Interview with Star Wars Sound Editor Matt Wood
From General Grevious to The Force Awakens
Matt Wood is the Supervising Sound Editor on Star Wars: The Force Awakens but his association with a galaxy far, far away goes back much further.In fact his relationship with Lucasfilm goes back as far as The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in 1992 and he has worked on all the Star Wars prequels, as well as the recent The Clone Wars and Rebels TV series. In fact he also popped up as Bib Fortuna in The Phantom Menace and voiced General Grevious in Revenge of the Sith and The Clone Wars. His impressive list of screen credits doesn't just include Lucasfilm productions, he was also Supervising Sound Editor on WALL-E, Star Trek Into Darkness and Guardians of the Galaxy.
Matt thanks for taking the time to talk to us, I guess my first question is what is a Supervising Sound Editor?
"I'm Supervising Sound Editor of The Force Awakens and anything that's in the soundtrack that isn't music passes through my department. That can mean production sound that is recorded on the set, to re-recorded dialogue like ADR, to Foley which is all the sound effects that are too specific to be found in a library and are done by Foley artists specifically for the film in question and then we have our sound effects library which in this case on Star Wars contains a tremendous amount of legacy sound effects. Finally we have our own sound design department, which are new effects created specifically for the film we're working on. All of those elements are taken and put in synchronisation with the picture and prepared for our mix and balanced against each other, including the music for the final mix which the director signs off on. We're there to push the script and story forward according to the director's wishes."
When creating new sound effects for The Force Awakens how do you ensure they are consistent with the previous Star Wars films?
"Well luckily Skywalker Sound, the company here, has a huge legacy with Star Wars and in fact some of the original artists from those films are still with us and actively working. We had Ben Burtt, who was the original creator of a lot of the amazing sound effects that the Star Wars legacy contains like R2D2's sounds, C3PO's motors, the lightsabres, the TIE fighters, the Millennium Falcon and the laser blasts. A lot of those sounds have been refined over the years and we have Ben available to help us find the highest quality sources possible. We then went ahead and digitised the sound effects from our original source analogue tapes and we had a lot more separation than we've ever had before, allowing us to manipulate these sounds and use them in new ways.
So that's a fine thing that we have in our arsenal and the other part is that Ben was my mentor and I worked on all the prequels and the re-mastering of Episodes IV, V and VI. I've also got our Sound Designer David Acord and we both supervised and worked on The Clone Wars series together which is a hundred plus episodes of Star Wars that were created after Revenge of the Sith , so that's another example of where we had to take what had come before and expand upon it. Luckily a lot of those sound effects that were created in the past came or were sourced from real world analogue life so that's one of the things we do, we record new sound effects in the field that may be sourced from the same kinds of engines or motors used before for example.
So that's just the methodology of how we design these sounds and we try to get them to evoke the Star Wars universe by comparing them to what has gone before and match that level of quality. Luckily in a science fiction film we have a lot of latitude because of all the things we created and now we have J. J. Abrams at the helm directing us to make sure we get the right feeling across for him. Sound is a very subliminal and emotional process from the story perspective, especially in these kinds of movies, so it's great to have J. J. who has pretty strong visions about things and thoughts on how he wants things to look and sound in Star Wars."
When you're creating new sound effects is there a temptation to radically change them or improve them in some way or do you try and remain as faithful as possible?
"We definitely try and remain as faithful as possible because I think Star Wars has been so beloved by the fans and the fact that we don't want to go and make Chewbacca suddenly have a whole new sound of vocabulary for example. So we based his vocabulary primarily on these bear recordings that were done back in the seventies and we actually found a whole load of unused recordings that although unused were from that same vocabulary. So we wouldn't want to go ahead and change that but there were things that were new like Kylo Ren and everything he represents such as his space ship, the way he sounds through his mask or his lightsabre and then we also had BB-8 which is another new character.
So we want those to still live in the universe of Star Wars but it's thirty years since Episode VI so we have a little more latitude to create some change. It could just be simple things like Kylo Ren's lightsabre because J. J. wanted it to have a more unfinished appearance and for the whole of Kylo Ren to be this unfinished character who is on his path and not a fully-fledged villain yet. So he's got a lightsabre that has an almost broken quality and that was one of the good things about being involved on this film because J. J. invited us to come onto the film really early when the script was in its infancy and we got to come out to Pinewood studios to meet all the artists, get the design-scape of the film, and actually hold the props in our hands and get really inspired by the upcoming film.
Just holding Kylo Ren's lightsaber in your hand you could see that it has all this piping on the side and it looks like it could just explode in your hand because it's totally unsafe. Then also in the way that it was turned on, and this is great thing about it being a physical prop, the LED lights inside of the prop itself had this stuttering flicker like quality that was going to be reflected on the actors faces and the environment that it was in, so it wasn't completely a digital effect. So very early on we had a strong idea of what it was going to look like and J. J. would say things like he wanted the flames to be like an electrical arcing beast that would have the sound of a transformer when it was just idle.
So David Acord and Ben and even Gary Rydstrom all took passes on the lightsabre, so that J. J. could pick and choose from everything that was created. Basically what that one ended up being was taking some of the original sabre sounds that were created by Ben Burtt in the seventies and then altering them in a way that would enhance them with other sounds like electrical arcing. We also added some low frequencies because up until then the traditional sabre sounds had always had a mid- to high-range sound to them but we felt to add a bit more Darkside to the finished quality of the sabre we added some low frequencies that were actually sourced from David Acord's pet cat Porkchop. So it was his cat's purring and we used that to give the sabre the low creepy frequencies that we associated with what was happening with Kylo."
The Force Awakens was released theatrically in Dolby Atmos, what are your thoughts on these new immersive audio formats?
"It was fantastic and Atmos as a storytelling tool is able to place your audio in new ways that you couldn't before, like having top speakers is just one of the cool new things with Atmos. You can also bring things off the screen a little more and I know with the music there was a whole microphone tree that was used just to have the reverbs from the room at the top so it had a much more natural sound to John Williams' music. The fact that it's object-based as a technology is very exciting and now theatre owners can really trick out their movie theatres so that our object-based mix will translate into their room and the more speakers we have the better.
It was a great tool and we definitely used it as much as we could and not in a gimmicky way but just to have the sound be there and give it an emotional presence that will enhance the visuals on the screen. You don't want the sound to detract or take people's eyes off what they're looking at or actually have to give thought to what's happening in the sound, you really want it to be subliminal and do its job without drawing attention to itself. That's one of our key goals when it comes to any sound mix, regardless of whether it's in Atmos or not."
I know you have a long history with Lucasfilm, what was it like working on a Star Wars film without the involvement of George Lucas?
"It was very interesting, I finished Revenge of the Sith with George over ten years ago and I had done all the prequels and the re-mastering of Episodes IV, V and VI and then we went on and did The Clone Wars. That was only supposed to last a little while for me, just to get the crew going but then George Lucas stayed on himself with that show because he enjoyed working in that environment of animation so much that we ended up doing one hundred and twenty episodes of that series. I found that working with Dave Filoni the director on that show was great because he had such a passion for Star Wars and he was my generation and a fan of the original films.
That translated across when I started working with J. J. because it was the same thing and I had worked coincidentally with J. J. on his two Star Trek films and Super 8, so when he got the call to direct The Force Awakens it was a natural fit for a lot of our crew because we had spent so much time with George Lucas and Lucasfilm and now with J. J. and Bad Robot. It's just different now and it's actually quite exciting to see all these new directors and I'm currently working on Rogue One and Episode VIII at the moment. So to see Gareth Edwards and Rian Johnson so excited to be able to play in this giant toy box with Star Wars characters is fun and we get a chance to bring to them some of the ways that we had done things before and impart that information, which also feels good for me."
Lucasfilm has been expanding the scope of the Star Wars universe with stand-alone features and TV shows like Rebels, which is the most exciting for you personally?
"Well there are different levels of excitement. I like the stand-alone films because anything can happen and it's a new cast of characters placed in the Star Wars universe. I also like the epic scale of Episodes VII, VIII and IX, it's going to be fun watching this story arc as the new characters grow through the series of films. And then there's Rebels, which is such a passion project for Dave Filoni the director, he is so much fun to work with and that is also a proving ground for me to get new people involved in Star Wars. I've got a great mixer on that show, Bonnie Wild, who's helping me, who is actually a Brit and she's fantastic. You get to bring people in and watch them just love Star Wars and I tend to get the pick of the litter for a lot of the crews that I put together because everyone loves Star Wars so much. So Rebels is an entry point for me to bring new people into the bigger films as well."
One Final question Matt, given that you're a sound editor how did you end up being the voice of General Grevious?
"It's funny but I am an actor and I always enjoyed acting as a child, I did it all through my education and whenever I've had the chance I've done courses at theatres in San Fransisco. So voice acting was kind of the thing that I could do and still have my post-production sound job because it uses a lot of the same equipment that I used for sound design and any ADR work that I've got in my office. So voice acting became a natural fit and it works a different side of my brain, giving me instant gratification with character work where I can use my voice as my instrument. It's super exciting and it gives me a chance to be part of Star Wars.
So the General Grevious character came about because it was going to be a new character and George was looking for a particular sound. I just saw actor after actor come through during the audition process and they couldn't get exactly what George wanted and on the last batch of actors a colleague said why don't you put your's in there? We can do it under a pseudonym and see what happens. I had heard all of George's direction, so I kind of knew what he was looking for even if he wasn't exactly able to verbalise it, so I tried it.
There was a group of about twenty actors that went through and after I'd processed all the sounds and given them up to the picture department and George heard them, I got the call to say that they'd picked this guy and I looked on the list and the name wasn't on the list and I suddenly thought gosh that's me. So George had picked my voice and he was really cool about it and excited to give me an opportunity. So I gave it my best and it was fun for me to be able to act and then that opened up a lot of doors for me to become a regular cast member on The Clone Wars and I also did a bunch of voice work on The Force Awakens. It's a really fun job to do and I'm very grateful that I get a chance to participate in the Star Wars universe in that capacity as well."
Matt thank you so much and we can't wait to get hold of The Force Awakens on Blu-ray and listen to everything that you've created on our home cinema systems.
"My pleasure Steve and I can't wait either, people will be able to watch the Blu-ray and analyse it. You know we make these films as a theatrical experience and you want someone to have a great time watching it but we also know that people watch them a hundred times at home and we put things in there for them to discover. We have a rich soundtrack that we've spent an incredible amount of time on and there are a lot of sound effects easter eggs that we've put in there from the original Star Wars movies. We tried to get the involvement of voice actors from the original films, the prequels and The Clone Wars and put them in every nook and cranny of the soundtrack, so I hope people appreciate that because we certainly loved making the movie."
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