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Star Wars: Darth Vader's Iconic Breathing Sound Explained

There is no Star Wars character more recognizable than Darth Vader, and there is no sound from the sci-fi franchise more iconic than his distinctive, mechanized breathing. From the opening scene of the original 1977 film, Vader makes his presence felt with the labored sound effect that fans have mimicked countless times since. Decades later, when George Lucas made "Revenge of the Sith," we finally learned how Anakin Skywalker got to the point where he needed mechanical assistance just to breathe and survive. For Lucas, though, that origin story was always present, backing up what we see in the original Star Wars trilogy.

"When he's first mentioned in the script, he's a guy in a helmet with a breathing mask who can't breathe because of this fight with Obi-Wan," Lucas told Rolling Stone in 2005. "And I took that description to [designer] Ralph McQuarrie." That dichotomy has always been core to Vader's appeal as a villain — the fact that he sounds terrifying, but only because of a great failure and vulnerability.

While the visual design for Vader's armor and mask was largely inspired by Japanese samurai, the idea of his heavy breathing was based on a different real-world inspiration. In the same interview with Rolling Stone, Lucas described McQuarrie's early concept art for Vader as including a "portable iron lung" to help him survive. "Soundwise, the idea was that he had been almost killed, so his breath was much louder than anybody else's, like a monster breathing," the filmmaker said.

How Vader's iconic breathing sound effect came to be

Legendary sound designer Ben Burtt is responsible for many of the now-famous sound effects from the Star Wars saga, including the electric hum of lightsabers, blaster bolts, and R2-D2's digital squeals. He also created the sound for Darth Vader's breathing using an old-fashioned scuba diving regulator.

"I went to a diving shop where they just give lessons and I asked a guy, 'Could I record a bunch of your different regulators?'" Burtt said in an interview with Roadtrip Nation. "I found that if I took this little tiny microphone, and I put it right inside, held it inside the regulator, and then breathe ... it's much more of a mechanical sound with these old regulators." This kind of experimenting ultimately led Burtt to Vader's signature sound — a heavy breath that's equal parts menacing, pained, and mechanical.

That kind of classic, practical effects-making is part of what's kept the original Star Wars trilogy so relevant and exciting in the modern age. Everything from the sound effects to the miniature model work in space battles, the visual effects on things like lightsabers and blasters, and the eccentric sci-fi costumes made the films stand out in the '70s and '80s. They also created a cohesive aesthetic that still guides the franchise.

How does Darth Vader's breathing apparatus work in-universe?

After losing to Obi-Wan on Mustafar, Anakin's internal organs were irreparably damaged. The Darth Vader suit provides him with prosthetic augments for his missing limbs, but it also features an internal life-support system since he can't survive outside of the armor for long.

A hypothetical case study published in Physiology News Magazine theorized that Vader's breathing issues aren't caused just by external burns, but also by his prolonged exposure to the volcanic gasses and toxic fumes on Mustafar. The article diagnoses Vader with "acute respiratory distress syndrome." As for the life-support system in his suit, the article theorizes that "it functions as an advanced bi-level positive airway pressure (BPAP) system that supports Darth Vader's intrinsic breathing both during in- and expiration, while preventing airway collapse, and continually supplying him with oxygen."

Of course, as is often the case with George Lucas, there's also an allegorical aspect to Vader's respiratory problems. In his 2005 interview with Rolling Stone, the writer-director was asked if Vader's tendency to choke people was somehow connected to his own difficulty breathing. "Well, it's a bigger metaphor than that," he answered. "Strangulation is always a theme. Life is breath. It's a powerful idea in Buddhism: Cutting off life is cutting off breath. The road to the Force is through the breath."

To read more about the iconic villain, check out the untold truth of Darth Vader.