One of the most iconic weapons in movie history is the lightsaber. We’ve all imagined having the real thing and a few of us have even been enshrined in a viral hit like the Star Wars Kid. But if you were to break down the lightsaber mechanically there isn’t much to it: a handle, an on/off switch, and then a brightly lit plasma blade that’s powered by a kyber crystal. While it can cut through virtually anything, what makes the weapon so undeniably mesmerizing are the sound effects behind it. Just saying “lightsaber,” you automatically play the sounds in your head, and it’s thanks to Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt, we have them.
For the first Star Wars trilogy Burtt recorded the running motors of two old Simplex projectors and combined hums from a television to make their iconic sounds. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it was up to supervising sound editors Matthew Wood and David Acord to take those infamous sounds and many others to tell a new story for director J.J. Abrams. “Star Wars has such a rich sound palette that has been created before by Ben,” said Wood. “J.J. invited us out to the set right before shooting and he pitched the film to us. We got to meet the art department, look at the props and see the sets and the creature shop. It really got us energized. There are a lot of classic sound elements in the film like the TIE fighters, Millennium Flacon, and the lightsaber, we wanted to keep that emotional thread alive from what’s come before, but David’s job [who also served as sound designer] was to come up with how to integrate it into the future.”
Both Wood and Acord have been keeping up-to-date with Star Wars working on The Clone Wars and Rebels (they’re currently on the Rogue One spinoff), but they admit it was nice to put the elements they’ve been creating for the television series onto a theatrical stage and see Abrams react to them. “Ben supplied us the original sounds and he showed us how things were in the previous films. And having sound designer Gary Rydstrom involved in that capacity as well was great,” said Acord. “We wanted to honor those classic sounds and give them a little 21st century updating for Dolby Atmos with a full dynamic range, subwoofer extension, and all kinds of different panning.”
One of the more challenging things for sound was creating new sound effects and having them feel like they belonged in the same Star Wars environment we all know too well. “There was a lot of trial and error. Working on Clone Wars and Rebels provided a little training ground to approach our sounds for the movie, but even after working on The Force Awakens for 14 months, creating the sound effects never got any easier,” noted Acord.
The BB-8 droid was one of those new creations for sound. “It was one of the first things J.J. had a lot of interest in and he wanted it to sound original and unique,” stated Wood. “J.J. wanted BB-8 to be this sort of instant classic. He said to us, if BB-8 is outside the doorway right now talking, and we can’t see him, you would still know it’s him.” Sound went through a gamut of different things to find the voice of BB-8. “J.J. wanted to have a hands-on approach so we set him up with a tactical interface that he could have points of his own to touch on a synthesizer controlling timbre and pitch of osculating tones,” explained Wood. “We then brought actors in to guide an emotional beat and refined BB-8 until we found its final audio palette.”
Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was another test sound had to overcome. “J.J.’s idea for Kylo Ren was he was unrefined. He was very raw with his power and not a very refined person,” said Acord. “J.J. really wanted the sound of his lightsaber to reflect him and the look of it does too. It’s this very unique Scottish claymore. A giant butte weapon so the sound had to be a raw energy, almost an animalistic quality to it.” Sound kept that animal quality for Kylo Ren’s use of the Force, which is highlighted in a scene between Kylo and Rey after she’s captured by the First Order. “At the very root level of Ren’s Force we used the purr of a cat that was pitched and slowed way down to a low rumble,” said Acord. “When Rey starts to fight back, I felt like her power lie from within so I created a calming sound that was similar to a rhythmic heart.”
Abrams also wanted the voice of Kylo Ren to be distinct. “We got some early direction from J.J. and we would take those ideas and refine them. What ended up happening was we went to Adam Driver in New York and recorded him using the post processing we came up with,” said Wood. “We don’t normally do that, but Adam could hear what it was going to sound like in his mask and he was able to get into the character a lot more and use it as an acting tool.”
Heading into the final mix one thing the sound editors wanted to point out was how grateful they were to have music composer John Williams available. “Having the maestro there influenced the creativity of our mix. He would suggest having the sound effects take a scene or trying something with the strings here or there – to have him there with his kind of Star Wars knowledge was a lot of fun. We never felt like we didn’t have a chance to show him and J.J. what we wanted,” Wood said. “That’s what’s exciting about J.J. He really likes it when all the pieces came together. When we have all the dialogue, the creatures, the music, all of Dave’s new sound design and the classic stuff, that’s when you really saw J.J. start to focus. It’s crunch time and the intensity level is high, but you can see how excited he is about the process and it permeates through the entire crew.”