Hey there folks, Harry here with Corleone's report on Ben Burtt. All around mythic god of blips, wheezes, hisses and thumps... One of, if not, the greatest sound men in history. Here's a damn fine report by someone who well... he's in the family business. Here ya go...
Corleone here. If a high ranking made man such as myself had to name one person who was responsible for changing the landscape of incredible movie making in the past quarter century, who would it be? Lucas? Speilberg? John Williams? Coppola (Francis, not Sophia!)? Scorcese?
How about a man who single-handedly made good movies into great ones. Ben Burtt. Who may you ask? He is the man responsible for the sound design in every Star Wars movie, every Indiana Jones movie, and most importantly, Howard the Duck. In addition, Mr. Burtt is responsible for editing every scene that made Episode I a cool movie (he, NOT LUCAS, edited the Pod Race scene, the final battle sequence, etc). More importantly, he is the man who gave R2D2 a personality, made Indiana Jones punch like no other, and gave ships that should make no sound in space rumble our subwoofers until our ears go deaf. In short, the man is a genius.
I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Mr. Burtt at a celebration of Technology event in my home town of Syracuse, NY. He holds a B.S. in Physics and an M.A. in film. Mr. Burtt is from Syracuse, and his father was even a chemistry teacher at Syracuse University for some 35 years. In fact, many of the sounds from the Star Wars movies were captured right of the SU campus (more on that to follow),
The evening was incredible. I left feeling so juiced for Episode II. After attending this event (and speaking with Mr. Burtt one on one), I left with the same feeling that I had after seeing the Episode I teaser trailer. Remember that feeling? That feeling of "Oh my god that is so damn cool?"
Burtt started of the evening by talking about his reservations when he got his first job out of college, on a movie known at the time as "The Star Wars." He was talking with George Lucas about how space is a vacuum. Were people really going to go for something like this? Lucas replied, "Sound, hell, we're going to have MUSIC in space!"
Next, Burtt noticed a cardboard cutout of a battledroid near the podium. He mentioned that he had a special connection with them, for they were modeled after him! In fact, the movements of the battledroids were all based on the motion capture of Burtt himself from a Vicon Motion System (THE best motion capture system in both movie special effects and medical useage). Burtt stated how embarassed he was that the droids each had his distinct walk.
Next, Burtt went into his role in the academy awards. Aparently, for the sound design award, they literally have a "bake-off" (this is what they actually call it) where the academy invites you to bring a 10 minute edited piece that "best exemplifies your work in sound design." Burtt then showed us his"bake-off" reel that the academy saw. It was a fast paced edit showing the most exciting and incredible moments from episode I. How cool! (He then conceded to me later that he is almost positive that the Matrix guy will win, and he probably deserves it 'cause it would be great for his career. After all, he pointed out, everyone EXPECTS big things from Star Wars).
Burtt's favorite quote was "One man's noise is another man's symphony" He then started a movie that he voiced over that demonstrated his own genius. This was best exemplified when he showed a radio tower wire that he was plucking in the Mojave Desert (circa 20-some years ago). When he placed his wedding ring over it, it created one of the most important sounds in Star Wars: the blaster.
Next he said that they had some problems with Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor on the set during the first lightsaber scene filmed, for both insisted on going "shhhrrrmmm-vvvvv-svrmmm" while they were fighting. It took them three or four takes before they could stop making sound effects while they were filming. Actually, Burtt pointed out that the light-saber sounds are actually coming from mic-feedback through a speaker.
Burtt continued by explaining his creative process when making a movie (using Episode I as an example). First is the "pre-visualization process" in which Burtt creates and films a mockup for a key scene. We were then showed his PV for the podrace, starring his son as Anakin. It didn't look like anything more than a low budget home movie, but it matched the real thing scene for scene.
Next is the voice dubover process, where main characters get in the studio and rerecord lines that were destroyed during the normal filming process (either by poor voice inflection or drowned in background noise). This apparently happened quite a bit with Jake Lloyd, and is one of the most annoyingly difficult processes according to Burtt.
After this process is complete, the foley people go to work. Needless to say, this is the area that Burtt advances most. The foley artist is the person who adds the sounds to the "everyday" things in the movie. Among the most interesting sounds from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies Burtt was responsible for:
- The giant sea monster in TPM that chases the bongo was actually Burtt's 3-month old daughter cooingslowed down quite a bit and with a little base added.
- A baby black bear, which was extremely talkative, was used in conjunction with a giant walrus from Sea World to create the language of the wookies, especially Chewie.
- R2D2 is a combination of a synthesizer with Burtt himself making beeping noises.
- A friend of Burtt called him up one day to tell him he had a broken ceiling fan that was making the coolest noise. The noise in fact was then used in TPM for the force fields where the final duel with Qui-gon, Obi-wan and Darth Maul occurs.
- Liquid Nitrogen was spilled on the floor in the chemistry building at SU to create sounds used in the podrace and lightsaber-cutting scenes,
- Sounds of walking through the snow as well as an echo sound from the outer wall of the Carrier Dome in Syracuse were used in the Hoth battle and various space scenes, respectively.
Burtt also explained that he thoroughly enjoys working with John Williams. In general, Burtt likes to follow the equation of when an action occurs, a cool sound effect is used to convey this, with the response to this action playing in the music. They only disagreement that Burtt ever has with Williams is when Williams places both the action and the reaction in his music.
In an interesting side note, Burtt raised an interesting concern over copyright when he went to see Galaxy Quest and said that he heard sounds in the movie that HE recorded for Star Wars (of course he knew because he remembers recording them!). He mentioned that this might be of concern in the future.
As for Episode II, Burtt claims that he begins work in June on previsualization and collecting sounds. He also says that he will be doing most of the film editing for the next two movies (though Lucas will always obviously have the final say).
This was an extraordinary event, and it was something that was incredibly interesting. I hope that my fellow film geeks find this of interest. Keep up the great work Harry, and don't take no crap from nobody. Fogeddaboudit, some people should sleep with the fishes!!