by Amber C.
Popcorn Taxi SW Filmmaker Series
An Evening With Ben Burtt
Wednesday 9 August 2000
Ben Burtt - Sound Designer
"ONE MAN'S NOISE IS ANOTHER MAN'S SYMPHONY"
An evening with Lucasfilm's Sound Designer/Editor and Director Ben Burtt
It was a sellout house for this rare audience with the man generally credited as the father of modern Sound Design. We ran into theatre buddies we hadn't seen in AGES! In his introduction, host and local Sound Designer Andrew Plain introduced Burtt with the comment "it's rare to spend an evening with the man who invented your profession."
In fact, we seemed graced with the presence of most of the sound crew on Episode II. Production on the sound stages a few hundred metres away was rolling on late into Wednesday evening as we all took our seats. Mr Burtt told us that they had been filming several exhausting days of a "rain sequence" (at which point my companion elbowed me and insisted, "write that down for your report -- RAIN!")
So there you have it. RAIN. I dunno, Toto, this isn't Tatooine any more?
Apart from being an engaging speaker, Mr Burtt came well prepared with a variety of support material which was played up on the big screen with the THX sound. The first was actually ILM's THX demo tape, a 7 minute sequence called the "THX WOW" trailer. STAR WARS may have been Burtt's first feature film, but he's certainly amassed a huge stable of favourites since then -- THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RETURN OF THE JEDI, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, ALWAYS, WILLOW and ALIEN, just to name a few. He's been nominated for 10 Academy Awards and has won four.
The next feature was even more charming -- an audio-visual journey through Ben Burtt's career, spliced together from old home movies, Super-8 film, tapes, moviolas and slides, chronicling his behind-the-scenes involvement with the Star Wars series. It proved more than anything, that in amassing a 30 year old sound library, you have to be a bit of an adventurer.
We were then shown the original STAR WARS production track -- the one without the foley, or the sound, or the dialogue -- just the raw sound that was recorded with the mikes on set. We heard the shuffle of the stormtroopers rather clumsy feet, muffled, uninspiring dialogue and somebody yelling "BOOM" in an English accent. (g) Burtt related how at one time he never thought STAR WARS was going to work, as one of the first scenes featured two robots walking down a corridor -- one with no mouth, and the other with no face.(g)
Then we saw the original Vader vs. Luke final battle scene, with David Prowse doing all his own lines. Sorry Mr Prowse, but it kinda lost something!
We were then taken behind-the-scenes on Episode One. Again, the production track of the sabre duels with no edits, no effects and no sound save the actual sound from the set. It again brought home how much work Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor did on their sabre routines, especially seeing them in their longer, unedited state. There are persistent rumours that the sabre duels were sped up in the final version, but that wasn't discernable in these real-time versions. It was still extraordinarily exciting to watch, even against the blue screen, thanks no doubt to Nick Gillard's brilliant battle choreography.
There was a short interview with Liam Neeson, and then some close-ups of the actors being miked, the live-sound versions of the group in Anakin's hovel on Tatooine and a lot of the actors looping their dialogue in a sound booth. Of course characters like Watto and Sebulba had to be looped BEFORE they were animated, so the animators could match the movements to the words.
Mr Burtt then walked us through the layers of the Sound Design process -- Dialogue, Foley (where the characters and props contact their environment), Effects and lastly, the Final Mix.
George Lucas apparently allowed Burtt time between films to go out and collect a library of sounds, which sent him on an extraordinary adventure recording various explosions, structural demolitions, the Space Shuttle taking off, bullets fired in the desert as recorded by microphones set at intervals along the bullets' path, and everyday items like shavers, ceiling fans, car tyres, animal sounds or simply the wet street outside his hotel room. He favours a variety of high and low tech recording devices -- DAT, analog, Sony Walkmans and even his wife's cheap ghetto blaster with a mike attachment -- apparently lower quality systems produce all sorts of interesting distortion.
We saw everything from Burtt mixing the original Star Wars on an ancient 4-Channel system to he and George Lucas creating the pod-racer scene from Episode One.
Burtt then took some questions from the audience, and some of the most prominent were questions about the voices of all our favourite characters.
CHEWBACCA -- whose own distinct sound needed to be created before the actor could film the scenes -- they needed to know how his mouth would move. Chewie was actually a baby brown bear called "Pooh" whom, Burtt jokes, they didn't feed for a few days, then teased with bread soaked in milk. That sound was then overlaid with dogs and a stranded walrus.
R2D2 - Burtt decided R2's famous beeps and whistles had to have some emotion to them, so he actually first scripted out R2's dialogue. Things like, "C'mon, let's go," or "Threepio, I'm getting tired of you!" He then created sounds with his own voice, which he tricked and layered and synthesised. This gave R2's dialogue not only some sound shape and dynamic, but also the illusion of real speech.
JABBA the HUTT -- Burtt often utilised more obscure languages to voice his aliens. A friend who was a seven-language major at Berkley University had a gift for ad-libbing nonsensical sounds in aurally distinct languages. Jabba actually speaks a variation of the Peruvian native language, Quechua, which was lowered and "sub-woofed". It was then overlaid with "slurpiness" which consisted of hands squelched around in his wife's cheese casserole and the sound of wet towels in a garbage can. (Note to self: Do not accept invitation to dine at Ben Burtt's house!)
Burtt then spoke of the Final Edit process, but did admit to a little frustration with John William's scores in that they both seemed to be competing for climatic sounds in the same frame of the action. Burtt actually fought to have the entire pod-race sequence assembled without music, but it seemed they compromised and introduced the symphonic track only towards the climax.
Mr Burtt spoke briefly on the pros and cons of the new digital editing process. He admitted that while you are offered faster assembly times, instantaneous access to a sound library rather than a search through dusty shelves full of tape, the ability to save ALL working versions and no risk of damage to the workprint, there is also a tendency to overcut and over "play" which you have to try and avoid. He also said that, over the years, he believes audiences have become better "sound" educated, and are able to interpret faster sounds and images, changing the nature of modern sound design.
Of the current work, he said they are still storyboarding for upcoming sequences, and the sound department seems to be working harder than most to compensate for the constant ambient clatter of set building and whooshing machinery. But he and his son have still found time to tour round Sydney, looking for unique local sounds for their collection, and recently visited the marina recording the creak of tall ships docked at the quay. Who knows what kind of creature or alien sound will be birthed from that recording.
He also intends to record his own real live kookaburra before he leaves town.
The final session (Thursday night) is with ILM's Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll. It is SOLD OUT.
For more info visit the Popcorn Taxi website at: www.popcorntaxi.com.au/starwars/swflash.html