The Sounds of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

By in Filmmaking, Pro Mixing

In the world of audio, there is no film more iconic or revolutionary in sound design than Star Wars. For any audio professional, getting a chance to work on a Star Wars film is the opportunity of a lifetime—but it also carries with it an awesome responsibility. Making a good movie is hard enough, but carrying on the legacy of a saga that is cherished by billions of people is even harder. For the team working on the sounds of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the goal was to deliver a film that would be both groundbreaking and an instant classic at the same time. So you know, no pressure.

First, let me address the elephant in the room and talk about why the stakes were so high for The Force Awakens. Many fans were…underwhelmed, let’s say, by the prequels to the series when they were released in 1999. And in fairness they aren’t bad films. They were just up against the expectations of fanatics who had waited an entire generation to see their beloved Yoda again. But tepid reactions to the prequels didn’t lessen anyone’s desire for the next Star Wars fix. If anything, we were all dying for more (and better) Star Wars films.

We’ve been waiting for this

When the word got out that that the sequels were being helmed by JJ Abrams, it sent expectations soaring even higher. Audiences knew that if anyone was up to the task of delivering the classic we wanted, it was Abrams. He’s been admired for his ability to assemble the best people in the world to work on his films, and the audio dream-team he put together for The Force Awakens is proof of this. His sound crew included a mix of legendary sound designers with deep connections to the Star Wars universe, as well as some of the hottest young talent in Hollywood, including sound designer and mixer Will Files who was tasked with mixing all of the trailers for the film prior to it’s release.

Will Jedi

The force is strong with Will Files

Last month, Files took a quick break from working on Star Wars: The Force Awakens to give a presentation with Avid at the InterBEE technology trade show in Tokyo. Bringing with him the actual Pro Tools sessions he used in the mix for the trailer, Files delivered an in-depth look at how all of the elements of the sound worked together to create the most-viewed movie trailer of all time. Following his presentation, Files and I talked about making the new sounds of Star Wars, the team who put it together and the responsibility the filmmakers felt to honoring its legacy. Also, light sabers.

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Will Files at InterBEE, Tokyo

Anthony Gordon: You must have felt a sense of historical occasion to be working on a Star Wars film. How did that happen?

Will Files: It’s a childhood dream come true, and I never thought I’d get to work on a Star Wars film. By the time I started working for Skywalker Sound, they were wrapping up the third episode, and it seemed like that was my last shot.

 

AG: Did they have any plans to make the sequels back then?

WF: As far as I knew, there were no plans to make any more at the time. We were working on Star Trek Into Darkness when we found out that JJ was going to be doing the next Star Wars film, and a lot of us suddenly thought, “Holy sh!t, we might get to work on a Star Wars film after all!”

 

AG: Had you ever worked with any of the audio guys from the original films before doing The Force Awakens?

WF: Yeah, my mentor Randy Thom worked on both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. He had the interesting job of being both the production sound mixer on Jedi and also mixing the film in post-production. So he saw both sides of the process—being on set and being back in post at Lucasfilm. It seemed like back in the late ’70s and early ’80s in northern California, they were really forging their own path in terms of audio post-production. It was a really creative, filmmaker-focused way that was somewhat at odds with the established way things were being done in L.A.

 

AG: ILM and Skywalker Sound were both founded to create the technologies they needed to make those films, weren’t they?

WF: Yeah, exactly. Both of them were born out of George Lucas’ desire to push the boundaries of what could be done both technically and creatively. I think for him it represented a certain amount of creative freedom that didn’t necessarily exist in Hollywood at the time. They needed to create new technology because they knew they were making something revolutionary. Nothing had ever felt like Star Wars before.

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Technology helps. Files at the Pro Tools | S6 control surface

AG: How did they create that feel once they had the technology dialed in?

WF: A lot of it was what ILM came up with visually, but I firmly believe what made it feel so unique was the way it sounded coupled with those revolutionary visual effects. So much of it had to do with what Ben Burtt came up with. He gave all of the alien creatures, robots, weapons and machines a real life of their own. Up until Star Wars, most sci-fi sounds were created with synthesizers or in other ways that sounded artificial. Ben’s method was revolutionary because he went out and recorded real sounds and started with that. He manipulated them to sound both somewhat familiar, but also unique and futuristic. Most importantly, they sounded like real things. It took a lot of imagination. I mean, what’s the sound of a blaster or a light saber if you’ve never heard one before?

pew pew

Pew! Pew!

WF: When you listen to the light saber, it’s sort of humming and it has a little electrical sparkle to it—like it might be a little out of adjustment. This sort of thing illustrates George Lucas’ idea of “the used future.” Nothing should look or sound factory new. It should look a little beat up, like it’s been through war.

 

AG: Was there a philosophy JJ had for putting the audio team together for the film?

WF: There was. The team was a mix of JJ’s regular guys from [his production company] Bad Robot, along with people who were veterans from working in the Star Wars film universe. I think it was important to him and Lucasfilm to keep some of the threads continuing from the previous films, and that meant working with people who had a history with them.

Gary Rydstrom and Matt Wood were the two supervising sound editors. Matt did all the Star Wars prequels and all the TV shows in between the films. He’s the guy Lucasfilm has trusted with the sound of Star Wars for more than 15 years. Gary Rydstrom, who has his own history with the Star Wars films, is one of the great sound designers of all time. He did the T. Rex in Jurassic Park, he did Terminator 2, Titanic—he’s a legend, and he’s also one of my heroes. Gary primarily focused on the sound effects, and Matt primarily focused on the dialog. My friend Andy Nelson was the dialog and music mixer, and he has worked on literally all of JJ’s films.

 

AG: How did the team divvy up the work on the sound design?

WF: The film has so much sound design in it that really had to be a team effort. Gary, Dave Acord, Chris Scarabosio and myself all contributed sound design to the film. And, of course, we used a LOT of Ben Burtt’s iconic sounds from the original trilogy, as well as some new ones that he made just for this film. But ultimately, Gary Rydstrom was the sound effects supervisor, kind of the “orchestrator” of all of our sound design.

 

AG: How did the work you did on the trailers connect with the final sound for the film?

WF: What’s been really fun about working on the trailers is that we used them as a sort of proving ground for auditioning sounds for new concepts in the film like Kylo’s light saber, BB-8’s voice, and the new vehicles and weapons, in a context that was different than from a cut of the film or an individual scene. I think the fact that we all knew these trailers would be scrutinized shot by shot, and sound by sound, made the stakes a little higher for which sounds we chose to include. Sometimes you need a deadline and the pressure of showing it to an audience to really focus and make some hard decisions.

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Will Files and I engage in aggressive negotiations about light saber sounds

AG: How did JJ go about choosing the sounds he ultimately decided on?

WF: It really depends on the specific sound, but we often needed to give him a lot of different options to try before he would settle on one. With JJ, who is a musician himself and cares deeply about sound, we could expect to make potentially dozens of different versions of a sound before you hit one that you think might work.

 

AG: Did you present them to him all at once? That seems like it could be overwhelming.

WF: Not really—usually it happens in phases. Typically we would present a handful of sounds and then go back and create a few more iterations for him to review based on his feedback. The same goes for some of the high concept scenes in the film – I was often creating a new mix down nearly every single day with new ideas and sounds for him and the picture editors to review and reflect on. It’s a fun creative process, but time consuming!

 

AG: Let’s talk about the sound of the new light saber. When the trailer first came out, the sound of that saber lighting up became one of the most talked about things about the new film. Did that reaction surprise you?

WF: It did, and it was very gratifying to me that so many people responded to it with so much excitement. But what was really interesting to me is that so many people picked up on the nuance of what the sound meant. They got that it sounded a little unstable and that it wasn’t your normal light saber. It almost sounds angry, which of course was by design. It was important to JJ that it sounded mechanically imperfect, because he felt that made it sound more dangerous. You can do things visually to get that idea across, but it will only get you part of the way – ultimately it falls to sound to finish giving you that piece of information. Because of the mysterious way our brains work, sound seems to do a better job of encouraging you to feel a certain way about something, without us even realizing it. That’s probably my favorite part of the job!

 

AG: That sounds like a good place to end this. Unless there’s anything else you’d like to add.

WF: Yeah – go see it in Dolby Atmos.

The marriage of sound and picture is elemental to bringing stories like The Force Awakens to life. It’s a process that extraordinary people like Will Files and the rest of post-production crew on Episode VII approach with passion and creativity. For more information on the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you can check out our exclusive webinar featuring the post-production team at Bad Robot.

Thanks to Will Files, the team at Bad Robot and all of our friends involved in the film for sharing their stories with us. Because of their work, an entire generation will get to experience having the next chapter of the Star Wars saga to call their own. Thanks for reading and…I have to say it: May the force be with you.

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