into filming and editing.
“You can tell a lot of the story with sound in a way that’s less expensive than visuals, usually, and sometimes more emotionally powerful,” Rydstrom continues. “If you are interested in sound or cinema, you can record 4K+ video on your iPhone. There are no excuses. The things that are part of our daily lives are the same things you need to record sound and make movies. This is the real revolution. Ultimately, this will democratize the whole process.
On Monday, May 9, 2022, fans can join sound designer Leff Lefferts as he shares his favorite projects and how Skywalker Sound brings iconic movie characters to life with Apple Music’s Eddie Francis. Attendees will view footage of Skywalker Ranch in Apple’s Behind the Mac movie and learn from an Apple Creative Pro how to create voice effects for a character using their voice, everyday objects, and GarageBand on the Mac. Sign up for this unique Today at Apple session at apple.co/skywalker-son.
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