Star Wars Battlefront and the art of retro sound design
Playing Star Wars Battlefront can be like stepping into a scene from The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi. The iconic ships, characters, the weapons; they’re all there, and while the visuals are undoubtedly impressive, it’s what you hear that makes it feel like a cohesive part of the Star Wars universe. The original films were landmarks in sound design, using innovative sound effects and recording techniques — along with John Williams’ score — to create an aural landscape that has become ingrained in our cultural consciousness, whether you’re a fan of the movies or not.
Bringing that to a video game was a massive undertaking on the part of developers EA DICE, one that went well beyond just pulling up a bank of pre-recorded sound effects and music cues. As DICE audio director Ben Minto and sound designer David Jegutidse explain it, it required them to turn back the clock and uncover the original methods used to create some of the most memorable sound effects in movie history.
“The audio direction for the project was ‘Don’t go and create anything new,’” Minto tells me over the phone from DICE’s headquarters in Sweden. “All these ideas are already there, so if anybody was adding anything to the game, it was always challenged. Where did you get this from? How have you broken this down? And if it didn’t stick to the Star Wars way of doing it, it was ‘no.’” To make that happen, DICE first went back to where it all began: the sound library at Lucasfilm and Skywalker Sound.
"Initially we were given about 10 hours' worth of sound effects," Minto says. "A lot of these were the original recordings. They have what’s called the ‘slate’ at the beginning, where somebody talks into a microphone and says, ‘Doing Jawa recordings by shouting in a canyon,’ or something along those lines." Those recordings, along with the broken-down sound effects track from the movies themselves, gave Minto and his team the raw ingredients to start with. But movies and games are obviously very different mediums, and a sound effects sequence tailored to a specific action scene in a film isn’t going to have everything a first-person shooter will need.
"Say, for example, the blasters. In the film pretty much every blaster you hear is third person," Minto explains. While that can serve as a definitive example of what the weapon should sound like, the various conditions of the game require permutation upon permutation — what the blaster will sound like up close, far away, or 100 yards off to the right inside a hanger on Hoth. "We already have that learning from taking a gun and putting it into the Battlefield world. So then we also knew what techniques we had to apply to take a blaster and put it into the Battlefront world."
"I spent a couple of days recording wire fences in Iceland."
Balanced with that was the fact that Battlefront has a much wider array of space-age weaponry compared to the original films. "There’s maybe about four different blaster sounds in the movies," Jegutidse says, "but we have 12 or something infantry blasters, plus additional abilities. So it’s important that we build those new blasters from elements that are familiar to the Star Wars soundscape and make it seem seamless when next to a familiar blaster."
That meant going back to the same techniques Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt used to create some of the sound effects in 1977. "We started off with the slinky spring, which is probably the common one, where you just throw that up and stick it to the roof, and twang it," Minto says. "I spent a couple of days recording wire fences in Iceland. And I also went to the largest free-standing antenna in Western Europe, which is about 1.5 kilometers high, because that had the longest guide wires, which is the way Ben Burtt originally did the blasters. I sort of snuck up and tried to twang it, and it didn’t make any sound at all. So that was an 8-hour round trip to get nothing," he laughs.
Jegutidse also incorporated things like mechanical movements, ice pings recorded underwater, and metal slides to create the many blasters of Battlefront. "Just using organic sources, not really synthetic; nothing digital," he says. "That’s usually avoided, because that’s not part of how these sounds were originally created."
As the pair talk, it’s clear they have a real reverence for the work Burtt and the original Star Wars audio team came up with — Minto goes so far as to call Star Wars the audio "holy grail," saying it’s one of the reasons the modern concept of a sound designer exists in the first place. But their insistence on mimicking the techniques used in a film that was made 38 years ago isn’t just fan service; it’s actually the best way to create things that actually sound like they’re part of that world.
"We have access to so many tools these days," Minto says. "And you think, 'Right Star Wars! I’m going to do this, this, this, and this!' And you’ve got all those [software] plug-ins… and it didn’t sound like Star Wars when you did it. And if you go back and look at the old documentaries or the making-of [specials], you pretty much had a reel-to-reel tape machine. You could record a sound and play it at half speed or twice as fast, as those were your options."
The screech of the original TIE Fighter, for example, was the sound of an elephant, slowed down, and mixed with the sound of car rolling on wet pavement as recorded through a long tube. "Actually getting a good recording and taking the pitch up or down gave you that Star Wars feel instantly, without going over the top. So it was almost like keep it simple stupid, and trying to stick to the old processes would actually be a better way."
It’s an example of using the right tools to create the most authentic-sounding result, even if the technology is outdated by modern standards. Well-designed films have their own visual and aural vocabulary; a specific way their worlds look and sound that makes them recognizable in an instant, and for Battlefront to feel like Star Wars it needed to pick up on all of those nuances — including the in-jokes.
Remember in the original Star Wars when Luke shoots a Stormtrooper, who then falls into a vast chasm with a ludicrous, nearly comical cry? That’s called a Wilhelm scream, and shows up in every Star Wars movie, Indiana Jones movie, and pretty much anything Ben Burtt has ever touched. And while it wasn’t present in the public beta of Battlefront, Minto and Jegutidse assure me it’s definitely in the shipping version of the game.
"In the original Wilhelm recording, which I think was done for a film called Distant Drums, there’s six different takes of it. We actually use all six of those," Minto says. "But my favorite scream to be added… There’s a bit in Return of the Jedi where Chewie swings between the trees, and he does that [mimics Tarzan call]. That’s called a ‘Weissmuller.’ So when people ask about the Wilhelm I say yep, we’ve got the Wilhelm, but we’ve got the Weissmuller, which is named after Johnny Weissmuller, the original Tarzan actor."
"What was interesting was in the open beta we actually didn’t have the Wilhelm scream in there yet, but some people on Reddit said they thought there was too much Wilhelm in the game," Jegutidse deadpans.
I can practically hear Minto shrugging over the phone. "People hear it when they want to."