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Interview with Tom Johnson, Re-Recording Engineer, "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace"

Tom Johnson is the re-recording engineer on the science fiction adventure "Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace," directed by George Lucas, and produced by Lucas and Rick McCallum. It is produced by Lucasfilm, Ltd. and distributed by Twentieth Century Fox. Tom Johnson has earned Academy Awards for sound for his work on "Titanic" (1997), "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991) and was nominated for "Contact" (1997) and "Forrest Gump" (1994).

The film's soundtrack was mixed at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, CA, where Tom is currently working on "Liberty Heights" for director Barry Levinson.

Were you concerned about establishing a continuity with the previous 'Star Wars' movies?
We were very fortunate to benefit from the input of Ben Burtt, the Supervising Sound Editor/Sound Designer on 'The Phantom Menace.' He had worked on all the other 'Star Wars' films, and won an Academy Award for the first one. (Burtt also took home Oscars for "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.") Ben was responsible for the overall shape of the sound and gave us some very valuable insights as to how the sound effects could be used to help tell the story the way George Lucas wanted it.

What's it like working at Skywalker Sound?
It's fantastic working here, especially these days when we have all the new digital technology to play with. We have six mixing rooms of various sizes in the Technical Building at Skywalker Ranch. These days we have several different kinds of mixing consoles, both digital and analog. Right now I'm working on "Liberty Heights" for Barry Levinson.

There were actually three re-recording mixers on 'The Phantom Menace.' How did you work together?
In Northern California we work a bit differently than you would find in a media center like Los Angeles. It's more of a collaboration with no one person in overall command. But I'm sure George Lucas would consider Gary Rydstrom (seven-time Academy Award winner, most recently in 1998 for Sound and Sound Effects Editing on "Saving Private Ryan"), the effects mixer, as the head of our mixing crew. Shawn Murphy (Sound Oscar in 1993 for "Jurassic Park") handled the music while I mixed the dialogue.

We started around the beginning of February, and finished the final mix by the end of April. It was a pretty long ten-week schedule, but the whole process was planned out so well that none of us had to put in any overtime. Like many other aspects of "Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace," the audio post was given the time and facilities we needed to do our best work. It was fantastic to be able to come in fresh each morning and think about what you are doing.

Did 'The Phantom Menace' use any special sound format as the first 'Star Wars' release did?
"Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace" was released in the usual three theatrical sound formats: Dolby Digital, DTS and SDDS. But just as the original "Star Wars: Episode IV -- A New Hope" pioneered theatrical Surround Sound when it was released in 1977, this film is also being shown in the new Dolby Digital Surround EX format which Gary Rydstrom helped develop.

This new 6.1 format (six channels plus subwoofer) gives you a devoted-center surround channel so that the surround information is reproduced by the speakers at the back of the thetheater while additional information comes out of rear left/surround and right/surround speakers on the sides. The additional surround channel and new speaker configuration allowed us to create some interesting 'fly-over' and 'fly-around' effects -- especially during the Pod Race sequence -- that are smoother and more realistic since we can now place sound elements directly behind and beside the audience. Dolby Digital Surround EX reproduction technology is jointly owned by Lucasfilm THX and Dolby Digital.

How closely did you work with George Lucas when mixing the sound?
He was there all the time, going back and forth between us and ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) during the whole post process. George is a very hands-on director, and very easy to work with. We would rough in a reel and play it back for George who would then give us notes for improvements. He is a man with definite ideas, but also allowed us to let all the mixers and editors make our own creative contributions to the film.

It has been commented that one of the characters, the Gungan outcast JarJar Binks, is hard to understand. Did you do something special to affect his dialogue?
It was definitely intentional on George's part that the audience would have to listen closely to what Jar Jar Binks said. I remember that when audiences first saw Yoda in 'The Empire Strikes Back' they also struggled with his dialogue, but today everyone is imitating him. All we did with Jar Jar Binks is EQ his tracks as clearly as possible and let the stylistic language George wrote for him come through. Each of his sentences has only three or four English words, and the rest are supposed to be his native Gungan or some other gibberish. But we did nothing to additionally muddy his lines during the mixing.

Which was the most challenging scene in 'The Phantom Menace?'
The 'Pod Race' sequence was the most time consuming scene because it was all driven by audio, especially by the sound effects. This was a very exposed scene so we couldn't use music or dialogue to sculpture the pace so to keep it exciting we made a point of varying both the intensity and the volume of the effects. For example, by using the voices of the two-headed announcer commenting on the action we'd be able to justify pulling back the levels of the race itself to give us a contrasting energy level. That meant when we came back to the pods zooming through the canyons, we could drop to a lower feeling of intensity than when we saw them last, which gave us somewhere to build the audio mix from as the race progressed. Again, Ben Burtt was very helpful in this.

Which scene do you feel would have been most different if someone else was mixing the dialogue?
That's a hard one because a lot of our direction came from George Lucas or Ben Burtt. Since there is so much history behind the 'Star Wars' films, I don't think any other sound engineers at our console would have mixed the track very differently. But you can definitely appreciate how this film differs from other sci-fi adventures coming out these days. Many other films try to fill the soundtrack with every possible detail you can think of. You might hear distant footbeats or background characters talking to create deep, thick ambiences, but we wanted a more discreet feeling for the sound in "Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace." We wanted audiences to feel they were an intimate part of the 'The Phantom Menace' experience.

EditorsNet June 1999

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