Audio Description & Sound Design in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Back of Godin's head wearing earphones attached to personal DVD player, screen shows Star Wars opening title.Last week I enjoyed my first blockbuster movie with audio description Star Wars: The Force Awakens! Overall, despite the unbelievable ending (spoilers below) it was a great experience. Alabaster‘s dad, having worked behind the scenes in film and TV, is a movie fanatic, and has a huge collection of DVD’s. He noticed that many of the newer Blu-rays come with an audio description track, which can be turned on at the menu. (Unfortunately, on a typical Blu-ray player, the menus are not accessible, but perhaps this could be remedied on a Blu-ray equipped laptop.)

I was certainly curious to check out one of these movies, but Alabaster’s parents were actually the first to experience Star Wars: The Force Awakens with audio description. They had put it on to test it out, after we’d gone to bed and told us the next morning that they’d ended up watching the whole thing with the audio description going because it was “so cool–almost like listening to old radio shows.” When I learned this the next morning, I was both excited and jealous. “They watched it without me?” and Alabaster was like, “See, they do like you!” Right. That’s good.

The first time through Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we watched it together on a TV, and from the moment it started, I was drawn in, since the audio describer read the words as well as what was happening to the words:

“Growing ever smaller, the words continue to crawl away into infinity. … The tiny illegible shapes of the last few words finally disappear completely into the vastness of space.”

 

Not only is this a lovely and immediately recognizable image, calling to mind the first time I saw the first Star Wars in the movie theater when I was six and perfectly sighted, but it also resonates for me personally, symbolizing the progress of my degenerative eye disease.

In case you’ve not experienced an audio described movie, an article at WGBH.org about one of the major suppliers of audio description (as well as captioning), MoPix, explains: “Description conveys the key visual aspects of a film or television program by describing scenery, facial expressions, costumes during natural pauses in dialogue.”

By the way, a Justice Department amendment to the ADA requires theaters to “have and maintain the equipment necessary to provide closed movie captioning and audio description at a movie patron’s seat whenever showing a digital movie produced, distributed, or otherwise made available with these features;” and will take effect in January 2017. So all my blind buddies can look forward to having a theater near them play the next Star Wars with audio description. This will be the subject of a future article, and I look forward to speaking with a representative of Media Access Group at WGBH soon. So consider this the first in a series–the sequel is in production!

For about the first 30 minutes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there’s probably not more than five minutes of dialogue, so it’s a really great thing to not have to task your companion with so much information gathering. However, when there was dialogue, the mix felt wrong; the audio description voice was too loud, creating a sense of distance from the on-screen characters. The main character became very quickly, the Brit reading the audio description, rather than Rey or Fin. Kylo Ren came through quite clear, though a bit lacking in gravitas, as if he were not only talking through a mask but also stripped down to a mono track. This was less the case as I listened privately the second time through with headphones on a portable Blu-ray player lent to me for the purpose. The ideal situation would be to be able to mix the sound volumes of the audio description and soundtrack oneself.

That said, listening with headphones was a much better experience, though I think the mix could still be more balanced, as the audio description dominated the sound design. But perhaps that’s just me; I am a bit of a sound geek, as demonstrated by my soundscapes for short films and readings. If you’ve no idea what goes into sound design for a blockbuster movie like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, here’s sound designer Matthew Wood discussing the many layers of sound in an interview with The Daily Dot:

“The main elements of a soundtrack are the dialog that’s recorded on the set; the dialog that you have to re-record after the production—because of line changes or droids or helmets or technical reasons that they didn’t get recorded on set properly. That’s called ADR. So there’s the dialog, the ADR. There’s the sound effects that you take from library, which would be the classic sounds that were made for Star Wars. And then there’s the new sound design that’s created specifically for the movie, so that’s part of the sound-effects track. There’s the foley; that’s all the very specific sound effects that are really too specific to be found in a sound library. And we have performers go through the film and we spot every little moment where that might be. And they actually perform them, like an old radio play. And then we have, obviously, John Williams’s music.”

Consciously or unconsciously, a good sound design is intensely satisfying, and can be especially appreciated by blind moviegoers. As a blind person, I find that with movies I loved as a sighted, or partially sighted, person, I can enjoy the action through the sounds. A good example is Apocalypse Now! Which I’ve probably experienced more times than any other film, and my appreciation of it has only deepened in the twenty or so years since I first saw it as a visually impaired person. Its sound designer, Walter Murch, is a legend in the field and the (at the time revolutionary) surround sound effects are memorably visceral. If you really want to geek out, here’s a cool article at Filmmaker Magazine about the iconic ghost helicopter sound that opens the film.

Star Wars VII sound designer David Acord told The Daily Dot in an interview, Murch, along with original Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt, are the “two people that come to mind as far as the people that are considered the godfathers of sound design. … Ben’s aesthetic for sound design—and I don’t want to speak for him too much—but it’s been an organic approach. It’s recording real-life sounds to be manipulated into something completely different.”

A fun example of this is how Acord turned his cat’s purring into Kylo Ren’s Force rumble:

“…he’s got this sort of chunky, almost animalistic Force rumble that he does when he’s interrogating and that kind of thing. And it’s sourced from my cat’s purr. It’s pitched and kind of slowed down, and it’s got a ton of low-end added to it. But you listen to it, it’s one of those things…it’s tough when you sort of pull back the curtain for sound effects, because then that’s all you’ll hear, is that. [laughs] But yeah, that’s Pork Chop purring.”

As I get more comfortable with a movie, the less I’m bothered by what’s going on visually. With movies I’m very familiar with, I find perfectly satisfying representations floating or zinging, as the case maybe, before my inner eye. I found this also to be the case with The Force Awakens. Granted knowing that the aesthetics of the original 1977 Star Wars influenced the making of Star Wars VII, helped with the formation of new visuals, but I was amazed how much listening to the audio description track helped my inner eye form new mental pictures for a movie never seen by my physical eyes. So much so that the third time through, I scanned backwards to listen to my favorite scenes without audio description, in order to enjoy the sound design, the dialogue, the music and sound effects with only the Force of my inner eye to guide me.

The first scene I scanned back to without the audio description was the saloon scene in Maz’s Castle–a callback to that original Star Wars cantina scene, now quite hackneyed, but still so enjoyable–to hear the strange new creatures and silly karaoke style singing. It was nice the first time through to have the audio description give some details about what’s happening and to read the subtitles (a very helpful feature), but the overwhelming feeling I had was, “SSSH, let me listen!”

I found the torture scene where Rey finds the Force and frustrates Kylo Ren’s attempts to get information from her particularly crippled by the audio description, as it is so intimate. What may be gained from knowing, for example, that Rey grits her teeth, or that Kylo sets his jaw, is not worth the feel that someone is shouting in your ear while you are trying desperately to eavesdrop on something juicy.

Here’s sound designer Acord, from his Daily Dot interview, talking about that scene:

“There’s a scene in the movie where Ren is interrogating Rey as she’s shackled to the torture chair, and they end up having this sort of Force battle, basically, where at the end Rey has the upper hand and has basically entered Kylo’s mind and releases some of his darker thoughts. That was a fun moment for us. That’s a pure sound-design scene in the purest sense. If you’re a person standing in that room with them, you don’t hear those Force sounds. All the Force sounds are meant to be feelings; that’s not a literal thing. If you were standing there, you wouldn’t hear anything, except maybe the rattle of her chair. So that was a fun moment to play with that, to play with the back-and-forth, with the Force ebbing and flowing between the two of them, and there’s…music comes in about halfway into that scene, so there’s a bit of a dance you have to do as well with the music.”

That scene is also really cool because the reveal–that Kylo is a perfectly normal human under his “leather-and-metal head appliance that looks like a domination mask by way of the grille of a 1952 Chevy” as a New York Times review put it–is both a vocal and visual one, and the shift from the digitally distorted and pitched down voice of the actor Adam Driver to his normal voice must be as startling as the visual unmasking.

This villain is not, as granddaddy Darth Vader was, forced to wear the getup because of horrible life-threatening deformities. Blind or sighted, we understand immediately that This bad guy is trying real hard, so that, as interesting as the face and voice is under the freaky prosthetics, his badness is all too human.

Here again is sound designer Wood (excerpted from The Daily Dot interview) describing the process of working directly with Driver:

“I was able to work with Adam Driver really directly and build the process for how his voice was going to sound in that mask. We built [it] in sound design and actually took it to Adam and got him to play with it. He could hear the process of his voice through the mask as he was doing it live, so we could use it like an instrument and play on it. So you could get these really creepy performances of him playing a very intimate recording right up on the mic. And yet it has this distorted, otherworldly feel through the mask, so it still keeps [dialog] intelligible. That mask’s sole function is to intimidate. It’s not keeping him alive like it [was for] Darth Vader; it’s just a mask of intimidation. We really wanted to work with that.”

And, because we at Godin Rhumb SoundWorks have our recording studio set up in the walk-in closet, I cannot resist giving a little more from Wood:

“At one point, we had to record when Adam was rehearsing for a play in New York. We set up across the street in a hotel across from his rehearsal space. And so he’d run over to us, and we’d work in a hotel room. We outfitted the closet in the hotel room as a makeshift recording room. So he’d come in and we’d work on it, [and] we’d send the files back to J.J. to see what he thought. That was some guerilla sound design, and Adam was really up for it.”

Learning about the making of a movie is helpful for anyone to geek out and appreciate it more, and this is particularly the case for blind moviegoers, so feel free to comment below–as a blind or sighted person–about the audiovisual details you found exciting in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

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