George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch is a truly idyllic place. Forty minutes into leafy Marin County, over San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, past Lake Ewok, take a left at the sign for the Tech Building. There, you'll find the 153,000-square-foot Skywalker Sound, Lucasfilm's Academy Award-winning sound design, mixing, and audio post-production facility.
As part of a recent media event for Skywalker Sound partner Dolby Laboratories, PCMag snagged a tour of Skywalker's scoring stage, a peek into one of the numerous sound design suites, and a briefing from Josh Lowden, VP and General Manager, and Steve Boeddeker, sound designer and editor.
"The sound in Star Wars was ground-breaking," Lowden says. "And that's emblematic of what we [still] do [today]. We try to get involved as early as possible with the filmmakers to ensure the sound is integral to the storytelling process. This scoring stage is our one live recording space, the rest of them are re-recording stages. It's 60-by-80 feet; the composer is watching the movie, more on a monitor than the big screen these days, and we can fit a full orchestra in here."
Skywalker Sound is not focused solely on Lucasfilm projects. "We're a work-for-hire facility," Lowden says. "And not just for features; we do commercials and, if you've opened up your laptop, or started your electric car, there's a good chance you've heard a sound we've made.
"Having said that, the bulk of our work is theatrical—probably 30 to 40 studio features a year for studios such as Disney, Fox, Warner Bros., Universal, and Sony. And we're doing an increasing number of independent films too, perhaps 50 to 60 a year now. We probably have 200 projects a year and just under 200 people on staff at Skywalker Sound. It's a small but industrious group."
Next stop was the beautiful 300-seat Stag Theater, an art deco gem, where Lowden explains how Skywalker Sound is involved at every stage of the production process.
"We [handle] all the different facets of the sound design, starting with the production dialogue, recorded on set," he says. "We try to save as much as possible of that—sets are loud places—because that's the performance that the actors give that the director will want to preserve.
"The effects are next, door slams and so on. Then the Foley stage for sounds like footsteps and finally ADR [additional dialogue recording]. Then we put everything together, with the music, and have to mix it; thousands and thousands of individual sounds that we have to make sense of in the end."
We were then joined by Steve Boeddeker to get the AV perspective. Boeddeker ran clips from Creed that isolated each layer of sound, showing the breadth of effects, from punches to crowds cheering, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) coaching his protege through half-time blood clean-up, and the awful thump as Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) hits the mat.
"Sound design occupies this bizarre no-man's land between music and effects," Boeddeker points out, "We know how music has this amazing backdoor into our emotions to tell us how to feel. Sound design can do that same thing, but in a way you're absolutely unaware of."
Boeddeker joined Skywalker Sound in 1995 and, in addition to Creed, also worked on Bridge of Spies and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. His current project is Marvel's Black Panther, but he sadly did not have any exclusive clips to show us.
"We're fortunate, with sound design, in that people want to believe in what you're showing them," Boeddeker tells us. "I worked on Tron, and when the light bikes were forming, one of the sound elements [we created] was just the flipping of a deck of cards. It sounded so high-tech, but that's what it was, and it worked."
"Creature vocals are always a challenge," Lowden adds. "They're so well-defined in terms of what an audience expects. I mean, no one knows what a Tyrannosaurus Rex sounds like, but it's been defined theatrically over many years, so you have to stay within certain parameters. But you also can't sound like every other movie that's had a creature in it. You can make something really cool that sounds like something else, and it's reductive, so you have to start again. But when you start on a project the director will say, 'Make it cool, make it big, but don't make it sound like anything we've ever heard before!' Er, okay."
"Oh, that's my favorite. No sound ANYONE has EVER heard. So, if I made it, and I heard it, can I not use it?" Boeddeker says, eliciting a chuckle from Lowden.
Before we leave the preview theater, PCMag asks both men, who must have highly developed sonic sensibilities, if they spend their lives inside white noise headphones when not at work.
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"Actually, everyone at Skywalker Sound travels with recording devices," Lowden says. "Especially when they go on vacation, so they can record new sounds." The brand of choice for Skywalker Sound people is "probably the Zoom recorders because they're so small," he says.
Boeddeker, meanwhile, wears earplugs to sleep, "but more because I'm so attuned to sounds. I'll hear a siren three blocks away, and I'll wonder 'How many milliseconds is the echo coming off of that?' and the next thought is 'Argh! Go back to sleep!' so that's why I wear them."
I had just a few minutes to snap photos of Lake Ewok. No roaming mammalian bipeds, Luke Skywalker, or even a thoughtful statue of Yoda in repose. But it was noticeably silent throughout the entire 4,700 acres. It would be hard to create audio magic in the noisy city across the Bay, so you can see why George Lucas thought this place would be perfect for those with auditory gifts.