How ‘Star Wars’ Changed Filmmaking:
THX Sound System

Lucasfilm raised the bar for sound quality.

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July 28, 2021

This is the fifth post in our eight-part series that explores the ways “Star Wars” has pushed new innovations in VFX and sound technology — inspiring the world with its timeless storytelling.

“Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” (1983) was the first “Star Wars” movie to be sound mixed in northern California. A brand-new facility had been constructed for Sprocket Systems (now known as Skywalker Sound), including a theater specially designed by Tomlinson Holman. The scientist and engineer developed a crossover network of intricately placed speakers and acoustics that greatly improved the audio quality in the mixing room. The system was dubbed “THX,” a double reference to its inventor – Tomlinson Holman crossover – and to George Lucas’ debut feature film “THX 1138” (1971).

THX The Audience is Listening

The ideal mixing room was one thing, but it would matter little if theaters around the world didn’t match the specifications. For the release of “Return of the Jedi,” the THX Sound System was part of a new Lucasfilm initiative to raise the standards of sound and picture quality. At the time, individual movie houses were free to design their projection and audio systems however they pleased — resulting in variable, and often poor, viewing and listening experiences. Lucasfilm’s Theater Alignment Program (TAP) recruited theater owners to adopt these standards for their own cinemas, ensuring that the filmmakers’ vision was properly seen and heard in as many venues as possible. The program caught on and over the years hundreds of theaters participated, elevating the theatergoing experience for all.

When “Return of the Jedi” opened in May of 1983, it was preceded by a title card bearing the THX name along with “The Deep Note” — the signature synthesized, musical crescendo created by Lucasfilm Computer Division engineer James A. Moorer. The imposing sound became a trademark of THX for a whole generation of moviegoers. To this day, Skywalker Sound remains on the cutting edge of sonic technology and artistry, particularly when it comes to immersive sound. Dolby engineers routinely consult with Skywalker Sound when developing new and enhanced formats. Continuing that legacy, the Skywalker team mixed Pixar’s “Brave,” the first feature film to be mixed in Dolby Atmos. They also consulted on the first commercial Dolby Atmos installation in The El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, for the premiere of “Brave” in June 2012.