| By Elif Cercel
of the supervising sound editors on "Phantom Menace," Matthew
Wood worked closely with sound design pioneer, Ben Burtt,
who developed a new approach to audio work on the original 'Star Wars.'
Wood began work on director George Lucas' project in 1997, fulfilling
what he describes as "a lifelong dream to create an ideal technological
system" for managing audio post-production. He was primarily involved
in facilitating the mixing, design and editing of sound through digital
technology. He also oversaw the development of a groundbreaking portable
ADR system which enabled the crew to travel around the world.
Wood first joined Lucasfilm
in 1990, where he contributed to the development of the Sound Droid
technology and went on to serve as supervising sound assistant on
the Emmy-winning television series, "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles."
During that time, Wood also worked with another prominent sound designer,
Christopher Boyes on such films as "Con Air," "Eraser" and "Volcano."
were your responsibilities on 'The Phantom Menace?'
They varied on this film because it was a pretty long schedule.
I started on the project in November '97 with Ben Burtt. The sound
crew consisted of Ben and myself, and we were working on the design
and temp track for the film. I gave a budget to Rick
McCallum, the producer, for a system that would fulfill
our needs for the show. Ben had never previously done a digital
show and had been busy with other non-sound-design projects since
Steven Spielberg's "Always." This was a good chance for me to use
what I had learned when I worked on "The Indiana Jones Chronicles,"
"Mission: Impossible," "Volcano" and "Con Air" to help get Ben up
to speed digitally. It was a wonderful match. Ben has been an incredible
mentor to me on this show. Learning from him artistically was a
real benefit, and he learned about digital technology from me.
We handled the temp track together. We provided two-channel Dolby
LTRT surround mixes to George [Lucas] in his screening room, from
system to his Avid.
George would have a pretty good idea of where we were heading artistically
with the soundtrack as he and Paul
Martin Smith, the picture editor, were cutting the film.
Because Ben had worked on the pre-visualization picture editorial,
he was familiar with the sequences' content and was able to translate
his earlier conceptualizations into sound design. I wanted to carry
the temp soundtrack all the way through to the final release of
the film so it wouldn't have to be redone. I made sure the entire
editorial staff would be on Protools so I could transfer the temp
sessions to them when they arrived to do final editorial. That way,
none of Ben's work would be lost.
else was on your team?
At first, in November '97 it was just Ben and myself. Tom Bellfort
came on in March '98 to organize some of the ADR spotting, as some
of the digital characters needed to be looped first in order to
be animated. I put together a portable ADR system. Instead of having
actors come to a looping studio, they could now be recorded into
a portable system. We figured we could go anywhere, so George said,
"How about the Bahamas?" We then went to a great studio in the Bahamas
called Compass Point. It was primarily a music studio that provided
a quiet location, and they had no facilities for looping whatsoever.
They were very accommodating, and we flew some actors out there,
into a pretty comfortable environment. I sent the looped material
via the Internet back to the Ranch so that the editors could get
to work on it immediately. After some quick editing, it was then
handed to the digital effects department at ILM for animation. The
fact that we were all on Protools systems and could exchange information
digitally made the whole process very efficient.
you describe the concept behind the sound design in the film?
Ben was the sound designer on the first three "Star Wars" films,
his original artistry is an integral part of the "Star Wars" experience.
He has worked with George for over twenty years, so they both know
what they like. He took the classic "Star Wars" sounds you know
and love, like the lasers, lightsabers, and space craft, and improved
upon them to add a completely new dimension. Ben has a very large
library. In the years that he hadn't been formally working on film
sound design, he was still recording and compiling original effects.
There were a lot of effects he created that no one had heard before
but which still have a "Star Wars" signature sound.
Ben used a Synclavier and something called a Kyma for sound design.
The Kyma is a DSP farm with a software interface that can export
files to Protools. Ben had a quarter-inch tape machine at his disposal
so all his previous work would be able to be integrated into the
digital system. He could pull material from any desired source.
The main effects sequences in the film are the Space/End Battle
and the Pod Race. Those were the biggest challenges. Whatever we
put together for the temp could always be used in the final, so
Ben was constantly improving on it until the sound effects editors
began their work.
When the sound effects editors, Chris Scarabosio and Terry Eckton,
came onto the show, in November '98, they put the effects in better
sync and conformed the sound to all the picture changes. The basic
concepts behind the sound design were started back in November of
'97 and were maintained all the way to the final mix.
you think of "Star Wars" you think of unique personalities, which
are often defined by the sounds they make. How challenging was it
giving these distinctive characters their personalities and telling
the story through them?
A lot of that comes from the actors themselves. For the character
sounds you have to start with a good organic recording, and the
actors bring their enthusiasm and ingenuity to that process. Robin
Gurland did some great casting, finding talent who could create
something completely original. With all the processing tools at
our disposal, and under George's guidance, we could build on the
organic recordings to make characters who had never been heard before.
In the effects realm, it was interesting just trying out different
ideas. For the Pod Race, each character's pod engine has a specific
sound. One of George's goals was to have each pod engine sound represent
the character driving it. It worked out really well, because each
distinctive engine sound adds another facet to the excitement of
Pod Race is one of the most fun scenes in the film. It is also a
very long and complex scene. Can you describe how that scene was
of the challenges was the fact that the shots were so quick. The
editorial style was very fast, so you don't really have a chance
to do an 'in and by and away.' We recorded a bunch of transitional
gear sounds because they are the only things that really stand out
in a quick shot.
There are so many elements in that sequence that blend seamlessly,
it's easy to forget how much effort actually went into it. We recorded
race cars, high-octane boat engines and helicopters. Ben took it
all, added to it and generally worked his magic.
interesting scene was the Battledroid/ Gungan battle scene. How
was the sound the Staps make created?
Even though there are many tools to synthesize with these days,
you have to start with a good base recording. That one was particularly
interesting. I think Ben used an electric razor and a frying pan,
and then worked with it digitally to create the final sound.
you actually involved in the recording?
I did some recording for the Pod Race out at the Willows Race Track
in Northern California. We also used some material I'd previously
gathered on other outings. Ben is the real creative force in design,
and his work is the architecture around which the whole soundtrack
what aspect of the film did you have the most creative input?
My goal was to revolutionize the process in which sound post production
takes place. I got to start on the project pretty early on and wanted
to make sure everything would flow nicely when we got into the thick
of editorial. I had been on some shows previously, working in L.A.
or up North, where we had over forty sound editors working. The
creativity was completely fragmented and no one felt like they were
part of a team. I wanted to do Star Wars with a smaller crew over
a longer period of time and have people feel like they were really
part of the creative process. One of the ways of doing that was
to make sure the editing systems we were using were all the same
so we could pool our resources and assistant editors could work
in all the various sound departments. I worked with each department
- foley, effects, dialogue, music, ADR recording, sound effects
recording - and of course with Ben. That's the way Ben operates,
too - he's involved with everyone, and it almost becomes an educational
environment. Everyone learns a lot about all the different departments.
In addition to putting the systems in place that we were going to
use for the show, I was also very much involved in the ADR recording.
With the new portable system, I basically recorded about 80% of
the dialog in various locations around the world.
did you travel?
We did some casting in L.A. at Fox Studios, and a lot of work in
London at Abbey Road Studios and some at Mag Masters. We also worked
in the Bahamas. The last recording session in London was at a software
designer's house in Hampstead. We outfitted the living and bedrooms
to be soundproof, and I put a video tie-in between my control room
-- which was a living room -- and where the actor was -- which was
the bedroom. Technically, the recording quality was excellent, and
the actors and crew loved the casual feeling. It was low-stress,
we had a caterer on hand, and the comfort really helped the actors
be able to get into their roles. It wasn't a studio environment,
which is more sterile.
what extent did you work with the language that Jar Jar and the
other Gungans spoke?
Because Jar Jar is a completely organic voice, it wasn't processed,
so I didn't have much to do with it other than recording. Ahmed
Best, the actor who plays Jar Jar, is so talented that his performance
didn't need any post-production enhancement.
there a difference in the way you approached the animated characters,
and the live-action?
All the animated characters were looped first. With animated characters,
you can always change the dialog until the last minute. One of the
last characters we were looping was the two-headed Pod Race announcer,
because we were honing and perfecting him. That's another reason
to all beon one system; we were able to take dub information into
our editing systems and work on it immediately. Because of this,
the time delay between a picture change and a sound change was fairly
small. Due to the fact that the film contains many visual effects,
things could change here and there. A spaceship could be added in
the background or a character could be moved to a different place
or say a different thing. Our equipment and pre-planning gave us
the luxury of dealing with these changes very efficiently.
you describe the networking technology that exists between all the
various teams you coordinated?
At the Ranch, they were cutting on Avid machines in the picture
department, which can import our SoundDesigner II formatted files
from Protools. We could exchange files back and forth pretty easily.
I could get the most current cut of the film's guide track sent
to me digitally, and then send them our current temp mix of the
film digitally. If we had some lines added or cut, I could easily
digitally transfer files over the Ethernet network to Paul Martin
Smith in his editing room in another building.
One thing that was a bit discouraging was that, although the same
company, Avid, owns both DigiDesign and the Avid picture editing
machine, there needs to be more development in the way those systems
talk to one another. There were a few hurdles we had to overcome
because of this. The OMF interchange didn't exactly work right,
so we had to invent our own creative ways to get around that with
EDL tools and CMX lists. There needs to be more development and
cooperation in that area between Avid and DigiDesign.
One amazing timesaver was the fact that we were all on the Macintosh
platform. With Windows, there is not enough third-party development
to make usage of the platform worthwhile, and configuration is unstable
and often unpredictable. The Macintosh has so many different ways
to do things and so many outside tools at its disposal that the
process was much more straightforward. I sincerely hope this continues
to be the case, as the Mac was an indispensable tool in ensuring
efficient post production.
you foresee being part of the next prequel?
I would like to be. It seems like it will be an exciting time and
I always love to tackle a new challenge. George is planning on shooting
it digitally, without celluloid.
do you think that would affect your work?
It would affect how production sound is recorded, the interface
between sound and picture editorial, and storage requirements, for
a start. I would certainly build on the experience I've had on this
film, creating efficient, involved teams of people working with
the best of the old and new technology. George's enthusiasm for
blending art and science, and his willingness to continually allow
his crew to excel and break new ground is what makes my work so
EditorsNet June 1999