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Author J.W. Rinzler on The Sounds of Star Wars

By Clive Young. Lucasfilm recently released a book of note for audio enthusiasts—The Sounds of Star Wars, covering the development of sounds known the world over, from the bleeps of R2-D2 to the ominous breathing of Darth Vader. Mainstream tomes like this don’t turn up every day, even for cultural landmarks like Star Wars, so we sat down with author J.W. Rinzler to go behind the scenes of his behind-the-scenes book.

Since joining Lucasfilm in 2001 as its in-house non-fiction editor, J.W. Rinzler has made a name for himself penning ornate, coffee table books on films in the studio’s canon, including Star Wars and the Indiana Jones pictures. This fall, however, saw the author release a book of particular note for audio enthusiasts: The Sounds of Star Wars (reviewed here). A fascinating tome, complete with a built-in audio player that offers up more than 250 audio clips from across the six films, the book covers the development of sounds known the world over, from the bleeps of R2-D2 to the ominous breathing of Darth Vader, all the while focusing on the technology and ingenuity behind them. Mainstream books like this don’t turn up every day, even for cultural landmarks like Star Wars, so we sat down with Rinzler to go behind the scenes of his behind-the-scenes book.

PSN: A book of this scale must have been quite an undertaking—how did it come about?

RINZLER: Becker and Mayer is the book packager, one of the licensees we’ve worked with several times in the past. They did The Lost Journal of Indiana Jones and did The Jedi Path with them and a few other books. They said, “We’ve done this Bird Songs book and the technology is good enough to do a book on the sounds of Star Wars.”

We were kind of skeptical at first, but I went and talked with [Star Wars’ sound designer] Ben Burtt and he was skeptical as well, saying “You know, bird songs are very high pitched, so it’s easy to do with this kind of technology, but let’s give them some really low sounds like the Star Destroyer rumble and so on, and see how they do.” But they put it through their process and it sounded pretty good. Ben was impressed and he asked that they put in a headphone jack and they said they would do their best—and they really did. That process went all throughout the book; they had to jump through a lot of hoops with all sorts of people to get that approved.

So basically it was their idea, and how it took form was a combination of Becker and Mayer, me, and working with Ben.

PSN: How long ago was that—a year or two?

RINZLER: The book was done pretty quickly. It was probably a year and a half before the book actually came out, but it was definitely a crash-schedule kind of book where I had to write it [by a certain deadline]. It would not have been able to come together without Ben having what I call a perfect total recall for all these stories; he didn’t have to look up very much. I did research and got as much as I could just from his previous interviews, and then I spent all day with him at his house just playing him sounds and saying, “First of all, are you sure this is the right sound for this?”—because sometimes we didn’t know. And then I’d just ask him, “well, how did you create this sound?” and he just would come up with story after story after story of how he did it—and in remarkable detail. I think it’s because these sounds are such an important part of his life that really they’re seared into his memory. That, obviously, is the basis for the book.

PSN: In the book, it mentions that he started the first film using a homemade card catalog system to keep track of his sounds. Did you have access to those sorts of things?

RINZLER: It was really based on his memory. I did go into our own film archive and I dug up a few things that we scanned and used as images, but there really wasn’t a lot of information in there—I think it’s mostly in Ben’s head.

PSN: So you really captured some oral history. One of the things that came across in the book was that it sounds like there’s a fair amount of sharing of sounds within that culture of sound designers such as his getting his hands on the Wilhelm Scream or the sounds of Endor being used later on the TV show, Lost. Is that part of the culture of sound design where people are sharing the sounds or was that kind of unusual?

RINZLER: I think it is part of the culture. I also think it’s just one of those weird things where sounds are not copyrighted. I expect it’s bad sportsmanship or whatever to take a sound from one film and stick it directly into another, although clearly within studios, they would do that because the studio owned their sound library. Sometimes if one sound designer gets inspired by another sound designer, they do little homages, and so on. But Ben did mention it as kind of a weird gray area within sound design that they’re not really copyrighted. [Lucasfilm officials later stated to PSN that the company has copyrighted its sounds]

PSN: Coming to a project like this without necessarily a background in sound, did you find that was a drawback or a help? I imagine it might allow you to better describe some of the material in layman’s terms if you don’t necessarily have the technical vocabulary.

RINZLER: Well, I was certainly in over my head with some of the technical! I don’t know anything about sine waves and I had to look up quite a few terms that he was using or ask him for clarification: “Say, how would you describe this to somebody who doesn’t understand this at all—such as myself?”

I guess the advantage I have doing so many of these books is that my emphasis is always on entertainment pertaining to the reader. I’m willing to take a chance on some things if I think it’s important for film history—I’ll put it in because I don’t care whether that’s interesting or not, that has to be in there. But most of the time I’m asking myself, “Is this going to be fun to read?”

PSN: Some of these sounds are certainly so ingrained into the public consciousness, say the sounds of Darth Vader breathing, that sort of thing. Were you surprised at any point discovering what some of these sounds really were?

RINZLER: I think I was pretty much constantly surprised. I interviewed Ben for The Making of Episode 3 and Making of Star Wars, so I knew the process he’d gone through, but still it was just so entertaining to hear how the Rancor was actually this crazy dachshund from next door who bit off part of the owner’s face at one point.

I was really interested to hear about Ben’s family, too, how his grandfather was interested in bird sounds and had a radio show and Ben recorded his grandfather’s ham radio equipment. He made an 8-minute loop of the radio and it went on to be the basis for so many sounds in Star Wars, so it was really interesting to see how personal the process was. He’d go on a family field trip to the Poconos and come up with the sound for a blaster, or take a ride on the subway and end up with a sound for all the Death Star doors. I was always surprised by what Ben was saying.

PSN: I can well imagine. Okay, so certainly it’s well known that the special effects in the films have been changed or altered in places over the years; were there any cases where some of the sounds changed?

RINZLER: Some of them, yeah. First of all, I think they needed to improve the sounds at certain points to meet modern expectations. That goes into a technical side where I’m not really qualified to speak to that, but I know they basically had to improve them technically without actually changing them. There were also some they did change—at least one is the Obi Wan cry which is talked about at the end of the book [the sound Obi-Wan Kenobi makes to scare off Sandpeople when he first meets Luke Skywalker]. George [Lucas] never really liked that and I don’t think Ben liked it either because they put it in at the last second and it was some kind of dinosaur cry. George felt like it didn’t sound like it was coming from a human, so they changed that one a couple of times.

The other one that Ben mentions is that they had to upgrade the sound of the Star Destroyer in A New Hope when it came out in the Special Edition [1997 re-release], because everybody imagined it having this huge roar when it came on the screen—and in fact their imaginations were playing tricks on them. They realized that people were going to have that expectation when they went back to the cinema 20 years later, so they amped that up a bit. There were a couple other things they made better, like the sound of the X Wings’ foils opening. But we’re talking maybe less than 1 percent of the thousands of sounds that went in there.

PSN: Speaking of changes: The Sounds of Star Wars book is absolutely huge, but with every book, there’s bound to be material that has to be cut. Were there any favorite stories or factoids that had to be cut for space or because not enough people were going to be interested in it?

RINZLER: It’s kind of a funny story. There’s a whole page about the Wilhelm Scream that you mentioned earlier. Originally I had the Wilhelm Scream as part of that page [readers could hear it on the sound unit] and Ben said, “No, I don’t want people to know exactly what it is. I want it to be something that it’s kind of this thing that me and Richard Anderson are putting in films and people have to pay attention and try and find it.”

And I said, “OK, all right, we won’t put it in, “but then I realized that accidentally, it was still in the book as part of another sound and I said, “Come on, Ben; how about if we leave it in that one because that’s sort of in the tradition: You’ve got to find that.”

So that Wilhelm Scream was cut, but it is also in the book and that’s why, on page 254, it says that scream can be found in somewhere in the book. It’s kind of a fun thing, I hope, for some readers. Although I heard it drove one guy crazy already!