The Sound of The Mandalorian: Rising to the Star Wars Standard
Lightsabers clashing. The roar of a TIE Fighter. Darth Vader’s breathing. Sound has been a crucial element of the Star Wars universe since A New Hope landed on screens in 1977. In this interview, production sound mixer Shawn Holden and supervising sound editor Matthew Wood share how the sound team behind The Mandalorian brought executive producer Jon Favreau’s unique vision for the series to life while simultaneously rising to the level of quality expected from the beloved franchise. They also reveal what went into giving voice to The Mandalorian's adorable alien co-star, The Child.
First off, how would you describe your role to someone who isn’t familiar with sound production?
Shawn Holden: Well, as a production sound mixer, you're the one that's on the set recording dialogue and various effects. My main goal is to preserve the actors' performances and get the cleanest dialogue recordings that I possibly can. Also, various effects and sounds that need to be captured while shooting—be it Stormtroopers marching along or anything that can help post-production build on those effects that we give them and give them an idea of what it sounded like on set. But really, my main goal is to get the cleanest dialogue tracks I possibly can, to record and preserve those performances.
Matthew Wood: As the supervising sound editor, I work in post-production. I start pretty early on the project by reading the scripts and coming up with ideas for what will work for sound effects, creating things for these futuristic sci-fi worlds of Star Wars. I take all of Shawn's amazing crafted brilliant work and tracks, and we bring them into post. Her tracks are one element of what we do, which is making it so you can hear the performances. Our characters have processing that has to happen. You know, there's actors wearing masks, various aliens and dialects—all things that we change in post. And then we add in all the sound effects. We have a sound designer, and we build the show's soundscape around what Shawn has provided us. Then we build a soundscape around that. So I work with the showrunner and the series’ directors to ensure that all the beats in the script and what's been desired to be generated emotionally for the story is being pushed forward with the soundtrack. Then we bring all that material to our re-recording next stage where we mix it all to make it sound as it should on your home system.
In terms of sound, how does The Mandalorian compare to other films and shows within the Star Wars universe?
Matt Wood: It's our goal as a sound team to drive the story forward with what the director wants to convey, and we're a tool in the arsenal to make that happen. Sound has the ability to do that in a sort of subconscious and more emotional way. So that's what we're always striving to do. Perhaps the only thing different, being a Star Wars property, we will want everything to sound somewhat familiar. So we can take an episode of the original Star Wars movies or one of the animated shows or The Mandalorian or even a Star Wars video game, and a fan can pop in any one of those and there's going to be a consistent, high-quality mark across the board.
How did you prepare to work on such a beloved property?
Shawn Holden: There's a certain level of quality expected. This is Star Wars and it's iconic. And you're coming at it from this rich history. For me, a lot of my prep work was looking at costumes, seeing what would be animatronic and how we could possibly work from inside the helmets and masks. How do we get ahead of all of that? So when it comes down to shoot day, we are well prepared for whatever might get thrown our way, always able to get what we need in terms of clear, clean dialogue. I mean, the pressure was on, for sure, because we knew we had to bring the quality up to this level. That was my main concern. So we just did everything in prep that we possibly could. I went out to Legacy Effects where they do a lot of the practical creature work and costumes and figured out how we could put packs in the actors’ costumes and where we would hide mics and how we could build them in. We also designed an intricate communication system between actors that are in masks and helmets, and in animatronics earpieces—we call them earwigs—so that they could clearly hear the other actors speak. We have what we call the “voice of God” mic for the director to give direction to people in masks and helmets, which they can hear through their earwigs. We also set up speakers for the director or the assistant director to give direction to the crew and cast. There's a lot of groundwork, a lot of prep to be done. In the first season we didn't, at first, quite realize just how much we needed to do before we got started, but we made it all happen.
Matt, how would you compare working on The Mandalorian versus the previous Star Wars projects you’ve been a part of?
Matthew Wood: The original films were so instrumental and I never expected to be working for the company that made these things. So it's still kind of a dream. The love for Star Wars is always there. Then the thing that always gives me new vitality on every project is all the new directors coming in and the new voices, including Jon Favreau and all that he's brought into the show. Also, being able to work with all the new picture editors and post teams that are working on Star Wars for the first time—you get to see how excited they are to be part of it. Star Wars still has that special feeling, so it’s wonderful to be around that energy with people feeling they want to put their best foot forward and do something that's going to be part of this legacy. I always try to bring new crew members to my team so I get to see their reactions, harness some of that energy, and then put it into the show. So that's always the new and exciting part. But we tried to work from that same aesthetic I had from George back when I was a kid when I first started. And we're still at Skywalker Ranch and working every day in the very same locations that we did the original films, so that's pretty inspiring as well.
What sort of challenges did you encounter during filming?
Shawn Holden: In one of our shooting environments—what we call “The Volume”—the cast is enveloped and surrounded by massive LED screens. The minute I walked in the space for the first time, I was blown away. It was daunting. The structure of that space poses some challenges with severe reverberance inherent in the space. But we came up with the solution. We called in an acoustical engineer that had developed a product, ZR Acoustics. They are specially designed screens that didn't absorb or reflect the sound. Rather, it took the air that the sound travels in, and the screens would break it apart. Hence, breaking apart the sound reflections that we had in The Volume. Provided we could get the screens in the right position, they worked very well and saved our hide. It was pretty remarkable. But in the end, that is one of the things I'm actually most proud of on the show; considering the incredible environmental challenges that we faced in that space, we still managed to capture the cleanest tracks possible.
What sort of decisions did you make about how you would approach this particular series?
Matthew Wood: I'd worked with Dave Filoni for 10-plus years on the Star Wars animated projects. So I knew his sound aesthetic, and I wanted to make sure that our crew members were people that would have worked with him before. I wanted to make sure we had a Star Wars-heavy crew. So our wonderful recording mixers, Bonnie Wild and Stephen Urata, are both longtime Skywalker employees. I wanted to have them for sure, along with David Acord, our supervising sound designer. I'd worked with Jon Favreau as an actor a couple of times, but I had not worked with him as a director. He really embraced Star Wars. And I could tell he loves using Skywalker sound as one of the components to make this track as Star Wars. He really enjoys sound and has a lot of great ideas, and he came at it wanting realism in what we were doing. On some of it, he wanted an almost documentary-like feel. And so that's another reason why we're relying heavily upon the production sound. We want to create. We go to a lot of new worlds. We see a lot of new spaceships and creatures and hear alien dialects, so Star Wars is one of the core components of the soundscapes. I wanted to have a lean and mean team that had known Star Wars before and would be able to serve what Jon and Dave wanted, on the schedule that production had presented to us. Luckily, both Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni are very much into sound, so we got to have a lot of back and forth detailed collaboration about what's required and what feels good as an artist. Some other people might look at sound as more of a technical thing and they don't really give it quite as much. Then you’re kind of working in a little bit of a vacuum. But Jon and Dave are very engaged, and we do many playbacks and spotting sessions with them, which is always fun for the crew.
Star Wars is known for iconic sounds. What’s the process for creating or capturing those sounds and, in your opinion, what do they add in the series?
Matthew Wood: I've been at Skywalker sound for about 30 years and we've been fortunate to keep the Star Wars sound library fairly restricted to our Star Wars-only projects. So when you hear a TIE fighter, or a stormtrooper blaster — something iconic like that— it's going to be representative of our show. It's not like these sounds have been used elsewhere and given to many people, such that they don't feel special anymore. Some of the sounds were created by my mentor Ben Burtt some 40 plus years ago. George Lucas originally used to consider himself a sound person as well. So he really gave a lot of time and energy towards the sound during the post process. We would have, sometimes, a year or more to start building libraries of sounds. I supervised all the Star Wars prequels with Ben Burtt, and we were given months to amass a library of all kinds of sounds—animals, creatures, machines, vehicles, atmospheres—to build soundscapes similar to what Ben had in the 70s and 80s. So that's one thing that I think that we have that's unique here at Skywalker, and we've carried through on The Mandalorian. Likewise, our sound designer David Acord recorded a whole bunch of new material and brought it into this new show.
With all the time and attention you’ve put into the show, what advice would you give a fan who wants to experience The Mandalorian’s sound in the best way possible?
Matthew Wood: From my standpoint, having a multi-channel system with some kind of discrete output—so that you can put your dialogue in the center channel—will give you the best experience. Then everything will sort of fall along in that you've got the dialogue in the center and your music and sound effects in your left and right channels (or your surrounds, if you have them). That, to me, is number one. If you have that ability and luxury to have that type of system, I'd say go for it.
What of your work on the show are you most proud of?
Shawn Holden: I'm most proud of being able to get clean dialogue tracks inside The Volume. It was not simple to do. But I'm proud that we got that. Also, our exterior backlot location had many environmental and acoustic challenges as well. The main objective for me is to get the dialogue and preserve those performances, which is really what I love to do. That way, the actors won't have to go back and revisit a performance because of a sound issue. They won’t need to bring back the emotions and get back into that space in their head.
Can you talk more about watching The Mandalorian on Atmos? How would you describe that experience?
Matthew Wood: I’ve worked on Atmos since the beginning, in different forms. I mean, sometimes we've done it as an afterthought. But we knew we were going to do it from the beginning with The Mandalorian. So we really got to take advantage of that extra height and spread of everything. And we worked in that environment natively. While Jon Favreau was working on The Lion King in Playa Vista, we set up an Atmos system for him that duplicated our mix room at Skywalker sound. So we were able to mix The Mandalorian at Skywalker and then have it in real-time for him at Playa. It was lovely. It was great. I mean, hearing it in that full amazing fidelity...everyone really enjoyed that process.
Can you share any fun facts about the sound production process?
Matthew Wood: I have a group of actors that I use for what we call the Loop Group, which is all the background players—aliens, Jawas, stormtroopers. It's a group of actors that are all big Star Wars fans, so we try to put in as many little quirky cameos as we can.
That’s great. How about another one?
Matthew Wood: Our sound designer David Acord has certainly put his time into recording all kinds of new vehicles and machinery to make the soundscapes that you hear. He's also enlisted the sounds of his pets and even his voice to make some of the versions of The Child that you hear. For The Child’s dialogue, we've got the sound of a Kinkajou, which is this really interesting animal. It's a mammal that he recorded that has this great sort of trill sound. We wanted that character to have a sound that didn't just sound like a baby. You know, obviously it's like 50 years old, but we wanted to have a non-verbal personality. So Dave had to come up with that using samples. We use baby samples from a member of our picture editorial team along with these animal sounds that Dave put together. Also, Dave is an actor, as well, so he used his own voice to create some of that. So all those various components fused together to become the dialogue of The Child.
Matt, you started at Lucasfilm some 30 years ago. What surprises you most about the Star Wars universe today?
Matthew Wood: Thirty years in...I love that George Lucas hired me as a teenager. I had some really crazy ideas about sound and how to integrate computers and nonlinear editing, and all that stuff. And he really backed me and some of my crazy stuff. He wasn't saying, “You can only do this one job. And that's what you do. And that's who you are.” He was always open to new ideas and experimentation and so those prequel movies were really fun for me as far as all the different technology we put in place. And the fans are super passionate all the time. I love that there are all these different generations of fans. I don't even know how many there are at this point...four generations? But people that have seen Star Wars get to show their kids and grandkids and everyone has opinions on what their favorite part of it is. I've worked across many of the different genres of Star Wars, so I have dipped my toe in all the different fan experiences. I've also acted in some of the movies, so I've had the experience of meeting fans directly and seeing that energy, how it affects people. I love the fact that people are always talking about Star Wars and they always have opinions. And, as I said before, the one thing that really keeps me engaged is all the new faces coming in. I'm trying to hire as many new people as I can, so they can see it and have an opportunity to work with it. I got great opportunities at Lucasfilm, and I want to pass that forward now to younger generations.