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.


"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

Nvidia’s new Turing architecture is all about real-time ray tracing and AI

In recent days, word about Nvidia’s new Turing architecture started leaking out of the Santa Clara-based company’s headquarters. So it didn’t come as a major surprise that the company today announced during its Siggraph keynote the launch of this new architecture and three new pro-oriented workstation graphics cards in its Quadro family. Nvidia describes the new Turing architecture as “the greatest leap since the invention of the CUDA GPU in 2006.” That’s a high bar to clear, but there may be a kernel of truth here. These new Quadro RTx chips are the first to feature the company’s new RT Cores. “RT” here stands for ray tracing, a rendering method that basically traces the path of light as it interacts with the objects in a scene. This technique has been around for a very long time (remember POV-Ray on the Amiga?). Traditionally, though, it was always very computationally intensive, though the results tend to look far more realistic. In recent years, ray tracing got a new boost thanks to faster GPUs and support from the likes of Microsoft, which recently added ray tracing support to DirectX. “Hybrid rendering will change the industry, opening up amazing possibilities that enhance our lives with more beautiful designs, richer entertainment and more interactive experiences,” said Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang. “The arrival of real-time ray tracing is the Holy Grail of our industry.” The new RT cores can accelerate ray tracing by up to 25 times compared to Nvidia’s Pascal architecture, and Nvidia claims 10 GigaRays a second for the maximum performance. Unsurprisingly, the three new Turing-based Quadro GPUs will also feature the company’s AI-centric Tensor Cores, as well as 4,608 CUDA cores that can deliver up to 16 trillion floating point operations in parallel with 16 trillion integer operations per second. The chips feature GDDR6 memory to expedite things, and support Nvidia’s NVLink technology to scale up memory capacity to up to 96GB and 100GB/s of bandwidth. The AI part here is more important than it may seem at first. With NGX, Nvidia today also launched a new platform that aims to bring AI into the graphics pipelines. “NGX technology brings capabilities such as taking a standard camera feed and creating super slow motion like you’d get from a $100,000+ specialized camera,” the company explains, and also notes that filmmakers could use this technology to easily remove wires from photographs or replace missing pixels with the right background. On the software side, Nvidia also today announced that it is open sourcing its Material Definition Language (MDL). Companies ranging from Adobe (for Dimension CC) to Pixar, Siemens, Black Magic, Weta Digital, Epic Games and Autodesk have already signed up to support the new Turing architecture. All of this power comes at a price, of course. The new Quadro RTX line starts at $2,300 for a 16GB version, while stepping up to 24GB will set you back $6,300. Double that memory to 48GB and Nvidia expects that you’ll pay about $10,000 for this high-end card.

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.