He’s responsible for R2D2 and ET and now Ben Burtt is voicing Wall-E, out on DVD this weekend.
You might not know his name, but Ben Burtt is responsible for some of the most iconic sounds and voices in modern day culture. He’s responsible for E.T and R2D2 from Star Wars, to name but two. He was employed by Pixar to work on the voices and sound for their massive blockbuster ‘Wall-E’, out on DVD this weekend.
Q: HAVING DUBBED THIS MOVIE ‘R2D2: THE MOVIE’, AND HAVING ELEMENTS OF E.T IN THERE TOO. DID YOU REVISIT THESE OLDER CHARACTERS WHEN DESIGNING THE SOUND FOR WALL-E?
A: The hardest thing for me, or for any sound designer, is to create voices. It’s one thing to do sound effects – a laser gun, an explosion, things like that – because, people don’t use the same part of their brain to respond to a sound like that. But when it comes to a voice, we’re all experts at analysing all the shades of meaning in a vocal sound. So, voices are very challenging, especially when you’re doing a voice that’s not a normal human being – when they are robots, or aliens, you want to disguise the human voice in some way, so that the audience doesn’t hear that human element. R2D2 was the first voice that I had that was a challenge like that, and we had to understand what R2 was thinking, and what the emotions were, but you couldn’t understand any words. He didn’t use ordinary words, like Wall.E, who is made up of sounds that aren’t the human voice. Those are hard, because, as an audience, you’re listening carefully, and you’re always trying to source what the sound is…
Q: YOU COULD, OF COURSE, HAVE TAPED STEPHEN HAWKING IN AN ARGUMENT, CALLING SOMEONE A ‘WALLY’…
A: [Laughs] I would have loved to do that. In fact, I listened to some Stephen Hawkins recordings when we started out, because the voice synthesis was obviously there. We wanted to look at technology that’s currently available to synthesise voices.
Q: YOU’VE GOT A MUCH BIGGER TOOLBOX SINCE THE STAR WARS DAYS – DOES THAT MAKE IT EASIER, OR DOES HAVING SO MANY OPTIONS NOW MAKE IT ACTUALLY MORE DIFFICULT?
A: That’s true. On the first Star Wars, we were in a world of analog recording, mechanical recording; you didn’t have digital, so we couldn’t cut and paste, and do all the things that are available to us now through computers. Everything was through slicing with a razor blade, all very much trial and error. Through a computer world, it’s far more efficient, and it’s easier to experiment, but, yeah, having all those extra options means you’ve often got more work involved in finding the right sound. You set the goal so much higher.
I should reflect on what I did. I’m Ben Burtt, and I’m the sound and character voice designer for the film. My job is to invent everything you hear, except for the music. Obviously, we have a few straightforward English-speaking characters, but the multitude of vocals in the film are sounds that you attribute a meaning too, although they’re not words. Wall.E, for instance, a lot of his sounds are motors. The little movement of the head, the arms, so, you try to invent sounds that are part of his character. You can find a motor that sounds cute, you can find a motor that sounds angry. So, you can orchestrate sounds that do some of the job of portraying emotion that way.
Eve, she is a special hi-tech robot that is maybe be held together by some form of magnetism, and she floats, so, I always tried to give to her a kind of magical, musical sort of sound. A humming, or a nice pleasant tone, something enchanting. Most of those sounds would have been created on a synthesizer. I just felt that was the best approach for someone like that. Wall.E is, of course, is a little more industrial, so, we recorded motor sounds for him, heading out with our little recorders and get motors everywhere, from appliances at home to old adding machines. There’s the sound of his threads, which is a tank. Plus sounds I could control in the studio. I got an generator, an old one from World War 2, having heard one in an old newsreel, and I went out and bought one on e-Bay. We have it in the studio, and we can crank it, and follow his driving motions as he goes. You can shape it to the movements, so, that becomes another means of performing the sound.
Q: DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE SOUND?
A: I’ve made about 2,600 sounds for this now, which is much more than I’ve done for a movie before – the Star Wars movies would be about 1,000 new sounds. That’s because we have so many unusual sounds in the movie. What’s my favourite sound in the movie? Tough question. Well, of course, if we talk about the voices alone, I’m very pleased how the two voices of Eve and Wall.E came out, because they’re a nice blend of something that’s electronic – which is the machine aspect – and the human part of it, which is the emotional element. To try and get that blend is a lot of work, and I think we’ve achieved that.
Q: IN THE SAME WAY THAT SONGS WILL HAVE A SENSE MEMORY, I’M GUESSING YOU EMPLOY THE SAME TRICK WITH SOUNDS?
A: You try to design sounds that hopefully there will be association for the audience. Some tasks for the soundman is you put in the sounds you expect to hear – a car door sounds like a car door. But I’ve never had it that simple; all the movies I work on seem to have robots, lasers, objects hovering, the supernatural. All of that has to be invented somehow, and it’s got to make sense. Hopefully you can amplify the emotion that you want, and you can then seal the illusion. This kind of sound work is all about creating an illusion of something happening that didn’t happen. These characters never actually talked anywhere; it’s made-up…
Q:JUST WONDERING HOW YOU GOT INTO THIS LINE OF WORK – DID YOU OVERDOSE ON PINK FLOYD ALBUMS IN THE EARLY 1970S, OR WAS IT MOVIES THEMSELVES?
A: Well, I loved movie sounds, as a kid I had several hobbies, and one was movie making – I loved making films, starting out with my friends; you couldn’t do any sound work, as there was no sound recording at that time. And I also did some sound recording, because, as a child, I had been ill for a few weeks when I was six years old, and I was confined to bed, with nothing to do. And my father brought this big tape recorder in – big, big machine, reels, the works, which he brought home from the university where he worked – and he showed me how to use it. And I began to play with it, and I got interested in sound recording. I would start recording television shows too, but putting the mic up to the speaker, and I would listen to movies and television shows back on headphones – this is long before the VCR or Tivo, or anything – so, I was the only kid in my neighborhood who could listen to the same shows over and over. And I found, as I listened back, that the sound could regenerate the images for me. And I began to be very interested in that. I began to develop a sense of how the sound and the visuals worked together to tell the story, and what it was that sound did. And that was just an interest I had grown up, but I never thought of it as a career.
Q:DO YOU THINK PEOPLE TAKE SOUND FOR GRANTED?
A: Yeah, I do, and I like that. There’s a natural to it. Sound is just as artificial as anything else up on the screen, and with the movies that I’ve worked on, the sound is something that didn’t actually happen on set. Usually you have dialogue, but that’s usually all you’ll get from the shoot. Everything from footsteps to explosions you create and add later. And it’s an artificial world. Does a face punch on screen sound like a face punch in real life? No, it’s a movie convention. Does thunder always occur when lightening flashes? No, but it does in the movies. There are movie rules, in a sense, movie language.
Q: HOW DID YOU GET INTO THIS AS A CAREER THEN? IF YOU TOLD YOUR CAREERS OFFICER THAT YOU WANTED TO MAKE SOUNDS FOR MOVIES, HE MIGHT JUST SLAP YOU ACROSS THE BACK OF THE HEAD?
A: Yeah, right [laughs]. I was training to be a scientist. I was a physics major; I wanted to be an astronaut, during the space progam, and that was my destiny, in my mind. I graduated from college with a degree in physics. But, while I was doing that, I was also making movies with my friends. Making science fiction movies – doing the same kind of movies that I do now, except I get paid for it now. I won a few awards with those early films though – I won a national student festival – and then I did my version of 2001, and I got a scholarship to go to film school at USC. So, I thought, I’ll try that for a little while, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to being a scientist later. Straight out of university, I got a job working on a movie called Star Wars. And then that’s pretty much brought me here today.
Q: THE BULK OF YOUR WORKING LIFE HAS BEEN CONNECTED TO STEVEN SPIELBERG AND GEORGE LUCAS. YOU’VE DONE YOUR OWN THING HERE AND THERE – DIRECTING SEVEN MOVIES ALONG THE WAY…
A: Yeah, I was with Lucasfilm for a number of years, on staff – maybe 10 years – and then I was freelance, coming back there again and again. I’ve always loved movie making, and I’m known most for my sound work, but I like doing everything involved with filmmaking really.
Q: SOMETHING LIKE THE CYRSTAL SKULL MUST FEEL LIKE AN OLD SCHOOL REUNION, JUST LIKE THE STAR WARS PREQUELS?
A: Yeah, when we finished making Star Wars in 1983, I never thought we’d do another one, twenty years later. But when the time came, you know, it was fun to go back. My roots are there…
Q: INEVITABLY, THERE’S BEEN A MIXED RECEPTION FROM FANS OF BOTH THE STAR WARS MOVIES AND THE INDIANA JONES OUTINGS, ABOUT GOING BACK TO THESE MUCH-LOVED MOVIES FROM THEIR CHILDHOOD. DOES THAT ENTER INTO YOUR CONVERSATIONS WITH STEVEN AND GEORGE?
A: Sure, sure. Coming back to Star Wars 20 years later, 25 years later, it was extremely difficult to meet peoples’ expectations, because those who had fallen in love with the originals were children then. And that impact the films had the first time was so strong, I would say it was impossible to recreate that moment. Most significant moments in our lives just happen once. You can’t go back and have seventh grade over again…
Q: IT’S LIKE THE MUSIC YOU HEAR IN YOUR TEENAGE YEARS OFTEN BECOMES, IN YOUR MIND, THE BEST MUSIC EVER MADE…
A: Yeah, you associate these things with a time in your life when it had a big effect on your thinking and all that. So, the huge challenge with sequels to any movies – especially those that have become like folklore, like the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies – how can you hope to meet audience’s expectations about it? You can only go back and make a movie for the same reasons you made the first movie. ‘This is what I want to see; I want to make this for me, get the reaction out of it that I want’, and then hope that the public joins you. That’s all any filmmaker can do.
Q: CAN YOU BE CRITICAL OF THESE MOVIES? CAN YOU SIT BACK AND ENJOY THEM?
A: Oh, boy, how much time do we have?
Q: GEORGE LUCAS WILL HAVE YOU SHOT, BY THE WAY, IF YOU SAY ANYTHING BAD ABOUT STAR WARS.
A: Understood. The Star Wars movies, I always knew that we had to make a film by taking what’s in your own heart, and hope the public will go with you. In today’s world, where films are faster, bigger, longer, brighter, louder – all of those things – and if you go back and trace the roots of those films back to Star Wars and Indiana Jones, audiences have habits. What you’ve fed them most recently, that’s what they understand. So, you always face a risk when you make a movie that isn’t connected to the most recent thing. So, you’ve got people like George and Steven going back and connected to the films that they made before…
Q: WHY DO YOU THINK PIXAR NOW HAVE SUCH A HOLD?
A: Wall.E, in its own way, has its science fiction roots, and I’m sure that’s something that Andrew has spoken about. The nice thing about Wall.E is that there is so much fresh, new ideas in it. We never had a film about a charming set of robot characters where there’s a romantic element, and it’s about adventure. It’s not about being bored in space, or overcoming evil. The emotions in the film are more intimate, and it’s great to be part of that.
Q: PIXAR ARE PERHAPS THE GREATEST STUDIO OUT THERE RIGHT NOW, WHICH MUST HAVE BEEN A BIG DRAW FOR YOU…
A: Absolutely. I come from an older movie generation, but also with my own moral perspective, there are so many movies that are dark and destructive and hopeless, and there may be wonderful craftsmanship involved, but it doesn’t add to my life. I want films that are uplifting, that have decency and hope, and where else could you find those qualities except here. Because they’ve got charm and hope, and decency. I don’t need to go home everyday from work with the weight of the world on my shoulders. I don’t need movies to remind me that there are horrific things going on in the world around me. I want to go home and feel I’m part of something positive. And Pixar’s the place for that…
Wall-E is released on DVD in Ireland on November 21st 2008