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The droids you’re looking for: how Ukrainian AI recreated Darth Vader’s voice

Artificial intelligence developed in Kyiv is taking over one of the most treasured roles in film, as James Earl Jones steps back as the voice of Darth Vader.

The Star Wars actor, 91, was helped to reach the chilling heights of his performance 45 years ago by the Ukrainian startup Respeecher in the recent Obi-Wan Kenobi series as the company worked with Jones and clips of his past performances.

The AI “clone” of his voice could then be layered over lines read by another actor to create a Darth Vader who sounds more real than the real thing.

James Earl Jones with Darth Vader in 2002 at The Attack of the Clones premiere.
James Earl Jones with Darth Vader in 2002 at The Attack of the Clones premiere. Photograph: Chip East/Reuters

“Lucasfilm came to us, essentially through word of mouth,”, said Dmytro Bielievtsov, Respeecher’s chief technical officer. “Someone posted about our tech in an internal sound engineering chat, and it got picked up.” Once the ball started rolling, it took just a few months to prepare audio that was ready for screen, he added.

“The way it works is that we get a bunch of initial takes. We convert them with different varieties of the models, and then the client takes a listen and sees if the performance is right. Maybe things need to be tweaked or adjusted, but then they pick the model that they liked the most, and we proceed from there.”

The work was disrupted in February, when Russia renewed its assault on Ukraine that had started eight years earlier, and tanks came close to Kyiv itself.

“We were psychologically prepared because we’ve been at war for much longer than just six months,” Bielievtsov said, “And thanks to the foreign intelligence, we knew there was a high risk of this happening, so we prepared a contingency plan to make sure that the team is comfortable and safe.

“I think we executed it pretty well. There was, like, up to one day of delay that happened to some of the projects.”

The startup’s first job with Lucasfilm was less prominent, putting together a voice for the younger version of Luke Skywalker for his cameos in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett. But Bielievtsov says the company, which still numbers just 40 employees, has goals beyond the world of film and media.

“We’re working on applying this for medical purposes. Laryngectomy patients who have their vocal cords removed and replaced with a mechanical device makes their voice sound less natural. It’s really cool for them to be able to then speak with their natural voice again.”