You know the one. Kksshhwwwep! VvvvvVVVvvvVVvvVOOMmvvvVOOM KSCH KSCH SPLRRTSCH!!!
Star Wars was a revelation to popcorn cinema in many ways, but if I have to choose one thing that makes it stand apart, that would be its sound. Ben Burt and George Lucas, who always was more of a toymaker rather than an author, were responsible for creating the hundreds of sounds that breathed life to a galaxy far far away. Among those hundreds, there's dozens that have stuck to the collective minds of generations to come. And on top of them, the vibrant sound of the weapon of choice for everyone age 40 and below.
How the specific sound FX for the weapon of Jedis and Sith alike was created is pretty much public dominion by now. Go google it. However, I think we paid too much attention to the cool factor and too little to the narrative use of that sound, so let's take a look at the possibilities to embed a cool sound FX into rhythm of the storytelling.
Silence. Believe it or not, silence is a valid choice for a sound creative to take. In Western culture, the use of silence is not often explored, and it's a shame, since silence can be used for many things. In this occasion, silence happens when the lightsaber rests undrawn. For example, when danger is sensed but is not here yet, but it may be around the corner. Silence here is expectation.
Another example: two opposing characters fail to meet common ground. A Jedi only has to tuck his robe aside to let his weapon be in sight to send a clear message, no words needed: "Do you really wanna go that way?". Silence can mean hesitation, doubt. A choice has to be made. Will it be one for peace, or one for war? The Prequels got this use of silence right, among other ones, and VII shows a silent lightsaber too, although in a different context.
The point of no return. A choice is made. The wielder of the lightsaber chooses to use force (get it? Force!). Dialogue and the seek for mutual understanding are discarded. A short sweep of sound accompanies the appearance of a shiny coloured blade. The fight is on.
IV missed the chance of using this one better, since Kenobi finds Vader with his bloodred lightsaber already drawn: a pity. V corrected this, among other shortcomings of IV.
Beginning. A drawn lightsaber has a recognizable hum we love. That hum can stay largely unchanged for a while, anticipating the attacks, yet no one is attacking. In that way, they're similar to silence, only this time there's no way back.
According to dictionary.com, a drone is a "dull, continued, low, monotonous sound; hum; buzz". I love drones. Must be one of the reasons that contribute to me enjoying Sci-Fi, since they're used everywhere, from Robocop to Barbarella. Drones are used in many Sci-Fi flicks because we mostly relate humming sounds to machines. One machine, one drone. You have a spaceship? consider throwing in a drone. Robot from the future? Just cue a drone. In many movies, they're purely descriptive, with no real narrative use going on. And while we may associate machines with certain sounds, we had no preconceived idea of what a sword that's actually a laser had to sound like before IV, so Lucas and Burtt could've used any sound in the world for the lightsaber.
Drones are usually minimalistic by nature, and out of a complexity scale zero to 10, zero being Pitbull and 10 being contemporary jazz, drones are 1 or 2. That makes them really powerful, because they can easily disguise themselves as silence, mimicking all its strengths, often with more intensity, and without alienating popcorn audiences, who find absolute silence unsettling. They're a point of comparison. If you can clearly hear a 1 or 2, it means the rest is silent, therefore that silence is highlighted.
In the 2003 Clone Wars, Genndy Tartakovski, one of my favourite animation directors for his use of rhythm and sound, did a masterful use of this stage of the lightsaber in the fight of Anakin vs. Ventress.
Crescendo: drones, dull in principle, can evolve and show nuances, accents, like the lightsaber does. It can tease us further, swinging into crescendos, making us guess which of the swings will end up in a clash.
In that sense, the duel between Kenobi and Vader at the end of IV, turned a weakness into a strength. Since neither of the actors were in shape to do a proper sword choreography, the lightsabers teased us into a slower but more calculate fencing match, where the anticipation had more presence that the climax.
vvvvvvVVVVvvvvvv... Nope, not that one.
vvvvvvvVVVVvvvvvvvvvv... Not that one either.
Climax. Every popular symphony, song, novel, movie, novel and videogame has a rhythm, and within the rhythm, a climax. It's where everything gravitates to. The lightsaber is no different in that sense. The clash of two lightsabers makes a distinctive sound. It's different enough from the previous phase to make it stand out, yet it belongs to the same weapon. A good climax is nothing without good anticipation. In that sense, the fighting orgy of III, the longest and fiercest duel in the saga, with the most intense and elongated climax, had the anticipation of a whole trilogy behind. From the scrolling letters in I, we were anticipating the downfall of Anakin Skywalker. And with a long anticipation comes a long climax, at least in timeless Epics.
Climax 2.0. Having a cool sound FX is a climax, but having cool sound FX with an orchestra fanfare is the climax to the power of awesome. Although this is beyond the lightsaber, changes in extradiegetic music, which is sound after all, spicy up the whole thing. Not everything is beginning-crescendo-climax-resolution. Sometimes you can set up several climaxes or you can withdraw them completely. The Phantom Menace divided the fight in three segments: opening up with Duel of Fates tune, then pausing, to resume with no score, then another pause, to finish the battle off with the fanfare back. V also divided the duel in three, pausing in the middle to do two hide-and-seeks between Vader and son, playing the score in the second section. VI started mute, then paused once to do a similar hide-and-seek, then resumed with a melodramatic score, to emphasise the drama behind the fight, rather than the fight itself, which in my book is a cool choice.
Rhythm is everything. Personally, when the rhythm in my action sequences is shaken, stirred and spiced up, I don't mind them being long. 2003's Clone Wars was an action-heavy Star Wars product that had a great sense of rhythm, which made it enjoyable. In a similar fashion, many modern videogames, as well as popular animes with overlong fight sequences, flat characters and unevolving plots, keep audiences hooked to their screens simply because they mastered the art of creating rhythm in an action-based medium.
Resolution. To all everything there's an end, and the symphony of lightsabers has to end somehow. The same sound used when drawing a lightsaber, but this time
reversed, indicates the reverse meaning. The fight is off. And soon after, so is the movie.
And so is this entry.