Ben Burtt: interview
Very few film technicians dominate their field the way Ben Burtt has. The genius behind the light sabers in ‘Star Wars’ and now the voice of ‘Wall-E’, Burtt’s work has revolutionised the way sound and images work together
What made you want to work with sound?'I never grew up thinking I would be in the movie industry. I wanted to be a scientist and studied for a degree in physics. But I was very interested in watching movies as a kid, I began making movies with my father’s movie camera when I was about ten years old. He had also given me a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I got very interested in recording sounds. I loved to listen to my favourite movies and shows with headphones on, and I got very interested in how sound was connected to the imagery of a movie because I was listening to the sounds and that made me recall the movie.
'So when I made my own films as a kid I always tried to do a soundtrack. This was a time when you had to record a soundtrack on a tape recorder separately and try to play it back in synch with your movie. But I achieved a lot of success with that, I was able to produce a lot of fairly elaborate sound effects and music and dialogue for my little movies. So it was really a hobby that I had.
'When I finished college with a degree in physics, I wanted to be in the space programme. But my interest in film was still there, and I thought, could I somehow use it? Movies, physics, how would I combine them? One’s fantasy and one’s reality. Then Arthur C. Clarke visited our college on a tour, around the time "2001" came out, and I was assigned to be his escort for the day. We had a long conversation, and he told me about how "2001" was made. I realised, inspired by him, that I could combine my interest in science with my interest in science fiction. It could be done.
'So when I left school I went back and got a scholarship to go to USC film school based on an amateur film I made. And I got a job as a teaching assistant in the sound department, helping people with their film soundtracks. George Lucas had gone to that school a few years before me, and when he started ‘Star Wars’ he was looking for some young student to come on and create sounds. He called up the school and my name was handed to him, and I went and had an interview and the rest is history. I got pulled into 29 years of "Star Wars" movies.'
Does a sound designer have to be as much librarian as artist?'Absolutely. The elements and resources that a sound designer works with are collected from the world around us, and I’ve been collecting sounds for years. Putting in sounds from the real world creates the illusion that these fantasies are credible. So I was always gathering sounds. Animals at the zoo, going out on an aircraft carrier to do motors and airplanes. Travelling around the world, I would always have my recorder with me. If there was a thunderstorm I’d record the thunder. If I got a flat tire I could get a good sound of the rubber slapping the road. I’ve found that almost every sound I’ve recorded, I’ve found a way to use.'
What are some of your most memorable sound-gathering experiences?
'There’s many. I was one of the first people allowed to go and record the space shuttle taking off and landing, back in 1985. I spent several weeks with the US Army, going out with troops in training, going out with tanks that were firing live ammunition, putting microphones in the bunker, and they’d fire at me from five miles away with real artillery. We’d duck down and shrapnel would fly over us. These things are adventures, its documentary filmmaking to some extent. 'Another time I went to Alaska to record glaciers breaking apart. I was taken way out in the wilderness in a helicopter and left alone on this rocky promontory 50 miles from the nearest village. About a mile away was this glacier, breaking apart and falling into the ocean. Great sounds which I used for one of the spaceships in "The Phantom Menace" as it landed. 'But sometimes things are just simple. I needed sounds for a scene in "Wall-E" where some shopping carts collide, so I took my daughter, she’s a good cover, and we went over to the local store, got a shopping cart out, put the recorder in it, covered it up with some bags and went around banging into things. Took it a few blocks away and rolled it down a hill.'
Did you actually invent the term sound designer?
'Some people think I did. I was one of the first, I may not have been absolutely the first. The film industry in sound was originally divided quite sharply between those that recorded sounds, sound editors that synchronised the sounds and sound mixers who were blending everything together. And what George Lucas wanted me to do was record, do the sound edit and then be around to supervise the mixing, so there was one vision throughout. Because the problem with the process was that it wasn’t coordinated properly.'
How was it making the switch to digital?
'There are many good things about switching from analogue to digital, mainly the fact that an individual with a collection of desktop equipment can record, edit and do a lot of elaborate mixing. It’s much more artist friendly. The negative things about it? There are some, because you can do things so quickly. Almost anybody can assemble a noise, pile things into a track without much thought. I say, let’s be careful about what we do here, let’s have a plan, let’s be simple if we can. Pick the right sound. Keep your objectivity, discipline yourself.'
How did you become involved with 'Wall•E'?'When I finished "Revenge of the Sith", I was pretty worn out with science fiction and laser guns and robots. I said to my wife, no more robots. But Jim Morris, the producer of "Wall-E", called me up and invited me over to Pixar to meet Andrew Stanton who was going to pitch his idea. And I said, ‘What’s it about?’ And he said, ‘It’s a robot movie!’ So driving over there I had my doubts. I love Pixar, I had respect for their work, but I wanted to work on something that’d be new territory. But he sold me on the idea, I thought it was charming. The whole idea that the sound design would include developing lots of vocals, languages, be key material in a film which had relatively little conventional dialogue was a real attraction creatively. 'So I got very interested in it right away. But before they could greenlight the project they had to be convinced that the approach to sound would work. At that point the movie was just storyboards and sketches. So right away I started making sounds, trial sounds for Wall-E, sounds of the world around him. And sometimes I’d make a sequence of sounds. Here’s Wall-E driving in, waving his hand, boxing up some trash and driving out. I’d mix a bunch of sounds and give it to an animator, and they’d animate to that, taking that as a timing guide, an inspiration. And that began to work really well because I’d get some simple animation back, and I could immediately see what they could do interpreting it. Because animators are all basically actors anyway, they can do wonderful things with poses, body language. 'We made little vignettes, almost like audition tapes, for Wall-E and Eve and various reject robots, vacu-bots and lightbots. And the sound was worked out through a series of tests and trials, so that when the real animation and the writing continued on the film, everyone was familiar with it. It was definitely a wonderful collaboration.'
Do you see yourself as a figurehead for the latest generation of sound technicians?
'Well, I think "Star Wars" had a big impact. It made producers put more time and energy into their soundtracks. I’m proud of it, but it wasn’t just me, I wasn’t the only one who did the sound work on those films, there was always a team of people. I’m not capable of doing it all myself. But I think my calling has always been as the principal inventor. Somebody says, I’ve got a robot, or I’ve got a spaceship, or I’ve got an exploding volcano, get me something that’ll sound good. And that’s probably where I’m the happiest. Inventing something.'
'Wall-E' is released on July 18.
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