What does General Grievous, the fearsome cyborg Separatist strategist, have in common with the actor best known for portraying the titular count in the 1931 horror classic Dracula? According to Matthew Wood — who expertly voiced the lightsaber-collecting Grievous in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and beyond — quite a bit.
In Star Wars: Aliens, Creatures & Droids, a collected anthology from Star Wars Insider, you’ll learn about the creative forces that concocted, built, and gave life to the droids of the saga including R2-D2 and C-3PO, played by Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels, as well as hear from some of the actors who portrayed fan-favorite creatures and aliens including Admiral Ackbar (Tim Rose), Wicket the Ewok (Warwick Davis), Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), and, of course, General Grievous. Also included are interviews with the talent behind BB-8, an in-depth look at the creation of R2-D2, essential trivia and rarely seen images featuring some of the Star Wars saga’s strangest beings.
Read on for StarWars.com’s exclusive excerpt from an article about the creation of General Grievous to celebrate the book’s release this month!
It’s fall 2002. George Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, concept artists, and other key production members are meeting each Friday to review the latest designs for Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. On November 22, Lucas tells the assembly that the Episode III villain could be a Separatist droid general. “I won’t limit it at this point to a droid. It could be an alien of some kind. I’m not sure if I want him to be human. It’s the Darth Maul. It’s the Jango Fett. Darth Vader…” he’s recorded explaining in The Making of Return of the Sith. He tells the artists the villain is not a Sith, that it has to be able to do dialogue scenes, and that it has to be iconic.
And so General Grievous the Supreme Commander of the Separatist droid army, was born. Two weeks after Lucas’ instruction to design the foe, concept artist Warren Fu presented illustrations for the character that caught the director’s eye. Fellow concept artist Ian McCaig had advised them to think of their worst nightmares, and Fu imagined a scary masked enemy. His designs became the foundation for the fearsome cyborg who would stalk across the big screen in the final Star Wars prequel.
A combination of robotic technology with an organic base, General Grievous’ voice is grating and loud, part mechanical and part biological. That voice is provided by Matthew Wood, supervising sound editor and sound designer at Skywalker Sound, and it came to be rather late in the process. “My first look at what fully rendered Grievous was going to look like was actually in Star Wars Insider,” Wood tells us. “It was on the cover, and I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, that’s cool. Who’s gonna voice that?’ Because the character has no mouth, we could wait a certain amount of time before Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) needed our final voice-overs.”
Busy working on audio effects for Revenge of the Sith, Wood knew that Lucas wanted the voice to sound as if it was synthesized through the circuitry of a voice box, with computerized, cybernetic qualities, and he and co-sound editor Christopher Scarabosio developed a distinctive resonance for Grievous. “We ran it through some processing, including ring modulation, to give it that synthesized timbre. We put every audition we got through that same process, as an egalitarian method for every actor’s performance. I would play those for George to get his feedback on what things he did or didn’t like. And I had the ability to sit in on all those auditions and also process them,” Wood explains.
Having that perspective put Wood in a very unique position. McCallum was getting nervous because they needed to cast the role of Grievous and time was running out, so Scarabosio encouraged Wood to audition. Wood, a trained actor, had performed voices for Star Wars before, so he anonymously submitted his file to Lucas with the other auditions. He approached Grievous with a gruff, harsh voice, something to convey the character’s militaristic sense. And he also added a little old-school villain style, in the vein of 1930s horror movie actor Bela Lugosi. Wood recalls, “I’d coincidentally come back from visiting a friend in Prague, so it was fresh in my mind, and that’s what I went with: yelling in a classic villain voice with an Eastern European accent. As that hit the processor, I could hear there was this nice gravelly quality. Then I got the surprising call that George had picked my audition.”
Wood’s performance of General Grievous’ biting metallic voice cuts through the Battle of Coruscant in Episode III’s opening scenes, as Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) confront the metal general after his kidnapping of Chancellor Palpatine, but McGregor never knew who voiced Grievous until some years after the movie’s release. Grievous battled with Kenobi more than once in Revenge of the Sith, and during filming McGregor was most often sparring with stunt double Kyle Rowling, who stood in for the CG cyborg, with Grievous’ lines being read in from off-camera. “I worked with Ewan in my sound capacity on all the prequels,” Wood says. “I’d record him all the time for the post-production dialogue recording we had to do. It wasn’t until I worked with him years later, when I brought him in to do a whispery voice for The Force Awakens, that I actually got to tell him, ‘Hey, did you know what ended up happening with that voice? It was me.’ And he was like, ‘No way!’”
After Dooku’s death, Grievous took over his position and moved the Separatist Council from Utapau to Mustafar at Darth Sidious’ behest. The over-confident cyborg engaged with Kenobi for what would be the final time, as the duel ended with Grievous’ demise. To his last, Grievous barked out orders and taunts punctuated by a phlegmy cough. Lucas wanted Grievous to have breathing troubles because he was essentially a testing ground for the technology that would eventually create Darth Vader. By luck, both Wood and Lucas were in a state to provide the required rattles and hacks.
“For a lot of those lines, you really have to use the diaphragm big time and yell this guttural performance,” Wood recalls. “I would run out of breath and cough, and George himself had a really bad cough that day. I remember telling Chris Scarabosio to keep the tape rolling, because George would come up to direct me and he would start coughing. We captured a lot of George’s really bad coughs from the day, and ended up rolling some of them into Grievous’ performance.”
Wood thinks of Grievous’ voice as comprising of two-parts: the dramatic element and the processing layer. “I pitch him down about a semi-tone to give him that lower pitch register, and in a way that his voice has an artifacting quality to it where it doesn’t sound perfect,” he explains. “I’m going for imperfection, so when he’s yelling, I want to make it almost like he’s so angry that his vocal processor is unable to translate his emotion into voice perfectly.”
Wood had to perform with a hyper-enunciated yell in order to get Grievous’ words and emotion across through the gravelly, scratchy qualities in his voice. The delay and ring-modulation Wood applied is not unlike the standard procedure he uses for droid processing, but Grievous got a little something extra. “It’s a mix and match of a few different things, because George wanted to communicate that Grievous had a biological component to illustrate that he had a weakness,” says Wood. “The cough was to illustrate that, too. It’s such an odd and creepy character. It’s a part I’ve really loved and respected all these years.”
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