StarWarsVisions_sound-01 Asbjoern Andersen


Each episode of Disney+ animated series Star Wars: Visions is unique – created by different teams with stories inspired by the Star Wars universe. Here, supervising sound editor/sound designer David W. Collins at Skywalker Sound and writer/director LeAndre Thomas at Lucasfilm talk about their MPSE Award-nominated sound on S2: E8 'The Pit,' which tells the story of oppressed kyber crystal miners abandoned by the Empire. They discuss using sound to help fill in details in animation, creating creature vocals, using legacy sounds to tie this individual story to the larger Star Wars universe, and so much more!
Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Disney+; Skywalker Sound; Lucasfilm
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Disney+ animated anthology series Star Wars: Visions is a collection of original animated short films set in (or inspired by) the Star Wars universe. Each episode is a self-contained story produced by various studios and creative teams. Now in its second season, one consistent factor in Star Wars: Visions has been Skywalker Sound‘s supervising sound editor/sound designer/dialogue editor David W. Collins. Collins has earned an MPSE nom for Season 1’s The Duel and is currently in the running for an ‘Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Broadcast Animation’ MPSE Award for Season 2’s The Pit – written and directed by LeAndre Thomas at Lucasfilm.

Collins has created sound for numerous Star Wars projects – from live-action series like The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett (earning Emmy and MPSE noms for sound editing on both) to animated series like The Bad Batch, Tales of the Jedi, and my personal favorites, the Star Wars LEGO shorts like Terrifying Tales and Summer Vacation (all earning MPSE noms for the sound editing!).

Thomas is also no stranger to the Star Wars universe. As the Manager of Franchise Video Assets at Lucasfilm, he’s helped create Star Wars documentaries, Blu-ray materials for Rogue One, The Last Jedi, and much more.

Here, Thomas and Collins talk about their collaboration on Star Wars: Visions S2: E8 “The Pit,” how sound was able to support the emotional story that Thomas wanted to tell, how legacy sounds connect “The Pit” to the larger Star Wars universe, how they created bespoke creatures and ship sounds for the short, and so much more!



Star Wars: Visions Volume 2 | Official Trailer | Disney+


Star Wars: Visions Volume 2 | Official Trailer | Disney+

LeAndre, how did you team up with David for Star Wars: Visions “The Pit”? And why was he a good fit for the episode?

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Filmmaker LeAndre Thomas

LeAndre Thomas (LT): I always want to work with Skywalker Sound for anything that I try to do and, of course, Star Wars: Visions was the perfect opportunity for me to be able to work with them. I’ve been at Lucasfilm since 2011, and I’ve been a fan of David’s work forever; I’ve always wanted to work with David and the stars finally aligned. It’s been the best team I’ve worked with yet – a dream come true.

 

David, this is your second season of Star Wars: Visions. How have you evolved or expanded the sound of the show for S2?

David W. Collins (DC): Star Wars: Visions is about people’s interpretation of their own stories set in a galaxy far, far away. It’s about what Star Wars means to them, but it’s also about telling great stories set in that universe. Everything was so brand new with Star Wars: Visions, with this idea of opening it up to people’s different ideas of Star Wars.

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Sound supervisor/sound designer David W. Collins

The biggest challenge with Star Wars: Visions is that every episode starts from the beginning. In other words, we don’t have a show library with established sounds from the first season that we can go back to for the second season. Every episode is its own thing. Each one has a different team, different characters, different story, different animation style, and different composer.

Season 2 was unique because it opened up beyond just the studios in Japan and became a worldwide animation effort.

LeAndre and I have been working together on and off on various projects – Star Wars documentaries, Blu-ray materials for Rogue One or The Last Jedi,’ and a lot of projects like that. Then LeAndre started writing and directing “The Pit.” I found out that he was doing an episode, and of course, I just jumped at the chance. I’m so honored to be a part of it.

We’ve been talking about it for a couple of years. LeAndre teamed up with director Justin Ridge; we had done a show called Star Wars Resistance together. So, it all just aligned to work together on this. And then I got to take my pick of some amazing legends here at Skywalker Sound.

We did a spotting session very early on and talked about it, much earlier than usual. Almost a year before doing post on the show! which wWe don’t get to do that very often in sound. That was very enlightening and helped me to figure out how to put together a crew that would be great for it. Every episode is different, so “The Pit” is unique to any other episode in Star Wars: Visions. It’s its own thing. That early spotting session also helped us to figure out what to lean into and what to pull back on – that sort of thing.

 

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David has created sound for many Star Wars projects, from live-action series to animated series, but Star Wars: Visions is so different from all of those. One noticeable difference is the look of the show. How has the look of Star Wars: Visions influenced the approach to the sound?

LT: With animation, you don’t have the luxury of seeing everything you’re used to seeing with live-action so you can fill in the gaps, the textures, the details that we take for granted through the audio. It’s an incredibly important aspect of animation because you’re not able to see every single detail so you can fill in those gaps with audio. When I was writing the screenplay, I was writing it with sound in mind. It was important from the conception of the idea that audio and sound were instrumental in the entire process.

…you can fill in the gaps, the textures, the details that we take for granted through the audio.

For “The Pit” specifically, we wanted the look to feel very nostalgic. Star Wars: Visions is a series of shorts so all of them look vibrant and beautiful. But this one we wanted to feel very nostalgic because the message that we were trying to articulate was not something that was new. We didn’t want cutting-edge animation to send the wrong message about the core theme of the story, which is this idea of oppression and hope and the constant battle between the two.

The story we were trying to tell with “The Pit” is something very real and relevant today, connected to current events. “The Pit” is an allegory. We didn’t have a lot of dialogue in it, and that was by design. A lot of the story was told through the blocking, and what was happening in the actual story.

We didn’t have a lot of dialogue in it, and that was by design.

There’s not a lot of action in it, which was also by design. We wanted it to be very emotional and we wanted the message to carry the story. It’s not about lightsaber fights and sweeping space battles – something that Star Wars does very well. Instead, we wanted to bring something different to the table with this particular story. The message of the movie is a call to action for people to want to actually do something about the climate that we’re currently in.


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The look was very important and we wanted the audio to reflect that and, in a lot of ways, to carry it at the same time. The audio didn’t have to feel nostalgic; it could be very real, very textured. Skywalker Sound did an amazing job, particularly with the foley. For example, there’s a lot of digging in “The Pit” and so having that very natural, very real sound carried and bolstered the movie.

DC: The foley was all custom-walked for this. I got really lucky and was able to use John Roesch and Shelley Roden. John is retired now, so this was one of his last movies. He and Shelley did some foley for “The Pit” early on and then came back to finish it.

The foley was all custom-walked for this. I got really lucky and was able to use John Roesch and Shelley Roden.

LeAndre mentioned all the digging sounds. John is a legend. He walked on Raiders at Lost Ark! He brought decades of those kinds of experiences and his talent to “The Pit.” That was so important because that was the best way to support the story, to make that pit really visceral, really gritty, unpleasant, and awful. You want to feel that it’s hot and that it’s dirty and that it’s hard work. John was able to accomplish that in spades. And that was our starting point in terms of achieving a level of real cinematic-sounding audio for the track.

It’s not about big explosions and a lot of legacy sound. It’s more thoughtful than that.

We certainly do a lot of space battles in Star Wars projects, as LeAndre said. We do a lot of big, bombastic sound. And I specifically wanted to put “The Pit” up for MPSE Award consideration because it doesn’t have that. I do bombast all the time and it’s something I love doing, but “The Pit” was about audio in service of story. The most important thing we could do is help drive LeAndre’s message across. The whole point of the message is following the light and having hope over oppression. It’s not about big explosions and a lot of legacy sound. It’s more thoughtful than that. Dancing with the music in and out, knowing when to lean in and when to pull away is what I love about the sound of “The Pit.”

I want to give special thanks to our sound effects editors Kevin Bolen and Bill Rudolph, our Foley mixer Scott Curtis, our re-recording mixer Jeff King, and Alex Wilmer and Xiuzhu (Mimi) Guo for their additional Foley work.

 

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Let’s talk about the legacy sounds in “The Pit.” There are Stormtroopers in it, so you need their vocal processing, weapons, and foley, right? How did you make those fit the sonic tone of “The Pit”?

DC: By comparison to other Star Wars projects that I’ve worked on, there are remarkably few legacy sounds in “The Pit”. We ended up using some legacy elements for the ships, and the vocal processing for the Stormtroopers, but they never fire a shot in the show.

By comparison to other ‘Star Wars’ projects that I’ve worked on, there are remarkably few legacy sounds in “The Pit”.

The vehicles and creatures were all uniquely made. We didn’t go to legacy sounds. We wanted to put together something new. For example, we created the voice of a mole-like creature that helps Crux climb out of the pit.

LT: As far as legacy, we did have Matthew Wood do some voice work for the Stormtroopers, which he’s done in the past, as well as many other memorable Star Wars characters. And we had Steve Blum, who is a legacy actor as far as dialogue is concerned. He’s the voice of Zeb for Star Wars Rebels, for instance. So they helped bring a familiar voice and sound to “The Pit”.

Even though it’s not canon technically, we wanted it to feel like this was a story that was told in the “Star Wars” universe…

We didn’t want “The Pit” to feel like it was otherworldly; we wanted it to feel in galaxy. Even though it’s not canon technically, we wanted it to feel like this was a story that was told in the Star Wars universe and having those two actors in the movie helped achieve that because they’re as legacy as it gets as far as actors go.

StarWarsVisions_sound-07

DC: The city in “The Pit” has a lot of that Star Wars feel. You have aliens of different civilizations walking around.

And there’s a sound that Ben Burtt made that I always use for kyber crystals. It’s this sound of rubbing a crystal wine glass that’s filled with water. It gives you that wonderful resonance and I’ve used that a lot for the kyber crystal sounds. It’s a special, otherworldly McGuffin-type device for the kyber crystals.

And there’s a sound that Ben Burtt made that I always use for kyber crystals.

The whole point is that the city has a veneer, but if you look beyond daily life, there’s this horrible oppression that’s happening that is enabling your daily life. This is where the allegory is really important. The pit where they’re digging the kyber crystals and the city feel very different from each other.

And so if you’re looking for those classic, legacy sounds, I think the city is probably where you would find them, including the transports that come from the city and rescue the workers in the pit.

 

StarWarsVisions_sound-06

When the people from the city walk out to the pit, they hear chanting from the workers trapped down there. They’re saying ‘Follow the Light.’ Can you talk about creating that chant?

LT: I can start from a production standpoint. “Follow the light” is something that we wanted to feel a little catchy and be something that people can take away from watching the film. That is one of the inherent dialogue lines that we want people to walk away with.

We have hundreds of people in this story but we don’t have hundreds of actors.

The few actors that we did have in this movie, we wanted them to give that line their all. Also, we needed as many people as we could get to fill in for all of the background characters that we had in the scene. We have hundreds of people in this story but we don’t have hundreds of actors. So, it was all hands on deck. We added myself, Justin Ridge (co-director), Dave [Collins], of course, and then Matt Wood. Basically, everybody who had a microphone near them did the chant, so we could fill the space. There’s a line in Rogue One that said, “Make a few men feel like a hundred.” That’s exactly what we did.

It was cathartic to do something like that, especially since it was during the pandemic. There was a lot of emotion that people felt they needed to get off their chests. And I wanted to use this movie as an opportunity for them to be able to do that. So we were all yelling and screaming “Follow the light,” which I’m sure was a pain to mix.

DC: Jeff King was our mixer. He did a great job. There were a lot of dialogue tracks!

When building crowds, there are many tricks that people do in terms of using software like Sound Particles or noise generation – things like that. I’ve done that on other shows, but we didn’t do any of that on “The Pit”.

You can still hear that there are people. It doesn’t just sound like this wash of a giant crowd.

When they’re calling from the pit, you can still hear voices. You can still hear young voices. You can still hear that there are people. It doesn’t just sound like this wash of a giant crowd. We wanted to keep it personal, to hear those voices and then we just carry it with delay and reverb and music. When we put it up that way, it worked because it felt right. That’s the most important thing in this kind of storytelling as allegory. It just needs to feel right as opposed to sounding like this big fabricated effect.

 

StarWarsVisions_sound-08

There’s a scene in which a young prisoner (Crux) climbs out of the pit to find help for his people. It can be challenging to show scale (how big or deep something is) on a small screen. How did sound help to convey the incredible depth of that pit?

DC: First, what we got from LeAndre and the team – the cut and the shot design and the way that you can see certain things – really portrayed that depth. So when Crux is climbing out, we can see how deep it is just from the shots cutting back to the people watching; they’re looking directly upward. So a lot of that work was done for us.

The biggest way we used sound was when Crux was thrown back into the pit and his scream just disappeared into nothing. That was something we had in the temp track from edit.

LT: We wanted to make sure that was transferred over to your team, David. And for that specific scene when Crux is tragically thrown back in, we wanted it to almost harmonize in an eerie way, where his scream becomes the sound effect. That was something we did in the edit and it was even better after your team got their hands on it.

…we wanted it to almost harmonize in an eerie way, where his scream becomes the sound effect.

Additionally, we used reverb and echo to make sure the pit itself sounded different from the ground above them. The acoustics in the pit were different from the acoustics on the surface because of its enclosed walls. So as Crux is climbing out, you start to lose a little of that. Then, when he’s on the surface, that goes away. That was very strategic and something we wanted the audience to experience.

DC: There’s a lot of slap delay at the bottom of the pit, especially on the pickaxes.

StarWarsVisions_sound-09

LT: We wanted the pit to feel like its own environment. We didn’t want it to feel like it was on the same playing field as the city. Part of the allegory is showing the distinction between the people in the city and the people in the pit. The city people live a pristine life. They have the technology of the Star Wars that we’re more accustomed to.

We wanted the pit to feel like its own environment.

And then you have the pit, which is going in the complete opposite direction. The further down you go, you lose all of that. You don’t have the clean sound effects that you would in a city environment. It’s much more rough and gritty and echoey. It needed to feel a little dangerous. And that was part of the two directions of the two environments.

 

StarWarsVisions_sound-10

Did you have a favorite single sound for “The Pit”? What went into it?

LT: The mole-like creature (dubbed ‘Guaca,’ like Guacamole, but that’s just the production name). I wanted the mole to sound intelligent – as though it understood what was happening and was consciously doing something to help – and to sound really cute. I heard David’s first pass and asked if he could make it even cuter. The next time I heard it, it was perfect. It became instantly my favorite sound effect of the whole movie.

…when you’re looking for a very specific emotion, sometimes you just need to record yourself to be able to chase the sound you’re looking for.

DC: Thanks! It’s a mixture of elements. I’ve oftentimes had to use my own voice as a starting point for doing these kinds of things because when you’re looking for a very specific emotion, sometimes you just need to record yourself to be able to chase the sound you’re looking for. You end up using that recording mixed in with a lot of other elements to give it that right feel. I think there are a couple of very pitched-up vocalizations that I gave. And this was on the day of the mix. We were making changes up to the final mix. And I know I delivered some adds there at the very end.

StarWarsVisions_sound-11

We have these very tonal, almost Blade Runner-esque transports. They were great, but when we brought in the music, they were not complementing each other. I remember at the very end giving them a much more rocket engine-type of sound that could peek through the mix because the tonal stuff just wasn’t carrying it. It was confusing. Sometimes sounds created in isolation don’t work. It’s all about give and take; it’s all about how you orchestrate your work versus the rest of the work. So, a couple of rewrites at the last minute were involved and it definitely made it a lot better, especially because it happens at the end and it’s such an emotional moment. You want the music to carry all of that and you don’t want anything to fight it.

 

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Congrats on your MPSE nom of “The Pit”! For you, what stands out about the sound of this episode in particular?

DC: The sound was all in service of the story. It was nice to see that Star Wars is so malleable that it takes to that so well. It’s not a big bombastic story. It is a very emotional, important human story. The sound needed to be in complete service of that. It needed to be visceral and real and lend credibility to the heavily stylized visuals so that your brain just immediately accepts the animation style.

…it was an honor to use the tools we have at Skywalker Sound to bring that story to life…

The story is trying to convey real hardships and social issues as an allegory, and it was an honor to use the tools we have at Skywalker Sound to bring that story to life and to do it in a way that feels like Star Wars. That was a great challenge but that’s the whole point of Star Wars: Visions in general.
 

A big thanks to David W. Collins and LeAndre Thomas for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of Star Wars: Visions “The Pit” and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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