artificial intelligence

As war began, a Ukrainian AI startup provided Darth Vader’s voice – report

Gelo Gonzales
As war began, a Ukrainian AI startup provided Darth Vader’s voice – report

DARTH VADER

Official still from the Star Wars website

Ukraine's Respeecher uses archival voice recordings of actor to create new performances

MANILA, Philippines – Artificial intelligence continues to find applications in the creative industry. 

In war-torn Ukraine, a startup called Respeecher provided the voice of Star Wars mega-villain Darth Vader in the new Obi-Wan Kenobi show on streaming platform Disney+, with its original voice actor – 91-year-old James Earl Jones – stepping back from the role, Vanity Fair reported

Lucasfilm’s supervising sound editor for Kenobi, Matthew Wood, praised the startup for its AI vocal performances that carry an elusive human touch. The company uses archival recordings and proprietary AI technology to create new vocal performances. Wood told the publication that it was in 2019 when Jones last recorded a line of dialogue, a brief one, which was for the full-length film The Rise of Skywalker. 

“He had mentioned he was looking into winding down this particular character,” says Wood. “So how do we move forward?” It was then that Wood presented Respeecher’s work, to which Jones gave his approval. 

Respeecher also provided the AI-crafted voice for the young Luke Skywalker in The Book of Boba Fett, which debuted in December 2021.

The Respeecher team finished the work under extraordinary circumstances: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As air raid sirens went off in Lviv, the team’s work continued in shelters. The team had wanted to persevere and continue to work in spite of the circumstances, said Lucasflim’s Wood, even as Lucasfilm had tried pulling back on their work requests due to the situation. 

Respeecher CEO Alex Serdiuk said he is proud of his team’s work but also acknowledged that creating Darth Vader’s voice was not a life-or-death endeavor. Amid the war, the airing of the show was a “rare moment of celebration” for the team, with viewers praising Vader’s performance including Jones’ family. 

Bogdan Belyaev, the synthetic speech artist from Respeecher working on the Vader voice inside a shelter at times, told Vanity Fair, “Why did I do it? It’s a big honor to work with Lucasfilm, and I’ve been a fan of Star Wars since I was a kid. Even if it’s war, there’s no excuse for you to be the troublemaker of what you loved from childhood.”

Curiously, this isn’t the first time that Ukraine has had an association with Darth Vader. In 2014, in a stunt by the Ukrainian Internet Party, chose Darth Vader – or at least someone in their ranks dressed as the villain – to “run” as its presidential candidate. 2015, Ukrainians transformed a statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin into the Star Wars villain, after a law passed that ordered the removal of symbols and insignias from its communist past. – Rappler.com

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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.