Matthew Wood and David Acord brought the sounds in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to life. The two Academy Award-nominated sound effects editors had the job of making sure every bit of sound was in its proper place, as well as creating new soundscapes to make audiences feel immersed in the film.
The duo modulated Adam Driver's voice to create the sound of Kylo Ren and oversaw the dialogue of the Stormtroopers, amid dozens of other duties. But one of their most difficult tasks may have been giving the rolling ball-droid BB-8 a voice.
Wood walked us through the process over the phone, and it was unlike any that most movies would go through for this level of detail.
“BB-8 was obviously one of those early things that was going to be something very unique to the movies, so it was going to have a high level of interest to make sure it was going to be something really cool,” Wood says. “We need to differentiate this droid from R2-D2, because there's going to be a conversation between them later in the film, and we wanted them to sound very distinct.”
Attention to detail was so high that Wood and Acord were sent to Pinewood Studios in London in late 2013 and 2014 to have director J.J. Abrams explain the film to them so that they could get a feel for their work in context of the story. They were also introduced to the puppeteers behind BB-8.
“We tried to give them some samples early on,” Wood explains, “so J.J. himself could trigger BB-8 from the set, using a little tactile interface, actually playing the sound live instead of just having somebody saying beep-beep-beep on the set. That developed into something where [Abrams] liked the idea that he could use his fingers to trigger timbre and pitch on the interface. We used a little of that then and then he hired in actors.”
The actor Ben Schwartz, best known for his role on “Parks and Recreation,” came onto the set and performed lines written by Abrams as BB-8 so that the other actors would have something to play off of. “We used that as a guide,” Wood says. “We built more sound effects there [on set] and then J.J. kept enjoying that tactile interface.”
But then things took an unexpected turn. Wood explains: “At a certain point, we took the sound that was coming from the interface and played it through another actor's mouth, through a talk box, which is what Dave Acord came up with — playing the sounds out of the interface through a tube that goes into the mouth of the actor Bill Hader [of “Saturday Night Live” fame] ... [Hader] would then move his jaw and mouth —movements and openings of his mouth — to change the quality of the sound to give it more of a rounded feel.”
Wood and Acord explain that this is not typical of Hollywood productions, and they would know. Wood was previously nominated for an Oscar in the same category for “There Will be Blood” and “Wall-E.” And it's the inspiration of George Lucas and his lasting effect on Lucasfilm that brought the sound department, typically a post-production department, into the pre-production process.
“It was totally inspiring and gets you thinking about the movie really early on, and you can build on that,” Wood says. “I'm really grateful for that because I think it really shows, when you get to the end of the movie, you feel like you've definitely done your best and you've had a long time to get to where you need to be to make the movie sound the way does.”
And that's how BB-8 got his voice.