SW Sound Re-design Part 1: The nostalgia of nostalgic films and nostalgic sounds

Understanding the nostalgia and childish playfulness of the Sound Design of Star Wars

The sound re-design of a scene of Star Wars requires the understanding of the aesthetic, cultural and technological implications involved. Hence, this first chapter will tackle the aesthetic concerns on the sound design of the original film. Subsequently, there will be an overview on the cultural issues involved, due to the popularity of the film. This way it should be easier to understand my re-design’s aesthetic aims and connotation. Finally, it will be underlined how nostalgic and ludic practices are characterising for Star Wars filmmaking. Therefore, it is argued that they had to be inevitable features of my re-design.

PART 1 The nostalgia of nostalgic films and nostalgic sounds

1.1 Understanding the film’s sound making practice

The issues of film sound design practices in Star Wars are not just relevant for historical understanding, but can also help to understand the nowadays aesthetic perception of film and film-sound. In fact, Star Wars had a historical impact in film and sound design aesthetics [Chion 2009, Sonnenschein 2001]. Indeed, it was revolutionary for the sci-fi genre, for the technological use and in narrative audio-visual aesthetics [Whittington 2007]. However, what I want to focus on is the figure of the sound designer Ben Burtt. George Lucas, director of the film, asked him to participate to the filmmaking from the very beginning to create sounds, which did not refer to those actually recorded during the set. Moreover, he was given the aim to explore new ways of making sounds, which would be aesthetically different from what audiences usually heard in films from the sci-fi genre of that time [Rinzler and Burtt 2010]. In fact, the film shows a new way of making sci-fi, which can be defined as hyper-realistic [Chion 2009]  and organic [Whittington 2007] . Hyper realism stands for the fact that characters and objects of the film have sound even when not necessary and even when they shouldn’t make any. Instead, Whittington’s [Whittington 2007] organic label refers to the fact that previous sci-fi films usually used sounds which would convey the idea of something unnatural and
alien. These sounds were usually produced with synthesizers, which could make sounds with gestures and timbres far from the usual, but were often perceived as excessive. The organic aesthetic, instead, would go in the other direction, by trying to make sounds, which could be unusual, but with a gestural character, which recalled sounds from the real world. In fact, nowadays sound designers and critiques still believe that such attitude to sound-sculpting better associates to visual gestures and live characters [Thom 2001]. Moreover, it gives a more unique identity to the sounds and to the overall film. However, I want to argue that recent literature and also my design show that this organic definition should be partially revisited.

1.2 Understanding the organic aesthetic of Star Wars

When Burtt chose to look for a new way of making sci-fi sounds, he analysed sound designs of past films. In particular, he states that he used as terms of comparison and of inspiration the sound designs of Forbidden Planet (Wilcox 1956), Planet of the apes (Scheffner 1968), King Kong (Creelman 1933) and THX 1138 (Lucas 1971). He actually felt the need to homage these films he loved since he was a child. In fact, they were one of the reasons he had decided to practice sound design in the first place [Rinzler and Burtt 2010, Milani et al 2012b]. In a few of those sci-fi films, sounds were produced with technological devices designed for musical purposes like synthesizers. In addition, these films often used sounds from sound-libraries, which have the effect of referencing other films of similar genre and of creating clichés. These can be perceived by the audience as banal, but, at the same time, as accommodating. This is something very important in the sci-fi genre, because an excess of sonic and visual information designed in an usual manner can make the audience disorientated, as they would understand very little of what was shown [Rinzler and Burtt 2010]. Burtt gave
much importance to this issue. In fact, Burtt used sound libraries and synthetic sounds. However, we must not take this a scandalous discovery. First of all because he used sounds from libraries to reference films people already knew. This way he was sure that the audience wouldn’t have felt too disorientated by an excess of novelty. Nonetheless, most importantly, Burtt used synthetic sounds, above all, to give sound to technological machines or robots like R2D2. Notwithstanding, the nature of sounds like those of R2D2 can be defined as organic since the timbre, pitch and dynamic envelop of such sounds was controlled by a voice filtered with an envelope follower [Rinzler and Burtt 2010]. This technique implies a performance practice. Thus, one should perceive not only the synthetic nature of such sounds, but also their performed character[Poepel 2005]. In addition, these sounds are pitch-biased and so suggest the listener to focus on how the pitch evolves [Eun-Sook 2010] . This implies that such sounds could contrast or blend with the musical soundtrack by John Williams. However, Burtt states that by having the control over the overall mix he could decide when to put forward the sound design, the soundtrack and, when possible, to blend them effectively [Rinzler and Burtt 2010]. This brings me to the choice of the scene I decided to re-design for the film, which depicts R2D2 walking down the Tatooine canyon and then being attacked by the Jawa people.

This scene does not have dialogue and, therefore, it does not require the performance of actor dialogues, except for the Jawa speech. Moreover, it does not have John Williams’s soundtrack. Interestingly, Burtt states that this scene was originally intended to have John William’s music, but that he convinced Lucas to remove it [Rinzler and Burtt 2010]. Hence, this scene is sonically composed only by sound effects, foley and manipulated speech. Moreover, this scene focuses on the character of R2D2 and shows how synthetic sounds can convey the psychological state of a robotic character and can convey dramatic tension [Eun-Sook 2010, Rinzler and Burtt 2010]. Furthermore, this scene does not have as many rich sound layers as other scenes in the film. Even more, it has a large variety of dynamics. Consequently, it shows how a sound designer can play with nuances and variations. In addition, it shows how sounds can achieve a musical connotation and be organised, using typically musical strategies. Fortunately, Burtt describes in detail how he made these sounds and he underlines how he actually experimented and “played” with the technologies and sounds available to him [Rinzler and Burtt 2010]  The verb “play” in the previous sentence refers simultanuously to the ludic, performative and musical connotation.  For example, in the chosen scene the pitch of the motors of R2D2 changes and is linked to the video cuts.

What we can deduce from this is that Lucas and Burtt didn’t use sounds only for their descriptive nature, but also for emotional suggestion and audio-visual phrasing [Chion 2009]  . Thus, I think any re-interpretation of Burtt’s work should take into account his use sound’s musicality, dramatic tension, nostalgia, referentialism, experimentalism and playfulness. To better understand the musical strategies used by Burtt, I created a score, which attributes to each sound typogy a symbol. Hence, the score shows how they are organised in terms of rhythm, layering and, in a few cases, of pitch.

Coming back to more generic aesthetic concerns, another important issue to take into account is that technological imprinting perception depends on the period of time when the film and sounds are experienced [Brown et al. 2003]. Hence, I believe that, nowadays, the organic aesthetic refers also to the fact that these sound have an historical liveliness. This is due to technological imprinting, performance and cultural popularity value, which sound quality and sound details carry inevitably with them [Williams 2012].

In Part 2, given these first aesthetic considerations, I will underline  the cultural value of Star Wars, which can be inferred from it’s many official and un-official re-designs and re-makes.


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