The role of artificial intelligence has been growing in cinema over the years. In recent years, Lucasfilm has used AI to de-age Mark Hamill for Luke Skywalker’s surprise appearance in The Mandalorian, and again with horror icon Peter Cushing to reprise his role of Grand Moff Tarkin in Rouge One, years after his death. Now, the studio is moving forward with more AI integration in their growing franchise as the legendary actor, James Earl Jones, officially retired his voice of Darth Vader.
Disney and Ukrainian tech company, Respeecher, worked to bring the actor’s voice back for the latest installment of the franchise for Obi-Wan Kenobi. A report from Vanity Fair about Respeecher, a company that uses archival recording as a proprietary AI algorithm that allows for new and original dialogue to be created, reported on their work with Lucasfilm. This work ranged from bringing back the voice of a young Luke Skywalker to making Darth Vader sound as he did when James Earl Jones voiced him over forty-five years ago.
Even though their work with Lucus Films is exciting, it’s all against the backdrop of a war raging in the nation. Programmers piecing together Jones’ voice for Obi-Won Kenobi did so under the sounds of air raid sirens and the fears of munitions exploding. Even though their home nation of Ukraine is under attack, Lucasfilm works with the start-up as its work cannot be matched. As supervising sound editor Matthew Wood of Lucasfilm stated, “There are always alternatives that we could pursue that wouldn’t be as good as what they would give us. We never wanted to put them in any kind of additional danger to stay in the office to do something.”
Wood recalls working with James Earl Jones for a brief line of dialogue for 2019’s Rise of Skywalker, in which the actor expressed an interest in stepping away from the voice role of the best-known Sith Lord. Wood then asked the logical question, “So how do we move forward?” This is when he mentioned and showed the work of Respeecher, to which the actor signed off on the use of his archival voice recordings in a bid to keep Darth Vader alive through artificial intelligence.
Even at 91, Jones was still active in guiding the path of Vader, and as Woods calls it, “a benevolent godfather.” Though James Earl Jones would be stepping away from the role, the team still took a key interest in his advice about the character and how to chart the course for the future.
Though the role of Darth Vader isn’t as in-your-face as it was during the original trilogy, his presence is well felt, especially during the ending of Rouge One: A Star Wars Story, where many fans’ reactions became a meme online. But even though the use of Vader in stories has been sparing, it still takes a considerable amount of work to bring him back to life. As Woods states, “For a character such as Darth Vader, who might have 50 lines on a show, I might have a back-and-forth of almost over 10,000 files.”
This brings back the issue of the war in Ukraine. A project such as this is complex and requires a lot from a team. But even though their nation is suffering from a full-scale invasion from the Russian Federation, the team at Respeecher is working tirelessly to keep James Earl Jones’ voice for Darth Vardar alive so that the Sith Lord’s reign of terror against the Jedi may continue.