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starwars.com at Celebration III
April 19, 2005

General Rumblings: Matthew Wood on Grievous and Sound

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When a young Matthew Wood saw a BBS posting for a job offer in Nicasio, California to test videogames, he sensed opportunity. "I knew there was nothing in Nicasio except for Skywalker Ranch, because it's pretty much a farm town. I didn' t think there was an egg hatchery that needed a videogame tester." While working on some of the earliest LucasArts hits (such as Monkey Island, Night Shift, and Loom), Wood was taking night classes in filmmaking, and he saw another opportunity when Lucasfilm developed a program called SoundDroid.

"It was the first computer editing system for sound. It was the first way to cut and design sound for computers. Up until that, it was all done on magnetic film," recalled Wood. The SoundDroid system was used extensively on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which Wood worked on before moving onto the prequel trilogy, starting with The Phantom Menace. "Since then, I've been working on the Star Wars movies sharing Supervising Sound Editor responsibilities with Ben Burtt."

This led to his current position on Episode III, and his newfound role as one of the saga's newest villains: the voice of General Grievous. Grievous was one of the last and hardest characters to cast. "We just kept trying new people," said Wood. "We went down to LA to cast. We got a lot of people from Sydney, Australia. We had some of Rick [McCallum's] friends in there. Ben Burtt was in there. George [Lucas] even took a crack at it."

With each audio audition, Wood would use Digidesign Pro Tools to pitch the voices lower, and add a ring modulation to give it a mechanical timbre, and then sent the modified voices to Lucas for perusal. "He doesn't look at names, he just kind of approves as he's hearing it. So, one of the last times I was doing it, I remember thinking, 'you know, I can do this.'"

With an acting background at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Wood secretly auditioned, recording a sample under the pseudonym of "A. Smithee."

"I was kind of nervous when I did it," admits Wood. "Ben was out of town that day. Rick called me three days later. I hadn't heard anything. He said, 'George really likes A. Smithee, so if you could call Ardees [Rick's assistant] and let her know who that is, we'll contact their agent and get them out here. I remember I broke into an instant sweat when I heard that."

Momentarily fearing that he had crossed the line, Wood was relieved to hear that Lucas wanted to keep him as the voice regardless of his past association with the project. Wood had adopted an Eastern European accent as a base for Grievous' voice. "I was in Prague and had spent some time in Russia while on a trip, and I really enjoyed listening to the voices of the people," explained Wood. "Also, the character of Grievous is kind of vampiric in a way. I didn't want to go super cheesy and sound like Bela Legosi, but that was part of the decision."

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As an astounding surprise to the audience, Wood showed an excerpt from the fourth reel of Episode III, the scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi confronts General Grievous. He showed the clip several times, each with a different "stem" of the final sound mix. The first was just the voices, both Wood and Ewan McGregor reading their lines a long time after principal photography had wrapped ("Back away! I will deal with this Jedi myself!" snarls Grievous, before convulsing from a fit of deep, wet coughs.). The second stem was the sound effects, with the angry hum of twirling lightsabers, the high pitched buzzsaw whine as the blades cut into the ground and the mechanical clicks of Grievous' body. The third stem was John Williams' score, while the last was the merging of the sound stems into the rich, final mix.

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