Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Filmmakers love the sound(s) of Ben Burtt

Wanna hear something crazy? Andrew Stanton, the Oscar-winning director/co-writer of “Wall-E,” compares sound designer Ben Burtt to some of the great actors of our time.

“I heard this about Robert De Niro,” Stanton said, “and I witnessed this with Tom Hanks (on the “Toy Story” films). They never give you a bad take. It’s just which one do you want to use, and it’s the same thing about Ben Burtt. He never comes up with a bad idea.”
As the voice and sound genius of “Wall-E,” Burtt, stars in one of the many DVD features, “Animation Sound Design: Building Worlds from The Sound Up,” when Disney/Pixar’s big summer hit is released Tuesday on Blu-ray hi-def.

“I assumed he was sick of robots, but I think he loved the concept and the fact that I told him he would be 80 percent of our cast” Stanton continued “I think he was also intrigued with coming onto a film so far ahead of time. I needed at least a year from him. We needed to find the robot’s voice.”

Obviously, Burtt, who has written, directed and served as film editor on a vast array of notable film projects, came through – and then some.
“George Lucas hired me a year before starting the first ‘Star Wars,’ “ Burtt recalls, “and, similarly, I was called onto ‘Wall-E’ right after finishing ‘Revenge of the Sith.’ I was charmed by the project and spent nine months creating voices and putting sounds on a keyboard and just plain improvising.
“The trick to doing voices is to find the soul of the character somewhere in there,” the 60 year-old master technician explains.
“For instance, instead of saying words like Wall-E, I found the voice of R2D2 by setting up a primitive keyboard synthesizer that did bells and whistles. Then, I made fake bells and whistles very slowly in a lower voice or pitch and sped it all up, like they did with Alvin and the Chipmunks, you might say.
“After that, I was able to practice combining my voice with the electronic sounds at the same time. It’s like Wall-E, theoretically, where you take human input and electronic input and merge them together. Certain things, of course, are just my voice.

Here’s just a small sampling of other Burrt tricks and trivia:

* He always buys used stuff on E-bay for his work, including a World War II generator (after watching an old John Wayne movie) to create some of the 2,600 sound files in “Wall-E.” Dragging a canvass bag over carpeting created the noise of the robot’s ever-moving tread.
* The self-taught Burtt recorded a huge library of R2D2 sounds for the original “Star Wars,” did nothing for “The Empire Strike Back,” and came back for another set of about 50 character vocals on “Return of the Jedi.” The subsequent prequels recycled old voice sounds from earlier recordings and outtakes.

* While hiking many years ago, he caught his backpack on a wire fence. He recorded the sound of freeing it, which remains the legendary light-saber hum in “Star Wars.”

* For the scary, non-talking sounds of Darth Vader, he took a tiny microphone into the back room of a scuba shop, put it in an old regulator and recorded “a couple of takes” of himself breathing.

* His first sound work was on a medical public service announcement, starring Will Geer (“The Waltons”) and first-time directed by young Ron Howard.

* Because there were no Foley stages on the first two Indiana Jones films, he recorded everything outside “in a quiet countryside before the wind came up and the frogs started chirping.”

* He recorded and slowed down his youngest daughter’s voice (as an infant) and has used it for many monster sounds in various films. Once when his wife was ill, he recorded her voice and used it for the line, “E.T. sick” in “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.” His oldest daughter’s sonogram is the genesis for the birthing sound of the pods in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978).

* He has been nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four, including two special achievement Oscars.

“Creating voices is always the hardest for me,” Burrt concludes, “because everyone’s an expert at interpreting sounds of speech, and they think they know what a robot is supposed to sound like.
“Sometimes I fail. I worked for a really long time on ‘Alien.’ and (director) Ridley Scott wanted to create a transmission for the first part of the movie that he wanted always to be the same and yet somehow sound different.
“I tried a lot of of different things, but Ridley wasn’t satisfied and eventually dropped that out of the movie. The sound I liked most for it, though, I then used for the ghosts coming out of the Ark of the Covenant and won an Academy Award for it (in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”).

Touché! (Insert sound of slashing sword here.)

(To read more about the talented Burtt, look for my story in Thursday's Sun News. You can also read my Q and A with Daniel Craig, back as James Bond in "Quantum of Solace," as well as my review of Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York." Oh, and that's me with the star of "Wall-E" at left.)

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