Star Wars and the Explosion of Dolby Stereo

By David Konow

How Star Wars changed the sound of movies forever.

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."

Image credit: SFgate.com

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.

Sensurround shook the theaters by using low bass tones on the soundtrack, but Universal wanted $3 million for Lucas to use the technology, plus 10% of the gross from Star Wars. Katz recalls, "I was a pretty cocky kid and I said, 'Oh you don't need that. We can do it.'" Katz also told Lucas and Kurtz that Sensurround was "a piece of shit," and little more than a noise generator.

Katz then explained that there were extra speakers in the theaters nobody used that could be used for extra sound impact, and Star Wars used them for bass enhancement.

Katz then explained that there were extra speakers in the theaters nobody used that could be used for extra sound impact, and Star Wars used them for bass enhancement. This was the beginning of 5.1, and at the time Dolby called it "baby boom." The opening scene of Star Wars, where the star destroyer had to sound as big and loud as possible, is what started the baby boom conversation. "That was the number one reason," says Mike Minkler, who was a re-recording mixer on Star Wars. "'We need more boom, we need more low end energy in this mix.'"

Before Star Wars, movie sound was stuck in an old model that was long outdated. In the '70's, there was state of the art sound being used for albums and concerts, and innovation was being made everywhere except in the movies.

"The sound was a very important component for Star Wars, and it was a component that Hollywood virtually ignored," Katz says. "People used to tell me, 'Nobody listens to the sound.' There were a lot of things on Star Wars that had literally never been done before."

"The mandate from George was he wanted something that had never been heard before," Minkler says. "I was really young and bold at the time, and I'd say, 'What do you mean I can't do that? Let's do it.' Everything was new, and fresh, and bold, and just go for it."

Theaters would have to redo their stereo systems in order to play Star Wars, and before the film's release, there was a meeting at Fox where President Alan Ladd Jr. and the studio execs asked, "What are we going to do about this Dolby thing?" It was explained to the powers that be that it would cost the studio $6,000 for a 70mm Dolby print, and the theaters should put in a Dolby system to get the best performance. "Okay," Ladd decreed. "Send out a letter. If you want 70mm, you have to have Dolby."

It took a film being made by young mavericks, instead of the old guard, to take these kinds of risks. Anyone familiar with the lore of Star Wars knows that there were a lot of people who just didn't get it until they finally saw the finished product. Minkler thought he was working on a game changer, "And I was kind of alone (laughs). Most people thought this was really silly."

No one in Star Wars saw the finished movie until it was previewed for the press and the crew at the Academy Theater in West Hollywood. Katz was sitting behind the theater's console, and when the film came to a hyperspace scene, Katz cranked up the fader. "I think the normal setting was like seven," he recalls. "Like in Spinal Tap, where they turned their amps up to 11, I took it up to 12. Click, click, click, click, click. The thing hit, and the theater just went kaboom. The old time reviewers, all of the sudden they started clapping and stomping, and they never stopped."

"It got a ten minute standing ovation, it was nuts," Minkler recalls. "We all said, 'Oh my God, this is really something. 'And nobody really had the vision but George. I don't think anybody saw the big picture but him."

Image credit: SFgate.com

Star Wars came out in a small handful of theaters opening day, but things exploded from there. It took time for the theaters to redo their sound systems for Dolby, and the company had $1.5 million in equipment on loan to keep up with the demand. Katz recalled that before Star Wars, Dolby was in thirty theaters, and after the film exploded it was in a thousand theaters.

Before Star Wars, Dolby was in thirty theaters, and after the film exploded it was in a thousand theaters.

The late Gareth Wigan, who was an executive at Fox during Star Wars' release, said, "A big, major release in the mid '70s was 800 prints. Star Wars opened on 40 screens because nobody else wanted to book it. Once there was a gigantic demand for Star Wars, there was also a huge demand for having it in Dolby. Of the 40 prints it opened with, only three were Dolby. The Dolby switchboard burned out on the Monday after Star Wars opened because so many people were calling and asking, 'How can I get Dolby in my theater?'"

"It was the six track 70mm mix that everyone wanted to hear," Minkler says. "It was a showcase kind of situation, and it helped create the entire mystique about Star Wars." The Dolby logo was featured on the theater marquees, and at the Mann Chinese in Hollywood the theaters made up t-shirts that said: I HEARD Star Wars at the Chinese.

Looking back, Ray's son David tells us that Star Wars "was a very special movie and significant milestone in Dolby's history. Thanks to the vision of George Lucas and his sound designers we breached a new frontier. Once audiences heard massive spaceships passing over their heads in Dolby Stereo, their expectations of cinema sound changed forever. We've always developed our cinema technologies to serve artists, and I'd like to defer to Lucas who said, 'Ray's pioneering work in sound played a pivotal role in allowing Star Wars to be the truly immersive experience I had always dreamed it would be.'"

We were recently reminded of all this when Ray Dolby passed away last September at the age of 80. As one source told Variety, "Dolby didn't just create the playing field, he flattened it. Meaning we were free to explore to our wildest dreams…You weren't designing sound for one theater, you were designing sound for every theater on Earth."

And indeed, you can hear the legacy of Ray Dolby, and Star Wars, every time you go to a movie. "Star Wars changed movie sound forever," Minkler says. "George was personally responsible for the redevelopment of the cinema showcase. Virtually every movie is at least a 5.1 mix today, and that's a big deal."