Home / News & Analysis / How Skywalker Sound Delivers Advanced Auditory Magic

How Skywalker Sound Delivers Advanced Auditory Magic

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."

Josh Lowden, VP and General Manager, Skywalker Sound

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.

Skywalker Sound Stag theater

"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.

Skywalker Sound

"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."

Steve Boeddeker, sound designer and editor, Skywalker Sound

"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.

Related

"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.

Read more

Check Also

Microsoft’s Twitch rival Mixer gets a revamp, including new developer tools for interactive gameplay

Microsoft is celebrating the one-year anniversary of its game streaming service and Twitch competitor, Mixer, with a host of new features, including a refresh of the user experience and the launch of an expanded developer toolkit called MixPlay. The new streamer tools will roll out along with the revamped version of Mixer .com across desktop and mobile web, and will initially be available to Mixer Pro subscribers. The company claims the service saw more than 10 million monthly active users in December 2017 – a figure, we should point out, may be higher because of holiday sales and the accompanying bump in game downloads and playtime seen across platforms. However, Microsoft also says that the Mixer viewing audience has grown over four times since its launch, and the number of watched streams has grown more than five times. These are still not hard numbers, but third-party reports have put Mixer well behind Twitch’s sizable and still-growing lead in terms of both concurrent streamers and viewers. (Those reports aren’t 100% accurate either, though, because they can’t track Xbox viewership.) Microsoft says the updated Mixer.com rolls out beginning today, with a focus on making it easier for viewers to find the games and streamers they want to watch, as well as those broadcasting in creative communities. While Pro subscribers will gain access first, they’ll have to opt-in by visiting their Account Settings and turning the new look on manually. (To do so, select the “Site Version” dialog, then the “Feature/UI Refresh” option, Microsoft says.) The full refresh will arrive to all Mixer users later this summer. As part of the new experience, the company is also rolling out more tools for developers with the launch of MixPlay. As Microsoft explains, instead of just adding buttons below a stream, MixPlay lets developers build experiences on top of streams, in panels on the sides of the video, as widgets around the video, or as free-floating overlays – all of which can be designed to mimic the look-and-feel of the streamed content. Basically, this means the entire window is now a canvas, not just a portion of the stream itself. One example of what MixPlay can enable can be seen in April’s launch of Mixer’s “Share Controller” feature, which created a virtual Xbox controller that could be shared by anyone broadcasting from their Xbox One. This allowed gamers and viewers to play along in real-time from the web. In addition, MixPlay will enable other games that are only playable on Mixer where controls blend into the stream – like Mini Golf, which launched this month and now has 300,000 views, or Truck Stars, for example. Three new MixPlay-enabled games are launching today, as well, including Earthfall, which lets viewers interact with streamers or even change the game; Next Up Hero, where viewers can help a streamer by taking control or freeze the streamer at the worst possible moment, depending on their mood; and Late Shift, a choose-your-own-adventure crime thriller you control. These sorts of MixPlay experiences shift the idea of Mixer being just another game streaming service to one where viewers can actively participate by playing themselves, or at least guiding the action. That could also serve as a differentiator for Mixer as it tries to carve out a niche for itself in the battle with Twitch and YouTube Gaming. But MixPlay isn’t just for interactive experiences, Microsoft notes. It can also help developers build experiences that simply enhance streams with additional content, too, like a stats dashboard. Another update involves the Mixer Create app, which offers mobile support to streamers. Now, streamers can kick of a co-stream by clicking the co-stream button on their Mixer Create profile, then send out invites, among other things. This is live on Android in beta today, and will launch soon on iOS beta, with a full rollout in early June. In terms of perks, Microsoft is running an “anniversary” promotion offering $5 of Microsoft Store credit along with any Direct Purchase of $9.99 or more. A second promotion is giving away a free, 1-month channel subscription and up to 90 days of Mixer Pro to anyone who reaches Level 10 on their account between May 24th, 2018 at 12:00AM UST and May 28th, 2018 at 11:59PM PDT. The company additionally announced a new partnership with ESL on esports, which will bring over 15,000 hours of programming from top competitive games to Mixer, including Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends, and Dota 2. These tournaments will take advantage of Mixer’s FTL technology for “sub-second latency,” the company says. Other announcements around games and esports are mentioned in the Mixer blog post, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Disclaimer: Trading in bitcoins or other digital currencies carries a high level of risk and can result in the total loss of the invested capital. theonlinetech.org does not provide investment advice, but only reflects its own opinion. Please ensure that if you trade or invest in bitcoins or other digital currencies (for example, investing in cloud mining services) you fully understand the risks involved! Please also note that some external links are affiliate links.