Star Wars Reimagined

So, I did a Star Wars fan film. The original trilogy had a huge impact on my imagination growing up, and was probably the single biggest reason I wanted to get involved in the film industry. So when I was contacted about working on “Star Wars SC 38 Reimagined” — funnily enough, a fan project I was already aware of from their YouTube teaser — I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to “unofficially” play around in a galaxy (and sonic space) that has had such an influence on my work. Here’s the short:

The overall guidance from director Philip Silvera and VFX supervisor Christopher Clements was to broadly follow the sound of “modern Star Wars,” referencing the recent films done under supervising sound editor Matthew Wood, the present-day “god of Star Wars sound.” I interpreted this as trying to keep the spirit of the original trilogy — there’s a lot of iconic sounds you can’t escape — but going for a meaner, heavier, and “beefier” sound, that feels more contemporary.

I would without hesitation describe myself as a huge nerd, and a big sticking point I’ve had with a lot of excellent Star Wars fan films is (to me, at least) the over-use of direct Star Wars sound effects, and an unnatural mix of “authentic” Star Wars effects with sound effects from other sources. There’s a pretty simple explanation for why Star Wars samples get directly lifted and dropped into fan films — the movies have the most distinctive collection of sound effects in all of cinema, and good-quality Star Wars effects have been available for years by extracting audio from official Star Wars video games.

I decided to start from the opposite direction: use as few “real” Star Wars sounds as possible. While there’s no replacing some sounds (like Darth Vader’s breaths or the distinctive laser shot of the E-11 blaster rifle), I wanted the majority of the design to rest on my own blend of sounds, rather than relying too heavily on pre-baked clips from the movies. Sound Designer Darren Blondin has done some incredible work researching and reverse-engineering the classic lightsaber sound, which you can read about in-depth here. I had previously been in contact with Darren a few years ago when I needed lightsaber effects for another project, so I already had his entire custom lightsaber library on-hand, which was an indispensable resource. I used Darren’s lightsabers as the foundation for all the saber moves, giving them the “real deal” sound, without actually being exact sounds heard before in any Star Wars film — authentic without being too familiar. I then built the saber clashes and squeals out of a blend of elements, including sparks, explosions, dry ice on metal, and ice skates hissing. After discussing with the team, as a final touch a select number of swings and clashes were enhanced with sample layers from The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars: Battlefront 2, but I feel like they’re integrated well enough that I can’t readily identify which ones have those sample layers without looking through my session.

Star Wars has a very distinctive sonic character beyond its iconic weapons and spaceships, but it’s also evolved a lot through the years. I particularly like pointing out how “retro” some of the less-exotic sounds are in the original trilogy, like this fantastic body fall for Luke. The explosions have also changed a lot over the years as technology and mix sensibilities have shifted, going from very classic Hollywood-sounding mid-range saturated blasts to chair-rattling crispness in the newer films. However, Star Wars has always kept a through-line of keeping distinct tonal elements in many of its explosions, something that I miss immediately if it’s not honored in a fan film. (A great recent example is the destruction of Snoke’s ship, which is more like a scream than a conventional explosion.) I used The Odyssey Collection sound library as the starting point for a lot of the explosive elements, as it’s full of material that shares a similar tonality. For the Force powers, I looked to the newer films for inspiration with their low-end heavy feel, something pretty easily constructed out of more modern-sounding material like Boom Library construction kits, and processing elements like propeller airplane bys to create a rumbling-yet-tonal effect.

There was another significant challenge that I hadn’t fully anticipated, that came with integrating the original 1977 film footage with the new sequences. First was a stylistic mis-match between the original sound effects and our new material, and second, picture cuts had been made within the original scenes, changing their length and timing, thus resulting in skips in the music. The solution to both problems was to replace all the audio in the original film sequences except for the dialogue. I was able to isolate the dialogue reasonably well from an older 5.1 mix, after putting RX through its paces. I then replaced the score using the 1997 soundtrack re-release (which includes every single cue featured in the film), and made edits to the score when necessary to match the new pacing. All sound effects and backgrounds were edited back in from scratch, enabling stylistic consistency between the new and old footage. While I leaned more heavily on Star Wars samples in these sections (the aforementioned blasters and the engine of the Millennium Falcon), I layered additional material in with the samples much like with the lightsaber sections, helping them all live in the same world.

As I’m usually inclined to do, there’s a couple Easter Eggs the short. It was difficult finding material for Obi-Wan’s grunts and efforts, as I couldn’t uncover Alec Guinness across his entire film and interview career doing something so undignified as a yelp. As a result, a couple of Obi-Wan’s voice snippets are pitch-shifted Ewan McGregor from the prequel trilogy, hopefully brief and innocuous enough that the age difference in the voice isn’t distracting. There’s an eerie sound when Obi-Wan is cut down at the end of the short, and I wanted a ghostly, almost spiritual expression of pain and sorrow as he vanishes. To that end, I went the total opposite direction and sampled Obi-Wan’s original Krayt dragon scream, and pitched it down and added reverb and delay. In my personal head canon, that’s now just a random sound he makes once in awhile, kind of like a burp or a fart. Now you’ll never unhear it!

Because this is my own damn blog, I’ll acknowledge that the final short has a couple very minor sync errors and an errant sound effect or two, for the real eagle-eared (can you say that?) listeners, due to changes made to picture after final mix delivery. However, I’m overall super happy with how the short turned out, and had an absolute blast trying my hand at a little Star Wars!