Interview: Star Wars’ Sound Designer On Lucas, Abrams And The Role Of Audio In Storytelling

Interview: Star Wars’ Sound Designer On Lucas, Abrams And The Role Of Audio In Storytelling

Matt Wood has been quietly creating the audio for the movies you’ve loved for 25 years — Guardians of the Galaxy, Mission: Impossible and Super 8 are among his impressive list of credits. But he is perhaps most well known for his work on Star Wars.

Since 1999 Wood has worked on creating the emotional highs and lows, iconic vehicle sounds and creature cries every Star Wars fan has come to know and love. We sat down with this industry legend to talk about the role of audio as a storytelling tool, the differences between working with “passionate” JJ Abrams and “linear, methodical” George Lucas, and what the future of sound might hold.

When Wood started at LucasFilm, “I came in as a huge Star Wars fan,” he says. “As a kid I loved those films. Episodes IV, V and VI really spoke to me.”

This was in 1990, 9 years before the first of the Star Wars prequels, and the company was switching over to a digital pipeline for the process of film production. “That was very early on in the process,” Wood says. “George Lucas saw that coming down the road and wanted us to be part of the forefront of that.”

One of Wood’s first jobs was working on SoundDroid, which was the audio editing tool for film that was to be using digital technology. Wood and his team used SoundDroid on a number of projects in what he calls “sort of our boot camp” to get ready for the creation of the Star Wars prequels.

“A lot of that technology has become industry standard on how we work now today,” Wood reveals. “So we had a real long head start on most other companies that do digital in film.”

And of course, a lot has changed even between The Phantom Menace and The Force Awakens.

“To see how that all that technology has advanced, giving us the ability to create things like Kylo Ren’s mask, and the new lightsabers. Also just having really high quality versions of everything that has come before it, the previous legacy of Star Wars,” Wood enthused. “To get really good recordings from the set of all the production audio from the actors that shoot the movies is something that the advance in technology — all those multi channel digital recorders — really helped.”

But when it comes down to it, it’s the blend of technology and artistry that excites Wood. “It’s something that really lands on screen and gives the audience a great experience with the storytelling.”

With both The Phantom Menace and later with The Force Awakens Wood says there was a huge level on anticipation from fans — and that made them his favourite films to work on.

“The level of expectation was high, and the responsibility was high,” Wood explains. “We were creating a universe with new ships and vehicles and locations and creatures that we’d never heard before in Star Wars. So coming up with all the sounds to occupy those was a huge challenge, which was also very inspiring.”

Honouring the legacy of what had come before was hugely important to Wood as he worked on the iconic franchise.

“What has come before in the history of Star Wars is so important, you know,” he enthuses. “Like what had been created before in the original Star Wars films — with the tie fighters and the Millennium Falcon and Chewbacca and R2D2 and the lightsaber sounds and lasers. They are all something that were so beloved by the audiences back then.”

Taking the “legacy material” created with the original trilogy, and using it to help the audience connect with the new films as you introductory new ships and characters it a critical tool in designing the sound for a long-running epic saga. But it’s not just the files Wood and his team had on hand — it was the team itself.

“You want to make sure you can anchor audiences into that universe with those same calling cards, the sounds that were created,” Wood says. “So it’s very important to pay homage to the history both in audio-wise what we put in the film as well as staff and crew-wise. Having those artists that worked on those previous films be a part of this, to give advice and guidance on the projects.”

Speaking of guidance, Woods spoke candidly about different ways George Lucas and JJ Abrams approach directing — describing Lucas as “linear and methodical” and Abrams as “passionate”.

“Both JJ Abrams and George [Lucas] have very distinct styles of directing,” Woods says. “George has a very linear process that we would come and work in a very methodical way. He was all very interested in the process of how we did things, and how each film built upon the previous one.”

With The Force Awakens came an opportunity for a new director. “Having JJ come in now, 10 years later after the last Star Wars film with George, and have his process — it’s just a change, and it’s an exciting change,” Woods says.

“A lot of what we came up with on [Star Wars: The Force Awakens] in the last six weeks of the mix was when [Abrams] could have all the toys at his disposal.”

“Toys” meaning literally everything that had been created audio-wise, John Williams’ music, all the visual effects, and he could “sit in that mix room and play,” says Wood. “You’d watch him play with this universe that he had been given permission to direct.”

“That was a fun, inspiring process to watch because he gets really hands-on about what we are doing and really has very distinct opinions about how he wants things to sound and look, and he drives that process with his passion.”

Wood’s passion for the subtlety and beauty of sound is obvious. “Sound is a storytelling tool,” he explains. “You don’t want to draw attention to yourself. You don’t want to detract from what has come on screen and you don’t want to detract from the story.”

“That’s the main goal of sound, to emotionally drive the story and we have the ability to do that. And it’s a little old fashioned because you don’t see it on screen and it’s purely emotional.”

The skill involved in being able to achieve that balance is not to be underestimated. When asked of his favourite scene to work on in The Force Awakens, Wood reveals it was the (spoiler!) scene where Rey is held captive by Kylo Ren — and it is because of the ability of the audio to take the scene to a whole new level.

“It’s really just two actors on a set just staring at each other and they do such a great job of it. But it’s a great example of where sound can really help enhance the story,” Wood says.

“We have undercurrents — low frequency tones of Kylo Ren’s force power and and then, these high frequency absence of low coming from Rey,” he says. “I just really felt like it helped the story along, and helped their process and bolstered their performances as actors — and that’s the best thing we can do on sound.”

Looking to the future of the industry, Wood has a wishlist of future technologies. “The ability to clean up noisy dialogue would be great, noise reduction technology, I’d love to see where VR goes — coming up with real time audio engines to build soundtracks in real-time as an object based process,” his excitement is obvious.

“The development of atmos and object based mixing, getting that into cinemas and into people’s homes. They all just up the game on how we can create the movie and get that director’s vision to audiences with more clarity.”

But for now, simply working on Star Wars is the continuation of a dream come true for Wood, and he doesn’t take it for granted.

“The team, and the blend of artistry and technology, and the legacy of what has been created in the past — to be a part of that to me holds great responsibility,” he says. “I want to make sure I drive that forward, and can be involved in mentoring a new generation of artists to drive that forward. It’s exciting to see what the future holds and to be a part of that.”

“Everyday when I go to work at Skywalker Ranch, I still think about that young kid that send away for his Boba Fett action figure for Empire Strikes Back and thought that letter was going straight to George Lucas, who would send me my action figure back.”