Keeping Darth Vader’s voice alive is a real wheeze for Ukrainian AI

Darth Vader
Darth Vader

The actor who played Darth Vader may have retired, but the distinctive raspy voice of one of Hollywood’s greatest villains is set to live on thanks to AI technology pioneered by a company in Ukraine.

James Earl Jones, now 91, is responsible for some of the most famous lines in cinema, including “I am your father” from the 1980 Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back.

But after indicating that the latest Obi-Wan Kenobi series on Disney+ would be his last, producers from LucasFilm scrambled to “keep Vader alive” and agreed with Mr Jones to use artificial intelligence and archival recordings to recreate his voice.

Matthew Wood, a senior sound editor for Lucasfilm, told Vanity Fair: “He had mentioned he was looking into winding down this particular character, so how do we move forward?”

James Earl Jones - Matt Baron/Shutterstock
James Earl Jones - Matt Baron/Shutterstock

Mr Jones has been a part of the franchise since 1977, but his voice has changed in the decades since. To get it sounding like it used to, he granted a Ukrainian company permission to recreate it for the Disney + series.

Respeecher uses archival recordings and AI to create new dialogue with the voices of performers from long ago.

Bogdan Belyaev, 29, a synthetic-speech artist at the Ukrainian start-up, took on the project as Russian forces were massing on the border with Ukraine earlier in the year.

“If everything went bad, we would never make these conversions delivered to Skywalker Sound,” he told Vanity Fair. “So I decided to push this data right on the 24th of February,” he added, referring to the date Russia launched its invasion of its neighbour.

While a number of people have donned the distinctive black uniform of the Sith Lord over the years, it has always been the voice of Mr Jones delivering the lines.

Mr Jones was described as “a benevolent godfather” by Mr Wood, who will consult with the voice actor about the future direction of the character.

The winner of a coveted EGOT – Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony – Mr Jones is also the voice of Mufasa in the Lion King.

Born in Mississippi in 1931, he has received a National Medal of the Arts, performed Shakespeare at the White House for Barack Obama and received an honorary doctor of arts degree from Harvard University.