By Jennifer Walden
There are space battles and epic music, foreign planets with unique and lively biomes, blasters, lightsabers, a universe at war and a force that connects it all. Over the course of eight “Episodes” and through numerous spin-off series and games, fans of Star Wars have become well acquainted with its characteristic sound.
Creating the world, sonically, is certainly a feat, but bringing those sounds together is a challenge of equal measure. Shaping the soundtrack involves sacrifice and egoless judgment calls that include making tough decisions in service of the story.
Skywalker Sound’s Ren Klyce was co-supervising sound editor, sound designer and a re-recording mixer on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. He not only helped to create the film’s sounds but he also had a hand in shaping the final soundtrack. As re-recording mixer of the music, Klyce got a new perspective on the film’s story.
He’s earned two Oscar nominations for his work on the Rian Johnson-directed The Last Jedi — one for sound editing and another for sound mixing. We reached out to Klyce to ask about his role as a re-recording mixer, what it was like to work with John Williams’ Oscar-nominated score, and what it took for the team to craft The Last Jedi’s soundtrack.
You had all the Skywalker-created effects, the score and all the dialog coming together for the final mix. How did you bring clarity to what could have been be a chaotic soundtrack?
Mostly, it’s by forcing ourselves to potentially get rid of a lot of our hard work for the sake of the story. Getting rid of one’s work can be difficult for anyone, but it’s the necessary step in many instances. When you initially premix sound for a film, there are so many elements and often times we have everything prepared just in case they’re asked for. In the case of Star Wars, we didn’t know what director Rian Johnson might want and not want. So we had everything at the ready in either case.
On Star Wars, we ended up doing a blaze pass where we played everything from the beginning to the end of a reel all at once. We could clearly see that it was a colossal mess in one scene, but not so bad in another. It was like getting a 20-minute Cliff Notes of where we were going to need to spend some time.
Then it comes down to having really skilled mixers like David Parker (dialog) and Michael Semanick (sound effects), whose skill-sets include understanding storytelling. They understand what their role is about — which is making decisions as to what should stay, what should go, what should be loud or quiet, or what should be turned off completely. With sound effects, Michael is very good at this. He can quickly see the forest for the trees. He’ll say, “Let’s get rid of this. These elements can go, or the background sounds aren’t needed here.” And that’s how we started shaping the mix.
After doing the blaze pass, we will then go through and listen to just the music by itself. John Williams tells his story through music and by underscoring particular scenes. A lot of the process is learning what all the bits and pieces are and then weighing them up against each other. We might decide that the music in a particular scene tells the story best.
That is how we would start and then we worked together as a team to continue shaping the mix into a rough piece. Rian would then come in and give his thoughts to add more sound here or less music there, thus shaping the soundtrack.
After creating all of those effects, did you wish you were the one to mix them? Or, are you happy mixing music?
For me personally, it’s a really great experience to listen to and be responsible for the music because I’ve learned so much about the power of the music and what’s important. If it were the other way around, I might be a little more overly focused on the sound effects. I feel like we have a good dynamic. Michael Semanick has such great instincts. In fact, Rian described Michael as being an incredible storyteller, and he really is.
Mixing the music for me is a wonderful way to get a better scope of the entire soundtrack. By not touching the sound effects on the stage, those faders aren’t so precious. Instead, the movie itself and the soundtrack takes precedence instead of the bits and pieces that make it up.
What was the trickiest scene to mix in terms of music?
I think that would have to be the ski speeder sequence on the salt planet of Crait. That was very difficult because there was a lot of dodging and burning in the mix. In other words, Rian wanted to have loud music and then the music would have to dive down to expose a dialogue line, and then jump right back up again for more excitement and then dive down to make way for another dialogue line. Then boom, some sound effects would come in and the Millennium Falcon would zoom by. Then the Star Wars theme would take over and then it had to come down for the dialogue. So we worked that sequence quite a bit.
Our picture editor Bob Ducsay really guided us through the shape of that sequence. What was so great about having the picture editor present was that he was so intimate with the rhythm of the dialogue and his picture cutting. He knew where all of the story points were supposed to be, what motivated a look to the left and so on. Bob would say something like, “When we see Rose here, we really need to make sure we hear her musical theme, but then when we cut away, we need to hear the action.”
Were you working with John Williams’ music stems? Did you feel bad about pulling things out of his score? How do you dissect the score?
Working with John is obviously an incredible experience, and on this film I was lucky enough to work with Shawn Murphy as well, who is really one of my heroes and I’ve known him for years. He is the one who records the orchestra for John Williams and balances everything. Not only does he record the orchestra, but Shawn is a true collaborator with John as well. It’s incredible the way they communicate.
John is really mixing his own soundtrack when he’s up there on the podium conducting, and he’s making initial choices as to which instruments are louder than others — how loud the woodwinds play, how loud the brass plays, how loud the percussion is and how loud the strings are. He’s really shaping it. Between Williams and Murphy, they work on intonation, tuning and performance. They go through and record and then do pickups for this measure and that measure to make sure that everything is as good as it can be.
I actually got to witness John Williams do this incredible thing — which was during the recording of the score for the Crait scene. There was this one section where the brass was playing and John (who knows every single person’s name in that orchestra) called out to three people by name and said something like, “Mark, on bar 63, from beat two to beat six, can you not play please. I just want a little more clarity with two instruments instead of three. Thank you.” So they backed up and did a pick-up on that bar and that gentleman dropped out for those few beats. It was amazing.
In the end, it really is John who is creating that mix. Then, editorially, there would be moments where we had to change things. Ramiro Belgardt, another trusted confidant of John Williams, was our music editor. Once the music is recorded and premixed, it was up to Ramiro to keep it as close to what John intended throughout all of the picture changes.
A scene would be tightened or opened up, and the music isn’t going to be re-performed. That would be impossible to do, so it has to be edited or stretched or looped or truncated. Ramiro had the difficult job of making the music seem exactly how it was on the day it was performed. But in truth, if you look at his Pro Tools session, you’ll see all of these splices and edits that he did to make everything function properly.
Does a particular scene stick out?
There was one scene where Rey ignites the lightsaber for the very first time on Jedi Island, and there we did change the balance within the music. She’s on the cliff by the ocean and Luke is watching her as she’s swinging the lightsaber. Right when she ignites the lightsaber, her theme comes in, which is this beautiful piano melody. The problem was when they mixed the piano they didn’t have a really loud lightsaber sound going with it. We were really struggling because we couldn’t get that piano melody to speak right there. I asked Ramiro if there was any way to get that piano separately because I would love it if we could hear that theme come in just as strong as that lightsaber. Those are the types of little tiny things that we would do, but those are few and far between. For the most part, the score is how John and Shawn intended the mix to be.
It was also wonderful having Ramiro there as John’s spokesperson. He knew all of the subtle little sacred moments that Williams had written in the score. He pointed them out and I was able to push those and feature those.
Was Rian observing the sessions?
Rian attended every single scoring session and knew the music intricately. He was really excited for the music and wanted it to breathe. Rian’s knowledge of the music helped guide us.
Where did they perform and record the score?
This was recorded at the Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage on the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City, California.
Are there any Easter eggs in terms of the score?
During the casino sequence there’s a beautiful piece of music that plays throughout, which is something like an homage that John Williams wrote, going back to the Cantina song that he wrote for the original Star Wars.
So, the Easter egg comes as the Fathiers are wreaking havoc in the casino and we cut to the inside of a confectionery shop. There’s an abrupt edit where all the music stops and you hear this sort of lounge piano that’s playing, like a piece of source music. That lounge piano is actually John Williams playing “The Long Goodbye,” which is the score that he wrote for the film The Long Goodbye. Rian is a huge fan of that score and he somehow managed to get John Williams to put that into the Star Wars film. It’s a wonderful little Easter egg.
John Williams is, in so many ways, the closest thing we have to Beethoven or Brahms in our time. When you’re in his presence — he’s 85 years old now — it’s humbling. He still writes all of his manuscripts by hand.
On that day that John sat down and played “The Long Goodbye” piano piece, Rian was so excited that he pulled out his iPhone and filmed the whole thing. John said, “Only for you, Rian, do I do this.” It was a very special moment.
The other part of the Easter egg is that John’s brother Donald Williams is a timpanist in the orchestra. So what’s cool is you hear John playing the piano and the very next sound is the timpani, played by his brother. So you have these two brothers and they do a miniature solo next to each other. So those are some of the fun little details.
John Williams earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Music Score for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
It’s an incredible score. One of the fortunate things that occurred on this film was that Rian and producer Ram Bergman wanted to give John Williams as much time as possible so they started him really early. I think he had a year to compose, which was great. He could take his time and really work diligently through each sequence. When you listen to just the score, you can hear all of the little subtle nuances that John composed.
For example, Rose stuns Finn and she’s dragging him on this little cart and they’re having this conversation. If you listen to just the music through there, the way that John has scored every single little emotional beat in that sequence is amazing. With all the effects and dialogue, you’re not really noticing the musical details. You hear two people arguing and then agreeing. They hate each other and now they like each other. But when you deconstruct it, you hear the music supporting each one of those moments. Williams does things like that throughout the entire film. Every single moment has all these subtle musical details. All the scenes with Snoke in his lair have these ominous, dark musical choir phrases for example. It’s phenomenal.
The moments where the choice was made to remove the score completely, was that a hard sell for the director? Or, was he game to let go of the score in those effects-driven moments?
No, it wasn’t too difficult. There was one scene that we did revert on though. It was on Crait, and Rian wanted to get rid of the whole big music sequence when Leia sees that the First Order is approaching and they have to shut the giant door. There was originally a piece of music, and that was when the crystal foxes were introduced. So we got rid of the music there. Then we watched the film and Rian asked us to put that music back.
A lot of the music edits were crafted in the offline edit, and those were done by music editor Joseph Bonn. Joe would craft those moments ahead of time and test them. So a lot of that was decided before it got to my hands.
But on the stage, we were still experimenting. Ramiro would suggest trying to lose a cue and we’d mute it from the sequence. That was a fun part of collaborating with everyone. It’s a live experiment. I would say that on this film most of the music editorial choices were decided before we got to the final mix. Joe Bonn spent months and months crafting the music guide, which helped immensely.
What is one audio tool that you could not have lived without on the mix? Why?
Without a doubt, it’s our Avid Pro Tools editing software. All the departments —dialog, Foley, effects and music were using Pro Tools. That is absolutely hands-down the one tool that we are addicted to. At this point, not having Pro Tools is like not having a hammer.
But you used a console for the final mix, yes?
Yes. Star Wars: The Last Jedi was not an in-the-box mix. We mixed it on a Neve DFC Gemini console in the traditional manner. It was not a live Pro Tools mix. We mixed it through the DFC console, which had its own EQ, dynamics processing, panning, reverb sends/returns, AUX sends/returns and LFE sends/returns.
The pre-pre-mixing was done in Pro Tools. Then, looking at the sound effects for example, that was shaped roughly in the offline edit room, and then that would go to the mix stage. Michael Semanick would pre-mix the effects through the Neve DFC in a traditional premixing format that we would record to 9.1 pre-dubs and objects. A similar process was done with the dialogue. So that was done with the console.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney