When Star Wars came out on May 25, 1977, the cinema experience was changed forever. While some critics feel that Star Wars changed movies for worse by contributing to the modern blockbuster syndrome, there’s no doubt that for technology and special effects Star Wars was a huge leap forward. In particular, the way Star Wars cemented Dolby Stereo’s dominance in sound transformed the way we would listen to movies in theaters and at home.
Sean Durkin, the director of corporate communications at Dolby, gives us a sense of what it was like before that day. “When you think about the ‘70’s, it represents a new era for film. When people think of Star Wars, they think of really iconic moments, and one of them is early in the of the film with the massive imperial destroyer chasing the rebel ship. That was the first Dolby experience for a lot of people. It gave people a different way to think about sound in a movie, and filmmakers and sound designers now had the ability to deliver these big experiences.”
As legendary sound designer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) said in the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “Star Wars was the can opener than made people realize not only the effect of sound, but the effect that good sound had at the box office. Theaters that had never played stereo were forced to do it if they wanted Star Wars.” The executives at Dolby said, “We need our own Jaws” to make Dolby a force to be reckoned with, and it turned out to be Star Wars because it took a movie that big to push the technology through, and finally make it stick.
Bay Area filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas were always fascinated with the possibilities of sound. Coppola worked closely on his films with Murch, and Lucas’s sound wizard was Ben Burtt, who created R2-D2’s beeps, Darth Vader’s heavy breathing, the hum of the light sabers, and more.
Stephen Katz began working at Dolby in 1974, and he was also a sound consultant on Star Wars. He remembered the day Ioan Allen called, telling him to come up to San Francisco to meet with a producer and director who were interested in using Dolby in their movie. Katz flew up and met George Lucas and Gary Kurtz, who said they initially wanted to use Sensurround in Star Wars, a short-lived gimmick that was used in Earthquake and several other films.