THE SOUNDS OF STAR WARS
By J.W. Rinzler
Foreword by Ben Burtt
Foreword by Ben Burtt
Published by SIMON & SCHUSTER
Reviewed by Scott Weller
Years ago, Steven Spielberg stated in a BBC TV interview that when watching a first cut of a film without music it was “dead”. I think that he also meant the same things with regards to a film without any sound design. And when it comes to the sound design for STAR WARS, then the relationship that has to be established between the two states has never been more important, having to work symbiotically to convey the sense of a galaxy far, far away to audiences. From the first films original release in the breakthrough DOLBY STEREO in May 1977 to the release of the final film in 2007, and beyond, these films have been both pioneering and iconic in the way we have heard them. And its all thanks to their equally legendary Sound Designer, Ben Burtt, that we, now, as modern audiences, take the way we listen to a film or television shows soundtrack to a more serious level, appreciating how its complexity and atmosphere can add much to our enjoyment in enhancing the unfolding drama, in a state of accelerated development now going beyond its use in cinemas and entering the confines of our own home cinema sound systems. No longer restricted to the old Mono systems of our youths, modern entertainment requirements both respect and demand great sound!
And as for STAR WARS, can you imagine that incredible universe without the mighty overhead rumbles and laser blasts of the descending Imperial Star Destroyer as it fires down on its Rebel Blockade Runner prey? Or the twang, twang blasts from Imperial Stormtrooper guns, the emotionally attuned baby-like bleep bleep bleeps of Astro Droid Artoo Detoo, the growls and emotionally resonant mumbles from Chewbacca the Wookiee, or the distinctive quietly powerful hum and slashing movements of the lightsabers as they spring into action? And what about those exciting sounds of the X-wing fighters as they blast down to the Death Star surface.
|Ben Burtt in his original sound design basement room at George Lucas's Park Way, for the original STAR WARS.|
Ben Burtt’s incredible contributions to all six STAR WARS movies haven’t just been linked to sound, either. He’s also worked on the films in numerous positions for LUCASFILM over thirty odd years, from his main job he would in early days assist ILM’s various departments and finding computer graphics artists, then to effects photographer and second unit director, and evolve from being a writer to an editor, and pretty much one of the few people around throughout the sagas genesis and production inception from 1975, so his knowledge of their making, and all the amazing stories and anecdotes he’s been a part of, are not only invaluable but many of them have also never been told to the fans, especially in relation to the important development of his own unique audio creations.
Now, THE SOUNDS OF STAR WARS, written by J.W. Rinzler, finally tells that deserved to be told story, chronicling not only Burtt and STAR WARS, but the things before, between and beyond it that have influenced his love and work within the sound industry. It’s an ambitious, nicely written, informative, and almost definitive work on the subject. Rinzler’s continued eloquent prose nicely accompanies Burtt’s reminisces, the pair successfully telling the story of how the legendary sounds came together for a landmark book in which STAR WARS fans of all ages can now enjoy and fully immerse themselves into Burtt’s unique sound creations- via some unique accompanying technology- any time and anywhere they want to.
|In Los Angeles, recording potential blaster twangs.|
Starting off with a nice little family history of Burtt and how sound and sound design became an integral part of his life, we then see the genesis of his own desires in creating sound design geared towards a more organic and believable nature, mixing the familiar with the not so familiar. In those important formative years he talks about the sounds he liked to listen to in his favourite movies and pays special nostalgic tributes to those amazing sound designers of yesteryear and the classic films they worked on that would inspire him. The book follows his love of the medium to the point where he decides to pursue it at USC, and then the breakthrough: starting work for George Lucas on a little film then called THE STAR WARS, as Burtt tells of the build up of tension, anxiety and excitement in the wake of its making and release, linked with further great mentions of other classic sound men working in the industry as he was starting out (like acclaimed film-maker Walter Murch) or following in his footsteps, like the sterling sound entrepreneurs that are David Accord and Matthew Wood, who are now continuing his Burtt’s tradition and maintaining his unique universe of sound continuity with THE CLONE WARS TV series.
Wonderfully nostalgic in places, Burtt’s love of movies, science fiction, and action adventure in and out of STAR WARS is clear to see. The camaraderie and team spirit working in post production on STAR WARS continues, which was then very much “X-the unknown” with regards to whether the film and its numerous ingredients would be a success and strike a chord with audiences, and whose quick success no one truly predicted, though Burtt recalls being enthused with what continuing footage he was seeing and adding sounds to.
From that early first work on the sounds of the lovable Wookiee Chewbacca in 1975 onwards, the challenges and often great difficulties of creating a unique and distinctive sound mix on the original film is well documented here, like Burtt’s clashes with the film’s experienced sound mixer Stan Shaw and his equally veteran team to not use stock sound effects used in other films and TV programmes. To create something totally unique but accessible for the film without being too distracting rather than using existing old sounds that would take the viewer completely out of the fresh cinematic experience.
|Two of the interior spreads for the new book.|
Then, with the sequels, beginning with 1980’s THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, the inevitable and unenviable challenge of living up to the expectations of the first film and deliver the goods each time, not just with the Classic Trilogy but with the Prequels, which eventually arrived from 1999 onwards, comes to the forefront. And it’s not just the challenge of the advancing expectations of the films and how to top them, either. There’s also the ever evolving and improving technology itself (presented in fine detail for all budding sound designers and editors to find out about), which was being used to record the sounds, which often provided their own challenges and complexities.
As we follow the greatest assembly of STAR WARS sounds ever in one publication, we can hear how the use of old and new in an organically recognizable but still fantasy environment, has been achieved in a meticulous and thoughtful way by its originator, of which more than one element has often been uniquely combined, and often from the most unexpected and also unlikely of sources, which ultimately prove perfect when used in the films. It’s a pot pourri that readers of all ages will enjoy hearing, Many hundreds of classic sounds from the films and animated series are included, intriguingly not all of which made it into the finished movies or in their full durations (loved Bossk’s talking!), including some variations on classic sounds, and others that didn’t make the final film cuts, mostly collected from the original recorded sources but some from archived time coded DVD copies for the best quality possible.
Delving into the books unique but easy to use sound play system, it must have been so much fun for Burtt to work from scratch in building the important background environment noises to alien worlds, with evocative locations like the swamp world of Dagobah or the Forest Moon of Endor, as well as the voices of the many languages from creatures like Jabba the Hutt, Greedo and others.
|Burtt adds the sounds to the classic lightsaber duel from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.|
And, as well as ancillary, but equally important, sounds linked to the backgrounds of scenes, there’s also the great sounds rarely heard in the films, like Vader’s damaged TIE fighter from STAR WARS, with its dorsal fins and engines spinning out of control, plus intriguing creations like EMPIRE’s Imperial Probots. There’s also some of my favourite sound effects, old and new, large and small, from the saga within the books pages, including the Emperors death scream, Nien Nunb talking, and the lightsaber deflection (all three from JEDI) and subtle but funny little things like Jabba the Hutt at the Pod Race flicking over a poor little Nuna bug (from THE PHANTOM MENACE)!
And let's not forget the Mynocks, Walkers, Emperor’s hologram, firing Snowspeeder tow cables and things like that-even Boba Fett’s cowboy inspired spurs!-which add to the fun completism. And, hoorah, Burtt gets some mentions in to the Lucas derided HOLIDAY SPECIAL, the STAR WARS SPECIAL EDITION releases from 1997, plus a detailed feature on the famous Wilhelm scream –its origins and its appearances in all six STAR WARS films!
Naturally, this book is about sound rather than hearing the actors voices saying classic dialogue (you can go on to STAR WARS.COM to hear all that), but its still nice to hear the occasional actors voice in the book complimenting the sound design, like Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill (screaming the now classic: “That’s not true. That’s impossible!”), Peter Cushing or Sir Alec Guinness, though there’s intriguingly very little of that with the Prequel Trilogy sections, which is a bit of a shame. The only actors voice track sound related that I would liked to have heard which isn’t in the book is Princess Leia’s full hologram speech/plea- it would have been fun to have had one of Carrie Fisher’s original and numerous dialogue takes included.
|On set at Elstree, Burtt gives the Ewok actors a listen of what the creatures voices will sound like.|
One of the best sections of the book is related to the sound design during the making of RETURN OF THE JEDI. As we have not yet had the hopefully to be third book on the making of the film from Rinzler (keep on buying those copies of the MAKING OF EMPIRE, guys and gals!), there’s some excellent behind the scene information in there, linked to the studio filming and sound design, that I wasn’t previously aware of (and that Luke in the cave deleted sequence, seen at CELEBRATION V for the Blu-ray release, is also talked about. Prepare for further fan controversy!). There’s also other fascinating and intriguing bits of behind the scenes history scattered throughout that I wasn’t previously aware of, either (like how EPISODE III’s classic ORDER 66 sequence was originally planned as part of the finale of EPISODE II, with the Geonosian Arena and Jango Fett helping to initiate it), which is great to discover.
As Classic makes way to Prequel, the sounds are a bit sparser in their selection, and there’s hardly any character dialogue for them at all which is a bit of a shame, but there’s still some memorable elements in there to be enjoyed, like the classic sound section devoted to the ingenious seismic charges during the Obi-Wan/Jango Fett asteroid chase.
There’s also Burtt’s pioneering work beyond STAR WARS, too, like the Indiana Jones films, and, as a fan of STAR TREK since the early days, his sterling work combining much loved hybrid old and new sound designs for its latest re-imagining from director JJ Abrams. And, as he previously did with Artoo Detoo, how could we forget his work in providing the adorable noises and sounds to everyone’s favourite lone cleaning robot, WALL-E.
Backed up with some great rare colour and black and white imagery from all the films, some of it presumably unused material that couldn’t be crammed in to Rinzler’s first two making of books on the Classic Trilogy, its amazing to me that a project of this kind has never been done before. There have previously been a few dalliances in sounds, especially with toys, over the years, but not a proper book on the subject. Perhaps the costs and quality control are now just about right to do a project of this type in the publishing world.
With the STAR WARS sound design torch now passed onto his successors, Burtt has been deservedly a much in demand freelance within the movie industry. Fortunately, though, his new career hasn’t stopped him from taking on future LUCASFILM assignments beyond the adventures of Luke Skywalker and co. New sound horizons loom as Burtt re-teams with Lucas for the upcoming World War II movie RED TAILS, the famous true story of the Tuskagee airmen, of which we’re sure that sounds old and new will be used with the same kind of enthusiasm and dedication from Burtt that we have always expected and greatly appreciated. In the meantime, however, as we await his new accomplishments, THE SOUNDS OF STAR WARS is a fine tribute to his work, and, in a year of amazing new STAR WARS book release, this is yet another must have book for your shelves.
AFICIONADO RATING: With nearly thirty years worth of stories in the film industry and for Lucasfilm and STAR WARS, this book is a veritable gold mine of information for not only STAR WARS fans but people who are interested in the phenomenon and experience of sound and sound design full stop. It’s also just a lot of fun to hear the superb sound effects. 9 out of 10
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