Skywalker Sound’s supervising sound editors Matthew Wood, Christopher Scarabosio and David Acord are the keepers of the “Star Wars” sonic universe. Not only have they created and mixed soundtracks for numerous “Star Wars” feature films, but they’ve also worked on the official “Star Wars” games, series and animations. They are part of a continuing legacy, with access to every sound ever made for “Star Wars.” And they’ve contributed their own sounds to that legacy.
The sound on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has earned an Academy Award nomination for sound mixing. Here, Oscar-nominated supervising sound editor Matthew Wood and re-recording mixer/supervising sound editor/sound designer Christopher Scarabosio (recently nominated for his third Oscar) discuss specifics on what went into Rogue One’s sound design, working with director Gareth Edwards on his first “Star Wars” feature, and much more.
S&P: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is set in the same universe as other “Star Wars” films, but you have a different director and producers. What did that mean for the post sound team?
Matthew Wood: It’s exciting for us to have all these new directors. We’re doing a “Star Wars” film every year. Even though Chris [Scarabosio] and I have a long legacy of working on these films, it’s always a new energy when you have a new creative team coming in. They’re looking to us for guidance. They want to know and make sure that we can tell the story appropriately inside the “Star Wars” universe. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship with the creatives to make this track work.
Both director Gareth Edwards and our picture editor John Gilroy are huge fans of “Star Wars.” To see their energy and how excited they were to work on it was really fun. We started out pretty early with Gareth, working on early design ideas on the new ships and creatures and vehicles that were going to be populating this movie. We did this one the way we always do them with George Lucas. He always says that sound is 50 percent of the experience in a movie theater, and he always honored that by having us start when the scripts were ready. We would start building sound effects. And so we continued that same legacy on this one with Gareth, and it seems to be working.
S&P: Knowing your history with the franchise, were you guys left to your own devices? Or did Gareth have very specific ideas for sound?
Christopher Scarabosio: We were kind of left to our own devices, but obviously Gareth and the people involved are going to chime in and give us some guidance. Like I started with some of the ship design early on and I was thinking of trying something totally different. So I went to places, sound-wise, that I probably would not have started with for the ships, but I figured, let’s just try it. You get that in front of them, and their feedback is something like, “That’s too much like TRON and not enough like ‘Star Wars.’” Things like that. We’re looking to them to see where they are at, but they give us a lot of freedom to just do what we thought was right. We’d have a lot of conversations about which direction to go, or if that’s the right sound or the right feel for that particular scene. For the most part, they gave us a lot of freedom to come up with new sounds.
S&P: Chris and Matt, and David Acord as well, you guys are the keepers of the “Star Wars” sonic universe, and are conscious of creating sounds that fit within it. What were some of the new sounds you were able to contribute to the “Star Wars” universe for Rogue One? Did you have a few favorites you can share specific details on?
CS: For me, Krennic’s ship is one of my favorites. It has a unique sound that still fits in the “Star Wars” universe. One of the things we talked about was giving it an ominous quality. I played Gareth some things I was working on and he said, “What about trying something like a bird of prey?” This ship has a bird of prey quality. I started searching around and found some great eagle recordings I had. I started processing those and it ended up working really well in certain parts of the film. I’m always looking for signature sounds that lend themselves to that specific thing that you are designing for.
So with Krennic’s ship there was that eagle. And I also had the start-up of this really old, giant diesel motor, which has this shriek — a kind of monstrous quality to it. To me, it was a very distinctive sound. When you hear the sound, you know it’s Krennic. So that ship I thought came out really well. Also, Baez and Chirrut’s guns — their weapons are unique but still fit in with the legacy of the “Star Wars” sounds and weaponry. The U-Wings I think were a fresh take on a rebel ship. It doesn’t sound too much like an X-Wing but it feels right within the “Star Wars” universe.
S&P: Were you able to rework or re-create any of the sounds that already existed in the “Star Wars” universe, to tailor them to Rogue One?
MW: We have a really big library that we’ve created over the years that encompasses the original films, the prequels, The Clone Wars , and video games, and so on. We have that library that we can dip into at any time and we just want to make sure that we have the most high-quality source of the sound. Some of the sounds have not been heard since 1977. Theater playback systems have far advanced since then and so we want to make sure that we transfer them in the most high-quality way possible and master them. If there are any layers that we can pull out that we didn’t before, then we can have cleaner versions at our disposal. We pick our moments to use those sounds, and hopefully those sounds help tell the story and also put people who are watching the movie back into that place they remember from 1977. It’s like an old song that they have forgotten about.
S&P: Were there any sounds that were just so old or unusable for today’s standards that you had to actually re-create the sound?
MW: There’s one particular sound that I liked from the original films, which was this ‘proton torpedo’ sound. It just has a certain cadence and sound that I remember as a kid. When I pulled those sounds out of the archive they actually predated “Star Wars.” They were sounds that Ben Burtt had put in the movie, and it was a sound effect that he liked from early in his career. Those are from an optical track from way back in the day. Still, the sounds did drop in. There were a couple moments in the film where the rebels are attacking the shield gate and then attacking the shield generator on one of the Star Destroyers, and we added those sounds in there and it dropped in. In context, when you play it with everything else in the track, it still fits. A lot of the sounds we can make the most perfect way possible, but they still have to play in context with everything else in the track. That is the challenge during our mix, to make the right things be heard. “Star Wars” is messy. It’s not perfect. It’s a ragtag group of guys getting together to put the movie together, and how it comes out in the end is a definite group effort and we are all incredibly excited work on it.
S&P: It’s really interesting that Rogue One bridges the story gap between Star Wars: Episode III (2005) and Star Wars: Episode IV (1977). Those two films were shot nearly three decades apart. Did that time gap have an effect on your approach to the sound? Were there any gaps that you were trying to bridge sonically?
MW: Rogue One ends right before Episode IV. We wanted to make sure that the button on the scene at the very end, while they’re on Leia’s ship the Tantive IV, was going to seamlessly go into A New Hope. So we definitely did some sound archaeology on those scenes. We wanted to hear what was happening in A New Hope so we could bridge right into it. The fact that Rogue One is coming off the prequels, we certainly made note of things like Darth Vader’s processing and how he sounds. For Mustafar, we definitely hearken back to things we created before. You definitely have the right people working on this film. Chris and I both did Revenge of the Sith together. We did all the prequels together. So we have the same team going. That gap is bridged by the personnel that you have on the film.
There are some really interesting spaces and environments in Rogue One, like the data vault they steal the Death Star plans from. Did you have any favorite spaces in the film?
CS: The data vault was definitely a great spot. It had an interesting architectural design. You know, I really like the open markets. I like the feeling of it, with all the different creatures and the movements. There are a bunch of little Easter eggs in there that were a lot of fun. I liked the entrance into Jedha with the Star Destroyer hovering on top and all the TIE fighters flying around, all the different droids and weird creatures. There were a lot of interesting elements to Jedha.
Every “Star Wars” film seems to have its signature droid. What was the processing you did for the voice of K-2SO?
CS: We tried a bunch of stuff but what we actually ended up with was fairly simple, just a short delay like a flange, using the Audio Ease Speakerphone plug-in. We used it fairly lightly. The thing with processing voice is that if you process it too much you start losing intelligibility and that is not good for telling the story…
MW: Unless you want it to be a Death Trooper.
CS: Yeah, the Death Trooper… now there’s an example where we didn’t want it to be intelligible at all. It was basically a language between each Death Trooper, one that only they can understand. Although, Krennic was probably in on it. It was like they had their own language and that processing was extreme to the point where you didn’t know it was an actual language or some kind of voice synthesis. So we have different approaches for different ways of telling the story.
Like Kylo Ren’s mask, the processing on that sounds so in your face. His lines just slap you every time he talks. The processing on that felt intense, but the intelligibility was still there.
MW: It’s funny because the Death Troopers’ processing is almost Kylo Ren’s processing, just pushed to the limit. That’s what we went for. It’s that processing just pushed beyond intelligibility.
Images courtesy of Skywalker Sound & Lucasfilm