Interview: Star Wars' Sound Editor Compares J.J. Abrams to Mozart

Star Wars sound designer Matthew Wood

Matthew Wood has worked in sound design and editing on such big-budget blockbusters as The Rock, Armageddon and the animated feature Titan A.E.; but by now he's best known for his work on the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy and The Force Awakens as part of the legendary Skywalker Sound. Not only has he been part of multiple Academy Award nominated teams as part of some of the biggest movies ever made, he's been one of the privileged few to work across multiple generations of Star Wars features under George Lucas, JJ Abrams and (currently) Rian Johnson on Star Wars: Episode VIII.

He's also found his way into the Star Wars universe onscreen as well, providing voices for characters like General Greivous (in Revenge of The Sith), Bib Fortuna and Ody Mandrell (Phantom Menace) and battle droids across multiple films, games and TV series; and several years ago began to branch out into other voice work as well - providing the unusual vocalizations for the classic arcade enemies Pooka and Fygar (from Dig Dug) as part of a memorable episode of Seth Green's Adult Swim series Robot Chicken.

Recently, Wood took time during his most recent appearance at SXSW to answer some questions about his illustrious career to Screen Rant:

How did you get started on working with Star Wars as a sound editor?

I had been working at Skywalker Sound, which was formerly George Lucas’s post-production sound wing in his company, Lucasfilm. You know, part of Disney. I worked there… I’ve been there about 26 years. I came in right after we had finished the last Indiana Jones, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And George was on a mission to create sort of a post-production environment with digital technology to get ready to do these Star Wars films that he was going to do, the prequels.

So he was talking about it as early as back then?

Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean it wasn’t like formerly known that he wanted to make more Star Wars movies, but I think we started on this…we used a television series called The Indiana Jones Chronicles as a proving ground and a boot camp to kind of make the process to make these new prequels. That was using new technology to get to that point. So I was just a teenager when I was brought into the company. I was really lucky to be part of that digital movement. We did special editions of the original series, and then we did the prequels. Skywalker Sound is a company that we don’t just do Star Wars films. We do a lot of other films. J.J. Abrams had taken a liking to us, so we ended up working with him on the two Star Treks and Super 8. So I had done some work with that director before. I had a lot of Star Wars knowledge before.

So coming onto Force Awakens was really exciting for me because it was taking the two things I’d been training to do my professional career and working with the folks that I was used to working with, but working in the genre that was now, in a new way, untethered from its previous director. George Lucas had taken a more godfatherly role in the Star Wars universe since his retirement. We were able to…I was working with J.J. Abrams... Star Wars is sort of the same generation as I am. We both were fans of the originals growing up, so now just this new interpretation with this director using our new Lucasfilm story group and taking it forward there. So it was a very exciting project to be a part of.

Anakin Skywalker at the Jedi Council in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

You also do voices in the Star Wars universe for some of the games and some of the animated characters. How did that come about? Was that offered or did they seek you out for that?

Since I did start so young at Lucasfilm, acting was always something I loved doing. I did plays whenever I could. I would do community theatre whenever I could. Since the post-production sound process takes up so much of your time, I didn’t really have much chance to get that part of my career going. But I realized that voice acting was something that used the same equipment that I used and sound design it uses in voice acting. So I was able to do some work in the voice sector.

My big sort of breakthrough happened with Revenge of the Sith, the character General Grievous was the big sort of bad guy in that one. He’s a digital character and George was tapping all these different actors for it. And somewhat out of frustration and necessity, I had my hand on the character as well when we were building it, and I put it in under a pseudonym so it would be unfairly judged…

Working in the sound field on Star Wars, which is a franchise that’s credited with having revolutionized a lot of sound, what’s it like working with the legacy of Ben Burtt and those gentlemen who came before?

I was just going to say I definitely had access to Ben Burtt very early on in my career at Skywalker. We supervised those prequels together. And he was the sound designer on the Star Trek movies that we did and WALL-E we did for Pixar. So I have a long history with Ben. He’s just such an encyclopedia of knowledge in terms of the sound world. To have him available for us as a sound designer on Force Awakens was also fantastic because he’s got that information and legacy of all the sounds that we know and love from Star Wars that were in Force Awakens, like the Tide Fighters, and Chewbacca, and R2-D2, and the Millennium Falcon, and Luke’s lightsaber. And the list goes on and on. So, fantastic legacy there.

We have almost 40 years of sound that has accumulated at Skywalker Sound that we have in a great big database over all the films we’ve done there. And we have that all to draw upon to create our new world sound environments for films going forward.

Star Wars A New Hope Ending Scene 35mm Restoration

Was it a significantly different work environment going from George Lucas to J.J. Abrams?

Yeah, it was a 10-year gap for Star Wars, so certainly the anticipation started building. Were we even going to do another one? Was it done? George was retiring. But then the Disney acquisition and sale was certainly a motivating factor to make more movies. And Kathy Kennedy helming her company is entirely exciting. She’s such a fantastic producer in her own right. For us to be able to get her has been a real dream come true for the company.

But yeah, I mean certainly J.J.’s work style and George’s work style are very different. J.J.’s energy is very intense. And he expects a huge amount from us, which is great. And he really likes to work on things, I’d say, just when you are almost operating on instinct. You’ve kind of thrown out all your conventional plans about how you are going to do something and you are just operating on raw talent at that point. And he brings…it motivates us as a crew, certainly.

For me it was like working with Mozart or something as portrayed in Amadeus. That’s how I felt working with J.J. Just a fantastic energy and just cares about the project beyond belief. He really knew the responsibilities of taking on a Star Wars movie. And just across the board in all levels of what was contributed by him to the project, he just really cared about what he was doing and cared that we did a good job for him. So yeah, very, very intense yet creative work environment there.

How much sound work has been put into gear so far on [Rian] Johnson's picture [Episode VIII]?

They’re shooting. They’re about a month into shooting. I’ve gone out to Pinewood and met the whole crew and have had several meetings with Rian and read the scripts and everything. So we’re just moving forward, like having early days work on that. Editorial is underway for the picture. So we sort of chase that and we complement them with sound. I’m very excited about that project. I think people are going to enjoy it.

Dig Dug Robot Chicken

Returning to your voiceover work, how did you end up on Robot Chicken doing some Dig Dug characters?

[Laughs] That’s a funny story, because Seth Green and Matt Senreich, the creators of that show, are friends of mine now. We’re all huge Star Wars fans and George really took a liking to them during his tenure on Star Wars. I worked on a couple of specials that Robot Chicken did for Star Wars. And in the process they knew I was a voice actor, so they had me voice a couple of their episodes that were going on while we were working on that. Seth and Matt are such great guys. I love working with them. And their show is so hilarious. And it’s on all the time. Just the pop culture references on their show…Even though they’re uber geeky, I love working with those guy. That was just one of those connections that happened through the Star Wars connections, for sure.

Next Exclusive: Anthony Daniels Disliked C-3PO’s New Red Arm

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens hits Blu-ray and DVD on April 5th, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in theaters December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode VIII on May 26th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode IX is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.

Lucasfilm and visionary director J.J. Abrams join forces to take you back again to a galaxy far, far away as “Star Wars” returns to the big screen with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

The film stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Max Von Sydow. Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk are producing with Tommy Harper and Jason McGatlin serving as executive producers. The screenplay is by J.J. Abrams & Lawrence Kasdan. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” releases in U.S. theaters on December 18, 2015.

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