The sound design wizards discuss their career paths and shaping the aural landscape of the Disney+ original series.
Some of the greatest Star Wars stories are those from behind the scenes. In Saga Chronicles, Lucasfilm’s Lucas Seastrom tells those tales.
In a remote village, Obi-Wan Kenobi and young Princess Leia seek refuge in a hideout used for smuggling Jedi. But Darth Vader and his fearsome Inquisitors are on their trail. Arriving at the settlement, the ruthless Vader begins murdering innocents to coax his former master out of hiding. Sending Leia to escape, an unsettled Kenobi attempts to draw the villain away, confronting the vengeful Sith Lord with lightsaber in hand. The scene is from the last moments of Part III of Lucasfilm’s latest series, Obi-Wan Kenobi, with all episodes now streaming on Disney+.
“The input from [series director] Deborah Chow was to make it terrifying and dark,” recalls Danielle Dupre, re-recording mixer at Skywalker Sound. “The audience knows how evil Darth Vader is and the lengths he is willing to take, but the people in the story don’t. We had to capture the experience of everyone in the village realizing what was going to happen. It was shot brilliantly as well. You have these ominous close-ups of Vader with the strength of his body and pure determination, then you cut to Obi-Wan and he’s scared, confused, and feels the darkness of Vader’s presence.”
Responsible for arranging the many layers of sound effects, dialogue, and music in sync with the picture, Dupre explains how she “could not wait to bring silence into the scene, because that’s an opportunity to make the audience fearful and anxious. When you take everything away, you’re left with that terrifying image in front of you, and you feel the weight of the moment. Natalie Ann Holt, the composer, is an incredible talent and our job was to balance that driving momentum of Vader and the musical score with those quiet, tense moments with Obi-Wan. Once the action commences with the fight, we can really take it to town with loud, painful sounds. It was a lot of work, but it was really fun.”
Above: Lightsaber effects from Obi-Wan Kenobi
Growing up as the daughter of a professional musician, Dupre often accompanied her father to performances where handling audio equipment became second nature. “I was a pretty quiet kid,” she explains, “so I did a lot of just sitting there and taking everything in. Even as a kid, the main impression I remember about experiencing things was how it sounded.” She admits that a love for Star Wars was not part of her childhood, but rather the pure interest in sound and storytelling.
“I grew up playing music,” Dupre continues, “and I got a great job in the field after graduating from the University of Southern California. But I had some decisions I needed to make about what I wanted and where I wanted to be located. Film was not something I set out to be involved in, but it was always something I was interested in.”
Though Dupre admittedly fell into working in cinema, the discovery of the art form when she was hired at Skywalker Sound was a sort of epiphany. “My main goal besides working in sound was to tell stories,” she explains. “I’d only thought about it in the music context, but the opportunity to do so in film was a whole new playing field. Aside from just having more speakers, which is always fun, you have music, dialogue, effects -- all these storytelling tools at your disposal.”
Dupre’s colleague, sound designer and editor Jon Borland, is among those Skywalker Sound artists who did grow up with the galaxy far, away. As Dupre recalls, “Jon told me once that ‘There are some people who have the rhythm of Darth Vader’s breathing etched into their soul, like me!’” Borland initially studied graphic design and worked in multimedia. He later chose to follow his passion for film sound and attended the Vancouver Film School where Skywalker Sound’s head of sound design Randy Thom was a frequent visitor. He later recruited Borland into the company, as well as supervising sound editors Nia Hansen and Jeremy Bowker.
Borland quips that “in what would probably be considered my misspent youth, I watched Star Wars over and over again, so you probably don’t need to tell me where different sounds go.” He reveled in the opportunity to explore the franchise’s sound library first established by sound designer Ben Burtt on Star Wars: A New Hope. “The effects in the library were named whatever Ben had called them at the time,” says Borland. “It wasn’t called ‘Millennium Falcon,’ but rather ‘pirate ship.’ ‘Lightsabers’ were ‘laser swords.’ Everything had this deep lineage.”
Above: "Pirate ship" effects from A New Hope
As Master Yoda might say, “Already know you that which you need.” The sonic “aesthetic” of Star Wars, as Borland puts it, “comes intuitively once you understand the nuts and bolts of what Ben did. They’re all natural, believable, real sounds. It’s not like you just go to a synthesizer and dial a bunch of nobs to make a TIE fighter. That’s an elephant roaring. Star Wars sound design is about finding the right sounds and using them or combining them in unorthodox ways as opposed to creating something out of thin air.”
The legacy of Star Wars sound design is not only evident in the recordings themselves, but in their original creators who still work at the company, like sound designer Gary Rydstrom, Randy Thom, or Ben Burtt himself. “We have all of these people just walking down the hall,” Dupre comments. “They each have many Academy Awards and they’re all so humble. It’s a relatively small place and we’re all here for the same reason.” Rydstrom even generously took a moment to listen in with Dupre as she worked on the opening to Kenobi’s Part III.
Dupre had her first opportunity to work on Star Wars as a mixer on projects like Star Wars Resistance, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and Star Wars: Visions (“The Duel”) while Borland, who initially trained as a foley recordist, worked on an episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars before sound editing on Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The Mandalorian, among others. Both, along with their fellow crew members, have spent recent years adjusting to the workload and pace of episodic series. “We’ve slowly and surely figured out a system of ‘How do you pull off a six-hour movie in three months?’” as Borland says.
Together with their fellow Skywalker Sound crew members, Dupre and Borland worked under the supervision of series director Deborah Chow, who Borland describes as “very proactive with the sound.” Chow “wasn’t caught up with how something would sound,” he continues, “but was focused on the character and the emotion. She knew what she wanted each character to be, and that was very helpful. It empowers you to bring your own skillset to the table. She communicates clearly how she wants it to feel, which is great because we don’t necessarily have a vocabulary for sound. When NED-B dies, she wanted the sounds to feel sad.” (Borland also adds that the sounds for NED-B’s movements originated from a bread maker, similar to the seat and antenna motors used for C-3PO and R2-D2.)
Above: NED-B servo movement effects from Obi-Wan Kenobi
During their earliest work on the series, Chow consulted with Borland about the concept for Princess Leia’s companion droid, L0-LA59, known as Lola. “She didn’t even pitch the entire show to me,” he says, “but just said, ‘There’s a little girl and she’s going to have this droid that’s like a toy or companion. This would be the baby version of R2-D2.’”
The final sound for Lola included fragments of Borland’s own voice as well as his five-year-old daughter’s. “I’ve manipulated it to make it sound like beeps and boops,” he says with pride. “That’s my daughter saying ‘May the Force be with you,’ but I’ve changed it so you can’t tell. The inspiration was Ben Burtt who used his own voice for R2-D2. The brilliance of Artoo is that he has a whole pallet of different sounds that don’t all sound alike, but when you put them together it’s Artoo.” As Borland attests, the heavy precedent of Burtt’s success makes creating new droid sounds one of the biggest challenges.
Time and again, the sense of legacy at Skywalker Sound is palpable, both in the sound effects themselves and in the generations of artists who’ve created them. “Skywalker is just a great environment for learning and growing,” notes Borland, and Dupre adds that “you learn so much on every single project you work on.” For us listening in the audience, each new story in the galaxy far, far away is instantly familiar with the first few decibels of a ship’s engines, a blaster’s charge, or a creature’s roar.
Dupre and Borland’s Skywalker Sound colleagues on Obi-Wan Kenobi were supervising sound editors Matthew Wood and Trey Turner, re-recording mixers Scott Lewis and Bonnie Wild, sound effects editors Michael Levine, Kevin Bolen, and Tim Farrell, sound editor and re-recording mixer David Collins, foley editor Thom Brennan, ADR/dialogue editors Ryan Cota and Angela Ang, and foley artists Ronni Brown, Margie O’Malley, Sean England, and Andrea Gard. “We try to make it as collaborative as possible even though one mixer takes the lead on a specific episode,” notes Dupre. “They all play together as a cohesive story. There isn’t competition when it comes to the work. It’s a collaboration; it’s people dedicated to telling the best story possible and being true to the art form. It’s a dream to work with these people on a daily basis.”