Star Wars: A New Hope in Sound Design

Posted on Dec 15, 2015
Star Wars: A New Hope in Sound Design

In the summer of 2013, several exciting things were happening. Kim Kardashian gave birth to a daughter, North. Portland was ranked as America’s “Best City” by Movoto. An obscure director named JJ Abrams was slated to direct the seventh installment in the sci-fi/fantasy series “Star Wars” following Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm. Most prescient, however, was an animated short being created right here in PDX.


As we approach the worldwide release of Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens, excitement around the film has reached a fevered pitch. Digital One is especially eager to hear updated sound effects from the series that ushered in the age of contemporary sound design. For many, expectations are tempered by painful memories of the last time Star Wars was rebooted; the now infamous “Prequels.” After Disney announced Abrams as the director tasked with revitalizing the franchise, one local Portland copywriter decided the movie was too important to leave in the hands of elite Hollywood producers. He decided to make his voice heard.



4 Rules to Make Star Wars Great Again (note 07-05-16: the original video, with over 1.5 million views, was taken down. This was put up as a replacement) was the brainchild of Prescott Harvey, brother to our very own Reed Harvey. The premise was that if the essence of the original Star Wars movies could be distilled into a list of concrete rules and animated in a way that was impactful, maybe it would get shared enough to become a sort of petition encouraging a return to the fundamentals that made the original films so great. With the help of immensely talented illustrators Robert Perez and Chase Velarde and animator Jason Windsor (of The End of the World fame), a truly beautiful video took shape. It’s 4 rules were simple, but spoke deeply to much of the core Star Wars fan group:


1) The Setting is the Frontier

2) The Future is Old

3) The Force is Mysterious

4) Star Wars isn’t Cute


Upon it’s release in September 2013, the short was shared across the blogosphere by Star Wars fans ecstatic that someone had finally clarified a viewpoint shared by many. It quickly reached over 1 million views. Shortly after, Prescott received a phone call from the man himself, JJ Abrams. After congratulating him on making such a great video, Abrams invited him down to California to pitch Bad Robot any future ideas he may have. Cool!


Seeing an opportunity for collaboration, Prescott tapped Reed to do sound for the piece. Crafting science fiction sounds is one of the great joys of sound design, and before long the soundtrack was fairly fleshed out. The only problem was finding music. Using anything from the movies themselves was out of the question due both to copyright issues and the fact that it felt stale creatively. Attempted compositions to mimic the feel of the original soundtrack didn’t quite work either. Once an acapella take on a few bars of the Star Wars Overture was tried, it resonated and felt like the right path.



However, the acapella music clashed with the sound effects already in place. Reed was faced with the even more daunting task of redoing them all, using only his mouth and voice as an instrument. While most anyone can make a relatively convincing light-saber sound on the fly, creating alien ambiences, starship passes, Rancor snarls, and Tauntaun cries proved challenging. Reed figured employing audio plug-ins to affect his voice would still keep to the spirit of the challenge and also allow for a richer sonic character. Using distortion, pitch-shifting, aggressive EQ and a host of other tricks, Reed’s voice transformed into something at home in a science fiction landscape. He even visited the offices of Sincerely Truman to record the entire staff reciting the classic Mandalorian chant “Kote Darasuum” for the closing shot. All of these efforts came to fruition in a unique soundtrack that paid homage to the groundbreaking original.


The sound of Star Wars has been an inspiration to sound designers for decades, and one couldn’t have a conversation about the swish of a lightsaber or the voice of R2-D2 without at least mentioning Ben Burtt. One of the legends of the industry, Burtt transformed the way we think about the process of making sound. Where other creators of sci-fi audio had used electronic sounds, Burtt drew on a host of found sounds to give an organic and delightfully imperfect quality to the Star Wars universe. A hammer struck against a guy-wire became a laser blast. An old projector became Luke’s lightsaber. An elephant’s trumpet became the iconic tie fighter roar.


Leading up to the premier of The Force Awakens, interest has again emerged in the now two-year-old video. Portland Monthly ran an article on it this month, and Prescott was taped for an episode of LiveWire due to air this Saturday. We’ll soon get to see if Abrams took his advice and made a film worthy of the original trilogy. Some say the odds are “one in a million,” so let’s hope JJ is using the force. We’ll be there opening night, listening closely to the future of sound design.