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Redesigning the sound for Star Wars on Blu-ray

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In a little over a week the Star Wars films will be available for the first in full high definition on Blu-ray.

Tech Guide travelled to Lucasfilm in San Francisco to get a glimpse of the highly anticipated box set and the work that went into restoring the films for this release.

In the first of a series of stories ahead of the September 14 launch we talk to Skywalker Sound supervising sound editor Matthew Wood who made sure the films sounded as good as they looked.  

He revealed he has been working on the soundtracks for the Blu-ray versions of the Star Wars films since 2003.

Apart from his skills as a sound editor, Wood I also credited as providing the voice for General Grevious in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith as well making a cameo appearance as an spectator at the pod race in Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Some of the audio and dialogue changes for the Star Wars Blu-ray movies have already made headlines. The controversial alterations include Darth Vader shouting ‘no’ in the climactic scene of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

Tech Guide: Was there a particular film that needed more work than the rest?

Matthew Wood: A New Hope was the one we did the most work on for the restoration because the original masters, the majority of what people heard in 1977, were probably mono and we had no separation so we had to create those mixes – what you’re hearing was made from absolute scratch.

With the Blu-ray release – one of the things which became available to us that we found deep in our archives were the original production rolls – these were the rolls used for the original dialogue recording and the actual recordings that were made on the set.

Sound editor Matthew Wood with the original Star Wars sound recordings made in 1976

(He points to an old audio reel) This is the Sandcrawler scene which was recorded on March 22, 1976 – these had never been played. The first time they were used they were transferred to magnetic film back in ’77 and that was cut into the feature.

They had only been played once. I got to take them and retransfer them into the computer with the highest quality analogue to digital conversion and then re-sync them back in the picture. That’s one thing that’s new on the Blu-ray.

TG: So what will we hear differently in A New Hope?

MW: There’s a lot of low frequency extension you can hear in the subwoofer and we have an aggressive use of the surround track. One of our jobs was to make sure the mixes had the feel of what people remember but were also going to play against the six movies and have a unified feel. It’s the first time we’ve been playing our 6.1 discrete masters.

Episodes I, II and III were done in 5.1 EX and I was able to find our discrete centre channel masters and now they’re in 6.1.

TG: George Lucas’s famous quote is that sound is 50 per cent of the movie experience. How fussy was he with the sound quality for the Blu-ray editions of the films?

MW: George was involved. I wanted to make sure that was George was hearing was what he remembered as the films were left they last time they were used.

Episode IV was what we spent the most time on – it was a long process. I started working on A New Hope probably around the time we released the DVDs (2003) and I was getting it ready for a high definition release. It was a long time getting those masters ready and then (sound designer) Ben Burtt and George sat through each reel and then we’d compare it to the last version of the film which was the 1997 Special Edition version – he was actively involved with that . He loves sound – sound is very dear to his heart. Skywalker Sound is actually at Skywalker Ranch where his offices are and so we’ve got that relationship.

The Star Wars Blu-ray box sets

TG: How different was it on the sound front when the original Star Wars film was being prepared for the 1977 release?

MW: For New Hope they were working on a night shift – Star Wars couldn’t get time on a main stage so it was done at night and mixes were done as a performance – they had to go through an entire reel at once. You had someone working on the dialogue, music and effects and all the tracks coming in syncing to the film machines and all going into the console and you’d have to remember all your fader moves and what dialogue comes up and down and you’d do it all live. I always find that to be fascinating and I want to make sure that I’ve held on to that performance.

TG: Do you have a particularly favourite sounding scene?

MW: I’m partial to the pod race in Phantom Menace – when I started at Lucasfilm that was one of the first tasks working with Ben Burtt going out recording all the different vehicles. It really plays well on the Blu-ray. We integrated everything from the DVD version in 2000.

We spent a long time on that. Each Star Wars movie when we made them I worked on them for two years doing the sound work. George got us to start when the script was ready and worked all the way from there till the end.

The Star Wars Complete Saga Blu-ray Disc box set will be released on September 14TG: You mentioned you went out and recorded different vehicles to use in the pod race. What were some of the sounds?

MW: Sebulba’s pod is a Ferrari that I recorded that had no sound governor on it so it was really loud – then the revs were from a boat I recorded in the (San Francisco) bay here. Anakin’s pod is a Porsche. There was this racetrack up north and you could basically paint a number on the side of your car , sign a release and go race against other people. I got a lot of good stuff. I was walking around and I saw these concrete tubes that were in the middle of the track and I put my microphone inside one of the tubes and recorded the ambience of the track that made that weird – distant sound. When they turned in the canyon in the pod race – that was what I recorded through the tube.

TG: What other interesting sounds will we hear in the Star Wars films?

MW: During the prequels I always had my microphone with me. During Episode II I went to work in Australia for a while and I went down Phillip Island near Melbourne and I recorded penguins coming back with mating calls. Then when I was in the rainforest in Cairns I recorded fruit bats fighting over a banana and I mixed those two to make the sound of the Geonosians (in Episode II). You never really know what you’re going to get when you go out recording.

Lucasfilm confirms audio changes on Star Wars Blu-ray

A chat with special effects master Dennis Muren.

* Stephen Fenech travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Lucasfilm