James Earl Jones retires from 'Star Wars' - but leaves artificial intelligence in charge of Darth Vader

James Earl Jones is the voice of Darth Vader. Everyone knows this, because it's been a well-known fact since 1977 when Star Wars premiered and debuted Vader's deep, menacing voice. But with Obi-Wan Kenobi, Lucasfilm faced the end of an era for the character.

Jones, now 91, found that his voice just didn't hold up the way it used to, and was eager to retire from voicing the iconic villain after decades of contributing to various stories in the Star Wars universe. That meant that his last performance as the character would be a line of dialogue in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but the problem of Kenobi still loomed. The Disney+ series directed by Deborah Chow featured Vader as a major antagonist creeping back into Obi-Wan's (Ewan McGregor) life, and while Hayden Christensen had returned to fill out the suit, the matter of the voice remained unresolved.

Enter Respeecher, a Ukraine-based startup with a new A.I. algorithm that can be "trained" to emulate a voice based on archival recordings. The company helped Lucasfilm recreate a younger Luke Skywalker for The Book of Boba Fett, and when it became clear that Jones would no longer be voicing Darth Vader, the studio turned to them again for Kenobi. Supervising sound editor Matthew Wood told Vanity Fair that Jones signed off on Respeecher using his previous Vader work to keep the character alive, and acted as a "benevolent godfather" to the production, guiding the approach to his new, artificial "voice." Getting it all right, according to Wood, is an arduous and detailed process, even with a powerful A.I. in place.

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," he said.

Things got more complicated early this year, when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, putting the Respeecher team in genuine danger as they worked from shelters in an effort to avoid Russian shelling of their home cities. According to Vanity Fair, as the Lucasfilm team began to understand that invasion was imminent, they expected Respeecher employees to prioritize their own safety over the workload of Kenobi. But the team in Ukraine kept working, kept pushing to finish the show, because they thought it was important to stay visible.

“We create places to work for people, we create jobs, we pay them money, we contribute to the Ukrainian economy, and that’s quite meaningful,” Respeecher founder Alex Serdiuk said. “But also, hopefully more people will hear about Ukraine—about our tech community, about our start-ups—because of it.”

Even now, as the war in Ukraine continues, Respeecher is working on new projects with Hollywood, while members of their team also work as volunteers to aid victims of the violence. Somehow, even though James Earl Jones has stepped away, the voice of Darth Vader remains an interesting behind-the-scenes saga, and retains a human heart despite its A.I. engine.

Looking for more dark sci-fi? Check out the acclaimed Ronald D. Moore revival of Battlestar Galactica streaming now on Peacock.

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