Sound for Light
Eric Hynes on Star Wars

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It begins with a hum. A hum that starts down in the throat and carries up into the mouth. But it doesn’t stop at the lips. You keep your mouth open to project the noise, to send vibrations out rather than back in. It’s a hum without a definite end, without the “m.” You then add to that “hu” or “ho” sound by widening and contracting your lips, making a wowow sound as you move the imaginary sword bat back and forth in front of you. Hooowowow.

Luke’s lightsaber is blue, but mine is yellow. His is made of laser light, and mine is a plastic wiffle ball bat. Jeff, my neighbor, is carrying a black plastic bat, and he’s pretending to be Darth Vader. It makes a certain color-coded sense, but his bat’s head is too thick to pass for the thin shaft of a lightsaber. My regulation wiffle ball bat, with a barrel of equal circumference from handle to end, looks about right. Or right enough to sell the illusion. Then again, I don’t have a costume, while Jeff is wearing a black cape. Between us we’re miming the fantasy reasonably well. Holding our bats in front of us, we face off. For a few long seconds before we bring our bats into contact, we stand there making a noise that must have sounded like a pair of giant mosquitoes to the suspicious, vigilantly inactive codgers next door.

Our plastic bats collide, but gently, hesitatingly. Instead of miming swordplay, as our fathers might have done after watching Erroll Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, we imagined two fields of light brought into fuzzy, crackly conflict. We didn’t bang our bats together; we didn’t jab like fencers. We circled and mirrored each other and swung as if in slow motion, minimizing any audible bat crack so that our own sound effects could further the illusion of lightsabers in battle. Hooowowowcrxxxxx. Hooowowowcrxxxxx.

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It started with a hum. The lightsaber was the first sound that Ben Burtt created for Star Wars. It seemed like a good place to start. It still does. A space-age sound fashioned from two old analog machines, it serves as a metaphor for how George Lucas’s film pivoted between old and new, classicism and futurism, nostalgia and modernity, film and digital. Lucas claims that territory from the film’s first title card: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” combining the language of fairy tales with science fiction.That Burtt’s first and most celebrated sound effect, for a film as defined by sound as it was by imagery, emerged from industrial phenomenon yet helped to define an imagined future, is almost too good to be true.

While working toward his master’s degree in film production at USC, Burtt was approached by George Lucas to develop some sound effects for Star Wars when the film was in preproduction. Using mock-up sketches as a guide, he set to creating sounds for objects that didn’t yet exist. In other words, Burtt’s sounds would help bring the visual corollary to life. There were beasts and vehicles that needed inspiration, but Burtt became fixated on the light sword.

Hanging out in the projection booth of the USC screening room, he noticed that when two old Simplex projectors played at the same time they made a rich, roomy hum. Over time the sound from the motor changed, creating a fluid pitch. It was almost like the machines were harmonizing. Hmmmhooohmmmhooo. He recorded that sound. Days later, while working on another sound, he walked around his cluttered work area with a live microphone. When he came close to an old television set a hum emanated from the mike. But this one was buzzier than the projectors—it was more crackly and electric. The pitch changed as he moved closer or further from the TV. Wowow. He recorded that sound, too. Then he put the two together and created a new sound. Hooowowow.

Burtt then needed to make the sound active and variable. How would an illuminated sword sound when swung? He played the hybrid sound from a speaker, and then approached it with another microphone. When he moved it back and forth, the pitch changed. Like a Doppler shift, it evoked moving sound. Once footage started coming in, he’d watch and simply wave the microphone around in front of the speaker in time with the saberplay. A microphone receiver thus doubled as a sound maker as the saber went wwwowwwow.

Burtt’s subsequent sounds for Star Wars were just as tangibly derived. Darth Vader’s breathing was Burtt himself inhaling and exhaling through a scuba ventilator. Burtt banged a wrench against a thick electrical cord to make the sound of laser-firing blasters. Enemy combat planes streaked through space to the sound of a screaming elephant. Chewbacca’s growl came mostly from a bear, with a bit of walrus, dog, and lion thrown in. His genius was for locating relatable sounds and then recontextualizing them, making something new out of familiar material, making something synthetic out of something organic, making something you’d never heard out of something you actually had. “The whole idea is to come up with sounds that people will accept and take for granted,” he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1980.

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The first time a lightsaber appears onscreen in Star Wars isn’t particularly memorable. Obi-wan Kenobi opens a box and removes a metal shaft that looks like a giant flashlight and hands it to the young, petulant, golden-haired Luke. Kenobi explains that it’s a family heirloom, left for the boy by his warrior father. Almost accidentally Luke engages the shaft to elicit a thin blue laser light about three feet long. He waves it around for a few seconds and then turns it off. You hear the “hoowowow,” but just barely, as the sound of the machine engaging and disengaging—like a quick, cascaded “shush”—is more prominent. This scene is something of a tease, which makes a certain phallic sense. After having this strange and powerful thing waved in front of our faces, we of course want to see it in action.

The second time we see a saber it’s separating a drunken good-for-nothing from his arm. Obi-wan Kenobi shushes it back to silence at his side the way a samurai re-sheaths his sword, or the way a cowboy reholsters his pistol. This sighting is even quicker than the first one, but it’s all action. Now we know what a lightsaber’s cabable of. Its power is both very familiar and utterly novel. Recognizably badass, in the quick, efficient manner of a sword or pistol; yet mysterious and cosmic, sounding not like the air-slicing swoosh of a sword or the crack of a gun but truly strange—like a promise and threat from the future.

The lightsaber’s big moment comes when Kenobi’s blue shaft clashes with Darth Vader’s red one. They are two stiff, caped characters pantomiming a kind of martial art. They don’t show sweat or strain, they don’t leap or tumble. Theirs is an awkwardly elegant struggle, hinting at honor and ceremony. We’d heard tell of their old, now apparently defunct religion, the Force, and their cloaked, bloodless exchange evokes the mystical. Yet their weapons hum with electricity. They glow with the undiffused promise of laser technology. They compact an absolute, matter-splitting power in a slim, otherworldly shaft.

* * *

Burtt no longer waves a microphone around in front of a speaker to create the sound of a lightsaber in motion. The Doppler effect is now digitally rendered on a soundboard. That original, analog creation remains the base sound of the saber, but its changes in pitch and timbre were fully synthesized starting with the first of Lucas’s Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace (1999). There were a total of three lightsaber-wielding Jedi in the original Star Wars trilogy, and the number of lightsaber battles could be counted on one hand. The ranks of Jedi swelled for the prequels, as did the number of saber confrontations. With the help of digital files and easily programmed variations, Burtt managed a complex soundscape that would have been unthinkable in 1977. He was able to give each saber a slightly different tone, from cool and confident to hot and urgent. When Samuel L. Jackson requested and received a purple colored saber, Burtt tweaked out a tone that actually sounded purple.

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Retailers just can't seem to stock enough of this year's scifi weapon. A Los Angeles toy promoter, Jack Levin Associates, at one point claimed a backlog of nearly half a million orders for the "force beam," a swordlike flashlight that resembles the light sabers [sic] used in the film. —Newsweek, December 19, 1977

I got everything I wanted for Christmas that year, and more. Action figures of Luke, Han, Lea, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, a Stormtrooper, Luke in pilot’s gear, and toys based on aliens and administrators who hardly appear in the film. A landspeeder. The Millennium Falcon. An X-Wing Fighter. The Death Star. Star Wars books, linens, and records. I got everything, that is, except for a lightsaber. Jeff got one, which I pawed and envied, but I needn’t have. Not just because I’d been given everything else a brainwashed, movie tie-in obsessed little boy could ever hope for, but because the lightsaber was actually a piece of junk—basically a flashlight with an inflatable colored tube attached to it. The toy just felt wrong. Its handle freighted the weight of hard plastic and several D batteries, and the tube never inflated solidly. It buckled when swung, and was no match for my plastic bat. I’d swing a bit too hard, motivated by envy and other dark forces (Coca-Cola and Kiss’s Destroyer), becoming more Reggie Jackson than Jedi.

Now I’ve got a lightsaber app for my iPhone. It doesn’t do anything other than make the sound. When I jerk it around it makes crashing sounds, as if I’m striking an enemy’s saber. I turn up the volume to listen closely to the hum. Isolated and inactive, and likely digitally flattened, fabricated, and reprocessed, it still sounds like a pair of projectors. Here it’s less an “m”-less hum than a gargle, a mechanical gagagaga. For the first time, I hear it—I hear what Burtt must have heard while sitting in the projection room at USC, before he redefined what it means to make and record sound for film, before he’d won an Oscar, before he received his degree. Then I turn the volume back down, and the sound resumes to purr. I can’t really hear the projectors anymore. I just hear the idling of a lightsaber. The sound has its own history now. After thirty-three years in service, the lightsaber hooowowow now rivals the gunshot crack in backyard fantasies. There’s film history in the sound, but more importantly there’s still a future: it still sounds like itself. For all of its familiarity and even ubiquity, it remains strange and lethal, like an object with no correlation on earth. And there’s a present in the sound that goes beyond this trendy device. It starts in my chest and vibrates up, buzzing out through my regulating lips. Forget trivia or cultural memory—it persists physically, a sensation that doesn’t need a name or a movie or a bat or any kind of context to make it present.

It’s a gift of cinema. Yes, it’s got the tangible, real-world mechanics of film (and specifically film projection) in its DNA, but it becomes fantasy. It lives a free and independent reality. Regardless of how it’s manufactured, manipulated or formatted, it has intractable meaning. The dream factory made an imagined thing evident, preserving fiction while inspiring fact, and making magic. I hum to myself, and it appears.