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Interview with Matt Wood, Supervising Sound Editor, 'The Phantom Menace'
By Elif Cercel

As one 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."

What 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 our Protools 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.

Who 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.

Can you describe the concept behind the sound design in the film?
Because 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.

When 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 the race.

The 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 designed?
One 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.

Another 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.

Were 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 is built.

In 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.

Where 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.

To 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.

Was 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.

Can 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.

Do 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.

How 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 enjoyable.

EditorsNet June 1999

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