There are still seven weeks to go before the new Star Wars flick hits theatres, but already The Force Awakens is proving to be one of the most exciting movies in years. Trailers for the film have broken records. Demand for Star Wars-themed figurines and games have buoyed toy sales. And a surge of demand for presale tickets, which became available earlier in October, caused websites like Fandango to crash.
Naturally, there’s been a ton of interest in the behind the scenes work that has gone into making the movie, from casting of new characters to production in England’s Pinewood Studios to special effects by Lucasfilm’s own Industrial Light & Magic division. But one of the lesser-known elements of the this massive, multi-year-long production is the “sound design” that has taken place at the Disney-owned (DIS) studio’s Skywalker Sound, the group responsible for creating the aural effects in The Force Awakens—and many, many other films.
“We are the sound branch of Lucasfilm,” says Josh Lowden, head of the division. “We do all of postproduction sound, but the ranch is also set up as a creative community.”
“The ranch,” of course, is Skywalker Ranch, a sprawling property complete with a small bed and breakfast, vineyard and even a small gas station just north of San Francisco. It was built—and is still owned—by Lucasfilm founder George Lucas. (Long-time producer Kathleen Kennedy took over the company in 2012.) The original idea was for Skywalker Ranch to house all of Lucasfilm, but as the company expanded it set up shop across the Golden Gate Bridge, in San Francisco’s Presidio. Today, the Ranch houses Skywalker Sound and occasionally hosts groups that are collaborating on independent films. (Lucas still keeps his office on the grounds; Lucasfilm pays him rent.)
It is in this setting that sound “designers” and producers create the pulsating hum of a lightsaber and many other sound effects. The process is a mixture of real-life, organic effects (think sound designers tinkering with sand, pots and pans and many other materials to create noise) and high-tech sound mixing. Teams start working on projects like The Force Awakens and Jurassic World as early as possible in the moviemaking process—it has been done more or less this way since 1977’s Star Wars, the origins of Skywalker Sound.
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