The hills are alive with the sounds of Skywalker

In advance of the Academy Awards, George Lucas' Skywalker Sound is hoping for Oscar recognition--and continuing to look for just the right footsteps and car door slams.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

NICASIO, Calif.--Search for sounds tagged with the word "funny" in Skywalker Sound's library of more than 120,000 effects, and you get precisely 510 results.

Among them are "animal cow," eight different forms of "human hiccup," six forms of "tuba comedy," and many, many more.

Skywalker Sound gallery

It's vital that the sound design and post-production arm of George Lucas' Lucasfilm empire has such a massive proprietary database of sounds. Its sound designers are tasked with coming up with just the right effects to create things like "rat (point of view)" for the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille.

What is "rat POV?" According to Randy Thom, Skywalker Sound's two-time Academy Award-winning director of sound design, that was the challenge he faced when creating the sound effects for one particular scene in Ratatouille. He was tasked with making it seem like the world is small and distant when the film's main rat, Remy, is on a shelf high above the floor of a Parisian restaurant. But when Remy falls to the floor, everything needs to sound larger than life.

If you've seen the film, you'd probably agree that Thom succeeded. But you would never know that to create that effect, it took him more than 200 separate sound effects, including footsteps, fire, voices, clattering pans, and much, much more.

This is the kind of work that goes on every day at Skywalker Sound, the main tenant of Skywalker Ranch, a sprawling estate hidden in the rolling hills of Marin County north of San Francisco. And while the recent completion of most of the films with December theatrical releases means it's slow season here, Skywalker Sound is also gearing up for Oscar campaign season, when the company makes its push to get Academy Award nominations for best sound and best sound effects editing for some of the films it worked on during the year.

This year, Skywalker Sound will be making that push for at least four films: Beowulf, Ratatouille, Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

For me, visiting Skywalker Ranch was the culmination of a longtime desire, and the bookend to my tour through Industrial Light & Magic during Oscar season last January when that branch of Lucasfilm was up for nominations for best visual effects for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, which it ultimately won.

And here I am, at Skywalker Ranch on a cold, cloudy, early-December day. It is extremely quiet here, and nothing at all like I had imagined. I drove in through the security gate, up a mile or so of road and finally parked in the lot behind the so-called "technical building" that houses Skywalker Sound.

The lot was packed with cars, but there was no sound. And it seemed entirely befitting of a location with its own lake (Lake Ewok), a horse paddock, miles and miles of rolling hills, and even a deserted softball diamond.

But where were the people?

I went into the building to meet my host for the day, and there they all were: musicians and sound mixers and others milling around inside during a break from the recording of the sound track for the Electronic Arts video game, Dead Space.

It turns out that Skywalker Sound is a place where the sound effects are produced not just for movies, but also for (obviously) games and even recording artists like Nelly Furtado, Third Eye Blind, and the String Cheese Incident.

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Video: Sounds of Skywalker
CNET News.com's
Kara Tsuboi listens
in at George Lucas'
sound design studio.

But today, I'm here to talk about mixing sound effects for films.

The bailiwick of Skywalker Sound, while it works on the sound design of Lucasfilm movies, is actually doing such work for dozens of other studios' films. Much like ILM, the company's main purpose is to be, effectively, a hired vendor of specialized services, in this case world-class sound design.

That's why the company has six state-of-the-art mixing studios, 80 sound designers, and that 120,000-file strong library of custom sound effects.

My first stop of the day is a quick tour of the ranch's main house, a giant Victorian mansion that looks like it was built in the 19th century, but is actually from 1985, and is made to look like the grand homes of Lucas' native Modesto, Calif.

The building, which I am led to believe houses Lucas' personal offices, is strangely devoid of Star Wars memorabilia, save for a single display case containing some models and the light sabers of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and others.

The display case also has such holy grails as Indiana Jones' whip and an idol and medallion from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The roots of Skywalker Sound
Then it was back to the technical building for a meeting with Glenn Kiser, Skywalker Sound's vice president and general manager. Kiser explained that Skywalker Sound was created in the 1970s to provide the effects for Star Wars.

"Imagine when George Lucas was thinking about doing Star Wars," Kiser said. "He didn't have the option to go to a sound effects library at a studio for (the effects) for Chewbacca (or) R2-D2. All that had to be created for the film."

And that was the birth of a world leader in sound design, a company that works on between 30 and 35 films a year, many of them independent productions.

But of course, the organization has steady clientele that bring all their films to Skywalker for sound design, such as Pixar and director Robert Zemeckis.

Besides its roster of field-leading sound designers and massive library of sound effects, Skywalker Sound's main assets are its mixing studios and its top-of-the-line digital film consoles, or mixing boards.

Sound designers like Tom Myers--who I visited with next--work in these studios, which seem to be blessed with far, far better speaker systems than most movie theaters I've been to. In these rooms, The designers toil away in solitude, adding sounds to film scenes, one at a time.

When I visited Myers, he was premixing a scene from the forthcoming Lionsgate release, The Eye, trying to find just the right sound effect for the slamming of a car door that was happening on film.

He explained that he generally gets about eight days to work on the sound for a 90-minute film. His key challenge when doing this kind of work, he said, is to produce a mix of effects that all sound good together, but that can be separated out in case a film's director wants to pull out individual pieces.

"You have to be careful not to paint yourself into a corner," Myers said.

He also said that his goal when looking through a film and thinking of the kinds of sounds that will lend emotional weight to the action on-screen is to do more than what's requested.

"You want to surprise them," Myers said of the films' directors, "and give them more than they asked for."

The right levels of reverb
So as he searches for the right car door sound effect, Myers is running through the choices from the effects library, looking for just the right sound to convey the tone of the scene. He listens to several effects, trying to locate just the right levels of reverb for the closing car door. He pointed out that the library contains five or six different effects for the closing of a Ford Escort passenger door.

And he must pick wisely, sounds that are "not just literally right, but emotionally right" for the film.

Among the things he must do to create that emotional verite, Myers explained, is to use sounds that "live below the dialogue, but (which) create a sense of tension." Some of those, he added, are vocal sounds, such as choking, though not necessarily those made by the actors in a scene.

Many such sounds may be in Skywalker Sound's library. But what if they're not there?

"When all else fails," Myers said, "you get a mike and choke and breathe into it."

One additional challenge, Myers explained, is that most films must be remixed when doing versions for foreign markets. That's because the dubbing of the dialogue results in a loss of many of the original sounds.

But what is the method for indexing the library, I wanted to know?

"When putting things into the library," Myers said, "you try to be as descriptive as possible. So it's not just a 'metal bang,' but a 'deep, resonant metal bang.'"

My last stop of the day is with Thom, the Academy Award-winning director of sound design.

He's talking about how he created a particularly intense flame sound used in a scene in which Remy, the rat star of Ratatouille, finds himself momentarily trapped under a professional restaurant oven and narrowly escapes being cooked alive by a massive wall of flame.

The truth, Thom said, is that it was a bit of a perilous process that involved working hands on with recording equipment and high-end ovens. And fire, of course.

"It was put together from lots and lots of sounds of turning on a gas oven, probably higher than you should," Thom said. "The person who's turning on the oven risks being singed."