Bogdan Belyaev was working from home when the air raid sirens went off. They hadn’t been heard in the city of Lviv since World War II, but it was February 24 and Russia had just invaded Ukraine. “When we heard that missiles are attacking and that ours [internet] In parts of our country, the connection broke down, we had to seek shelter,” says Belyaev. That meant he, his wife, their dog, and two cats huddled in the middle of their building. “It’s a ‘shelter,’ actually in quotes, because it was actually our bathroom,” he says. “There is a rule of two walls. You must be behind two walls. The first wall absorbs the impact, and the second stops the small shrapnel.” But for Belyaev, work continued because he needed it. People on the other side of the world relied on him, and the project was the culmination of a passion he’d had since childhood: War of stars.
Belyaev is a 29-year-old synthetic voice artist at Ukrainian start-up Respeecher, which uses archival footage and a proprietary AI algorithm to create new dialogue using the voices of performers from a bygone era. The company worked with Lucasfilm to generate the voice of a young Luke Skywalker for Disney+ The book by Boba Fett and the latest Obi Wan Kenobi The series tasked her with making Darth Vader sound like the dark side villain of James Earl Jones 45 years ago, now that Jones’ voice has changed with age and he’s retired from the role. Belyaev rushed to finish his work when Putin’s troops crossed the border. “If things went badly, we would never have these conversions shipped to Skywalker Sound,” he says. “So I decided to release this data directly on February 24.”
Respeecher employees in Kyiv also continued in a crouched position. Dmytro Bielievtsov, the company’s co-founder and CTO, went online at a theater where tabletops, books and more had been stacked outside windows in case of explosions. Programmers “train” the AI to replicate Jones’ voice, and editors who assemble the output worked from corridors inside their homes. One took refuge in an ancient brick “cellar” no bigger than a crawl space.
Back at Skywalker Sound in Northern California, Matthew Wood was the lead sound editor on the receive end of transmissions from Ukraine. He says they hired Respeecher because there’s an often elusive human touch to the vocal performances the start-up generates. “My primary concern has certainly been their welfare,” says Wood, who has been with Lucasfilm for 32 years. “There are always alternatives that we could pursue that would not be as good as what they would offer us. We never wanted to put them at additional risk of staying in the office and doing something.”
What Respeecher did better than anyone was recreate the hauntingly menacing way Jones, now 91, sounded half a lifetime ago. Wood estimates he’s captured the actor at least a dozen times over the decades, the last time being a brief line of dialogue in 2019 The Rise of Skywalker. “He mentioned that he was interested in defusing this particular character,” says Wood. “So how are we getting on?” Eventually pitching Respeecher’s work to Jones, the actor agreed to use his archived voice recordings to even artificially keep Vader alive and vital – appropriate perhaps for a character who is semi-mechanical. Jones is credited with directing the performance Obi Wan Kenobi, and Wood describes his contribution as “a benevolent godfather”. They brief the actor on their plans for Vader and take his advice on staying on course.
Before the invasion, there was an almost constant flow of information between Wood, Obi Wan Kenobi Director and showrunner Deborah Chow and the Respeecher team. Wood says, “For a character like Darth Vader, who has maybe 50 lines in a show, I might have a back-and-forth of almost 10,000+ files.” A lot of that was changes in dialogue and subsequent polish. As the Russian attack loomed, Wood said, he began to retreat. He recalls thinking I didn’t have to go back to them under an air raid siren to tell them that one particular part was a little different. But the attitude of the Respeecher team, he says, was, “Let’s work, let’s work in the face of adversity, let’s persevere.”
Alex Serdiuk, the CEO and co-founder of the voice cloning company, knows that creating the voice of Darth Vader for a TV show is not a matter of life and death. Still, he’s proud of their contribution too Obi Wan Kenobi and wants the world to know that the Ukrainians helped make this special journey to the galaxy far, far away possible, even under dire circumstances. “We create jobs for people, we create jobs, we pay them money, we contribute to the Ukrainian economy, and that is very significant,” he says. “But hopefully this will also mean that more people will hear about Ukraine – from our tech community, from our start-ups.”
Respeecher’s work continued, mainly on projects that were still classified. “It was tough,” says Serdiuk. “A nation of 44 million is suffering. Many refugees, many civilians died, many people in the army died because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We all have that extra [responsibility] to help each other. You’ve seen how united and resilient Ukrainians are in this moment, but in terms of how we live now: we wake up, we go to work, and then we go home and try to get some sleep. I am currently separated from my family. My wife and daughter are abroad. I immediately pushed her to the limit when it all started.”
Obi Wan Kenobi made for a rare moment of celebration. Respeecher’s staff, still living in Kyiv, gathered to see Vader’s first appearance on the show and called Belyaev in Lviv to cheer him on. Viewers admired Vader’s chilling return and praised his chilling presence. Jones’ family told Wood how pleased they were with the outcome of all the work, a tribute to the actor honoring his many years of giving voice to the galactic tyrant.
After completing work on Vader, Belyaev began to volunteer to help victims of the war. Lviv was also bombed, but because it is in the center of the country it has become a haven for others fleeing war zones. Much of his work there was helping refugees find food and shelter. When asked about those uncertain early days and his determination to end his creative work, he says, “Why did I do it? It’s a great honor to work with Lucasfilm and I’m a fan of it war of stars since I was a child. Even if it’s war, there’s no excuse for being the troublemaker of what you loved from childhood.”
https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2022/09/darth-vaders-voice-emanated-from-war-torn-ukraine Darth Vader’s Voice Emanated From War-Torn Ukraine