Uncovering the sounds of a galaxy far, far away with Mac
May 4, 2022
Discovering the sounds of a very, very distant galaxy with Mac
Skywalker Sound artists share their creative process, the origins of R2-D2’s voice and their journey to build a vast library of sounds
In the rugged terrain of Nicasio, California, a timid population of a thousand, visitors to this secluded corner of Marin County are surrounded by a spirit of limitless possibilities. Kilometers of hidden cables and full appliances underfoot.
This is the site of Skywalker Ranch, the great facility owned and designed by George Lucas, the creator of the epic Star Wars universe. The cornerstone of the ranch is Skywalker Sound, a world-class design, editing, mixing and post-production installation. The 153,000-square-foot red brick building, surrounded by vineyards and artificial Ewok Lake, stands as a monument to the maxim, often repeated by Lucas, that the sound is at least 50 percent of the experience cinematographic.
The Soundminer sound library system, which allows for almost poetic descriptive keyword searches in its specificity, keeps pace with the ever-expanding library of nearly a million Skywalker Sound sounds.
With a power of approximately 130 Mac Pro racks, as well as 50 iMac computers, 50 MacBook Pro and 50 Mac mini with Pro Tools as the main audio application, along with a fleet of iPad, iPhone and Apple TV devices, Skywalker is advancing the art of sound 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, prequels and the “Indiana Jones” franchise. “Word processing was a big leap forward for me as a writer.”
“Sound editing is somehow really the same as word processing; trimming and pasting files, “Burtt continues. I started cutting with a Mac with Final Cut in the late 90’s and now I have four Mac computers. Everyone manages a different process: one of image editing, sound editing, writing manuscripts, I’m completely surrounded. They’re called Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. “
Talk to any Skywalker Sound artist and it will quickly become apparent that they all contain a personal library of beautiful recordings. “Sounds that evoke emotion are what we’re always looking for,” says sound editor and sound designer Supervisor Al Nelson.
For sound designers, even outdated equipment creates opportunities. “I love happy accidents and I love breaking down technology and getting unexpected results,” Nelson says. “I love playing with digital systems that work poorly, that is, the way the bits flow. It’s broken, it sounds like a bad radio. I have a very old PowerBook and it has some old software that I like to use; I can enter recordings and digitally break them. “
One never knows when the inspiration will come. A contractor who knew Burtt was always looking for unique sounds once called to tell him that he had heard a strange broken ceiling fan in an apartment he was serving. Burtt’s recording of the swaying blades was later transformed into the ominous sound of the laser gates momentarily splitting Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul during the lightsaber duel in “Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Threat. “
Fountains sometimes materialize from the air. “I’ve had people write to me on the internet and say,‘ My aunt has a very strange cough, do you want to record it for a creature? ’” Says Burtt. (Nelson refers to these components as “creature sweeteners”).
When collecting field recordings in the wild, sound editor supervisor Baihui Yang highlights the convenience of having a MacBook Pro in place. “We can take the Pro Tools session with us to the field and look at it, record it and assemble it quickly, to test if it works or not,” he says. “If you take all the recordings to the studio, you don’t know if you missed the moment.” Applications like Keyboard Maestro are also part of your process, as is Matchbox software.
With a training in classical guitar, among other instruments, Nelson often looks for musicality outside as well as in the mixing room. “We’re all musicians, whether it’s literally musicians or sound musicians,” he says. “It’s all very much a tonal approach or an orchestration approach. Not only can you make noise on the screen; you have to articulate and choose your flavors in the same way you would orchestrate something symphonic.”
The sounds we associate with Apple (the iconic F-sharp ringing tone of a Mac, the swoosh of an outgoing email) share a key and underlying feature with many of the most recognizable sounds of Star Wars, and that is activation. Think about how often an idle droid comes to life with warnings and beeps. Or how the sleek, sleepy handle of a lightsaber suddenly penetrates a glow. Or a ship, which climbs and moves through space, enters at the speed of light.
“What I learned from Star Wars was that Ben used all natural sounds to make science fiction,” says Gary Rydstrom, a seven-time Oscar-winning sound designer who started working at Lucasfilm in 1983. the sounds in the Star Wars universe, crisp and realistic, based on real sounds that you would manipulate into something you’ve never heard before, that was inspiring. “
A key distinction in Burtt’s work is the element of action. “When it comes to fantasy sounds, especially (alien voices, creatures, weapons, weird stuff like that), a performance helps,” Burtt says. In the early stages of finding R2-D2’s voice, which set the standard for how sound design can influence character development, Burtt felt increased pressure, knowing that the droid would share scenes with Alec Guinness.
“When I sat down and started experimenting with R2 in the first movie, I suddenly realized that I was in dialogue,” Burtt explains. “The moment is very important. When we realized we had something working, the image editors went back to the movie and started cropping a lot of the scenes, changing the timing a bit. He began to figure in the real rhythm, as any dialogue would. ”Burtt continued to perfect his acting in prequels, for which he acted as sound designer and image editor.
As Skywalker Sound artists have settled into the digital age of cinema, their advice to both aspiring 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,'” says Burtt. “Get a recording and classify it, because every time you create a sound library, you’re making creative decisions. or on your MacBook, you can do all kinds of sound cutting and mixing at home. I could never do that. If I were a teenage filmmaker again, I’d be amazed. to be able to do any of these things during my formative years. ”
Nelson even certifies that iPhone recordings are “perfectly usable” in a professional context.
“No matter what you do,” says Rydstrom, “think of sound from the beginning, because it’s one of your storytelling tools. I’ll argue that it’s one of the most efficient storytelling tools once you get into shooting and cutting “.
“You can tell much of the story with sound in a way that is less expensive than images in general, and sometimes more emotionally powerful,” Rydstrom continues. “If you’re interested in sound or making movies, you can record 4K + videos on your iPhone. There is no excuse. The things that are part of our daily lives are the same ones you need to record sound and make movies. This is the real revolution. Ultimately, it will democratize the whole process. “
On Monday, May 9, 2022, fans will be able to join sound designer Leff Lefferts as he shares his favorite projects and how Skywalker Sound brings to life iconic movie characters with Apple Music’s Eddie Francis. Participants will see Skywalker Ranch footage from Apple’s Behind the Mac and learn from Apple Creative Pro how to create voice effects for a character with their voice, everyday objects, and GarageBand on the Mac. Sign up for this unique session today at Apple at apple.co/skywalker-sound.
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