Matthew Wood is a 21 year veteran of Skywalker Sound, tasked with bringing all six Star Wars films up to a 6.1 channel audio mix for the Blu-ray release. We spoke with Wood about the process of remastering audio, working with Ben Burtt, and how some very Australian sounds became the ‘voice’ of the Geonosians.
“The cool thing about this is that normally when I do a demo, what you hear in the demo is a lot better than what you’ll hear on the disc. But the Blu-ray format is uncompressed so I basically took our master and just gave that to THX to have the QC’ed to give to the lab and that is what you’re hearing on the disc.”
When Matthew Wood (pictured left) tells us he’s watched the movies a million times we believe him. Since the DVD release of the Star Wars series Wood has been working to remaster the audio across the entire series for an HD release. For the original trilogy that meant going back to the source audio recordings and rebuilding each mix.
“We went back to the original masters because the majority of what people heard in 1977 was probably mono. We really had no separation of our masters so we created those mixes from absolute scratch.
“Deep in our archives were the original production rolls. These are the rolls that were used for the original dialogue recording and all the production recording that was done on the set. I just think they’re fantastic.”
Then Wood shows us some of the actual original tapes...
“This one was in Tunisia, the sand crawler scene, you can see it was recorded on March 22nd, 1976. These had never been played since. The first time they were used they were transferred to magnetic film back in 1977 and then that was cut into the feature. So they had only been played once. I got to take them and re-transfer them into the computer with the highest quality analogue-to-digital converters and I got to resync them back into the pictures. So that was one thing that is new on the Blu-ray.”
Close up on the ACTUAL analogue audio reels from the location shoot in Tunisia. Dated 22nd March 1976.
That doesn’t mean you’ll be hearing something that doesn’t sound like what you remember from the theatres. The key for Wood was to ensure the mix feels the same while extending the mix into a modern 6.1 channel theatre experience for all six films.
“I wanted to make sure that what we were hearing was what George remembered as the films were left the last time they were used and then anything he wants to update he can easily update. So Episode IV was the film he spent the most time with us on. It was a long time in the making to get those masters recreated and then George and Ben Burtt would sit through each reel and we’d go through and listen and we’d go through and A/B against the last version of the film which was probably the Special Edition version.”
The art of sound engineering for film has come a long way, and while Wood uses the absolute cutting edge in digital audio tools available today his focus is keeping the magic of the original work in the mix.
“It’s funny because I think about what was done with the mixes back in 1977. I was talking to Ben Burtt about it. Mixes were done as a performance. They had to go through an entire reel at once. You had someone working on dialogue, music, and effects with all the tracks coming in synchronised from magnetic film machines – very loud and giant – all going into the console. You’re having to remember all your fader moves and remember what dialogue comes up and what comes down and music and your EQ and do it all live! I always wanted to ensure I held onto that performance. Because it is a performance!”
Wood calls his work a ‘labour of love’ and outs himself as a huge fan. And it shows. When he shows us the new mixes for some of his favourite sequences, you can see he still reacts physically to the action in the scenes. He swerves through the pod race, and jolts as Luke and Vader clash sabers in the carbon freeze chamber.
In the Lucasfilm lobby. Classic Luke lightsabre! OK, just a replica...
In fact, the audio for the pod race was one of his first tasks on a Star Wars film, working closely with Ben Burtt to record sounds for the vehicles.
“In that scene, Sebulba’s pod is a Ferrari that I recorded that had no sound governor on it so it was really loud. The revs were a cigarette boat over here in the [San Francisco]bay. And Anakin’s pod is a Porsche.”
“There’s a race track up north here that I went to where you can basically paint a number on the side of your car, sign a release and go race with people. I remember walking around there and there were these concrete tubes in the middle of the track. I put my microphone inside one of the tubes and recorded the ambience of the track and it made this weird sound. You hear it when the [podracers]turn into the canyon and it has this distant kind of sound.”
As the prequels had a lot of primary filming taking place here in Australia, Wood did some touring of Australia and some sounds he captured become the source audio for some designs used in the films.
“I went down to Phillip Island and I recorded penguins coming in with mating calls, then when I was up at the rainforest near Cairns I recorded fruit bats fighting over a banana. I mixed those two to make the sound of a Geonosian.”
For all his efforts, it seems that Wood is still most pleased by the fact that this time around the version that hits people’s homes is exactly the same as the version he creates in his studio.
“We’re excited by Blu-ray, to have the uncompressed master capabilities there on the disc. I think it’s great that the home formats are catching up with us. So we can actually playback this stuff and it’s heard in the home the way we want it to be heard when we create the movies.”
Seamus Byrne travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Twentieth Century Fox