When it came time to select a mixer for the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the core team behind the movie turned to Will Files. A longtime Dolby Atmos® mixer, Files has worked with Star Wars writer, director, and producer J.J. Abrams on films like Star Trek Into Darkness, and that résumé more than likely had something to do with him getting the nod to work on the biggest, and most secretive, project Abrams has undertaken to date.
Files recounts getting the call to come down to Abrams’s production house, Bad Robot, and the dream project that followed.
“They wanted someone they could trust to do a good job, but also someone who could come and work there at Bad Robot, sort of in secrecy,” Files said. That secrecy didn’t end at Bad Robot’s gate, either, Files says.
“A lot of people at Bad Robot didn’t even know what we were up to,” he says. That level of secrecy is something of a trademark for Abrams and the Bad Robot brand, and one that permeated every aspect of the trailer-creation process. From the first trailer, which Files suggests “asked more questions than it answered,” to the later trailers, which give us a glimpse into the personalities of the new faces in the Star Wars universe, each piece serves a purpose, and each adds to the mystery while telling a little more of the story.
“In terms of the design of trickling out information, I think J.J. is the master of the mystery box—that’s his whole thing,” Files said. “I think like many great filmmakers these days, … he takes a great interest in the marketing of his film, because not only does he understand that it has an important impact on the bottom line and the success of the film ultimately, but he also understands that the storytelling actually begins in the marketing.”
For example, File says that we know from just a few frames in the trailers, drawn from “maybe a couple minutes of the movie,” that Kylo Ren is a “pretty serious bad guy” and that Finn and Rey have a taste for adventure.
“That’s one of the things I really enjoyed about working on these trailers … that the three original trailers, every single one of them almost felt like a short film,” Files said. “They were little art pieces in themselves with a unique feel and a unique vibe, and almost a little storyline within them. And I can tell you that great care was taken to construct them as such.”
Creating a set of compelling short films is one thing, but creating the next installment in the Star Wars franchise takes more than great storytelling; each short had to evoke a feeling. When it came time to make these short clips feel like Star Wars, sound played a major role.
These trailers were never going to be ordinary trailers, and the team spared no expense to make sure the first reveal was special. Composer John Williams created a new score just for the trailers, which Files says is extremely unusual.
“Usually the music is a stereo track or something off of a CD, and in this case it was really given the royal treatment in every way possible,” Files said.
Then came the sound design, which Files says began with the original sounds of Star Wars.
“The first thing we did was we went into the Lucasfilm archives and we got all the sounds that Ben Burtt had created through the ’70s and ’80s for those films, and some of them were remastered and cleaned up in various ways, and we started with those as our basis for the track because we knew that those sounds had to speak very loudly in the mix,” Files said.
Nothing speaks quite as loudly in the first trailer as the Millennium Falcon’s first moment on screen.
“We were so careful that when the Millennium Falcon showed up, it just had to really feel like the Millennium Falcon. It had to look like it, and it had to sound like it. As a fairly young guy who grew up with the Star Wars movies, that was just so exciting to finally work with these sounds that I knew so well and to do my spin on them,” Files said. “It was too cool.”
Files had a unique spin on these sounds when the sound team expanded its palette to include Dolby Atmos, which helped them take the Falcon’s flyover to new heights. “We weren’t even sure at first if we were going to be able to do [a Dolby] Atmos version because it was so secret, and the timing was so tight, that the edict was, ‘Let’s just do it in 5.1,’” Files said.
The facility at Bad Robot was not yet equipped for Dolby Atmos—it is now—so Dolby stepped in to offer our facilities for this once-in-a-lifetime project.
“Dolby said, ‘Hey, why don’t you guys bring the trailer up to our studios in Burbank and let’s do a remix in [Dolby] Atmos and we can get that out into theatres as soon as possible.’ So we did that,” Files said. “And what was so fun about it was it was like taking this thing that we were very happy with the way it sounded and it was really like just letting it explode into the theatre. It was so fun to take the shackles off and let the mix really blossom in a way that made it even more exciting, I thought.”
That’s when the Millennium Falcon leapt into the room.
“The thing that people always react to in all three of the trailers that we’ve mixed in [Dolby] Atmos, the thing that everyone always reacts to is how fun it is to hear the Millennium Falcon literally scream through the room,” Files said. “Because, you know, it’s a really powerful-sounding engine, and very full sounding, a lot of bass, and that’s not the kind of thing people are used to hearing in the surrounds. Surrounds have traditionally been very thin sounding, smaller speakers, not very dynamic, not very punchy. And you’re used to all the power of the mix coming from the front, and then other atmospheric things in the room, and the occasional whoosh by or something, but we’ve struggled for a long time with trying to get as much power out of the surrounds as we would like, and it can be difficult.
“So it was really nice in this case to be able to take advantage of full-range, full-power surrounds that Dolby Atmos provides for us and have something like the Millennium Falcon just fly straight through the room in a way that feels a lot more like it’s really there, because you have this sense of weight and this sense of power, and it’s coming from over you or to the side of you in a way that you’ve never really experienced before.
“I think that is one of those things that’s just a no-brainer. Everyone just says, ‘Wow, that’s awesome,’” Files continued. “You could say that other things, like hearing the lightsabers zap through the room, and hearing laser blasts all around you and that sort of thing, I think that those things are tangible and they have a feeling, but there’s something really fun about hearing a giant spaceship cruise through a movie theatre in a very believable way.”
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives in theatres, we’ll get to spend bit more time with that giant spaceship and the crew that comes with it, and after speaking to Files, who contributed to the final mix for the feature as well, we can’t wait to hear the saga continue in Dolby Atmos.