An Interview with Lucasfilm sound designer Ben Burtt from a 1995 issue of Star Wars Insider.
By Jamie Painter
While the visual splendor of the Star Wars trilogy is obvious, many audience members did not realize that what they were also hearing was truly revolutionary as well. And yet, when we recall those films, how easily we associate Chewbacca with his bearish cry, R2-D2 with his electronic sigh or Darth Vader with his ominous breath.
Recently, the Insider the pleasure of speaking with Ben Burtt about his tremendous contributions to the sound design of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. In addition to being the principal creator of many of the sound effects for these films (as well as for Raiders of the Lost Ark), Burtt has gone on to edit, write, and direct for film and television. In the past four years, Burtt has worked on the Young Indiana Jones TV series, beginning as a second unit director and recently writing and directing a two-hour movie shot in Prague called Young Indiana Jones and Attack of the Hawkmen, which is scheduled to air this fall on the Family Channel. Burtt has also directed the IMAX films, Blue Planet, a 1991 film for the Smithsonian Institute, and last year’s Destiny in Space, a documentary on the Space Shuttle. Currently, Burtt is in preproduction as the writer and director of another IMAX film; this one on what he knows best—special effects.
How did you first become involved in film, and what in particular attracted you to sound?
I was interested in filmmaking as a hobby since I was ten years old, and made films for fun over the years, long before the days of video— this was back in the late 1950s. When I was six years old, my father had brought home this gigantic, old tape recorder from his university, which at that time was a most unusual device. Nobody had one at home. And that really led to an interest in recording sounds.
I never looked at it as a career. I went to college and got a degree in physics. I wanted to be a scientist and an astronaut, but I continued to make films. I made a couple eight millimeter films, and one of them won a national student film festival. After I graduated from college, I made some films in my hometown, and that lead to a scholarship to
USC Film School. There I got more training, and I maintained an interest in sound. I got a job in the sound department, helping other students mix their sound tracks and record sounds. No one was particularly interested in sound in terms of a career. Everyone wanted to be a writer/director, but I found that sound was a unique area of creativity.
George Lucas had been a student there five years before I was there, and he came to USC looking for some people to work on Star Wars. He wanted someone who could record sound and had an interest in sound. And I was the only one. I was still a graduate student finishing my degree, and I did have part-time work on the side as a sound editor for various low-budget films. One of the first films I developed sound for was for Roger (Corman’s) Death Race 2000.1 was also working at Graphic Films, in Hollywood, that did educational and scientific films. I had a part-time job there doing sound editing, mixing and P.A. work. George was looking for someone who could collect sound and compile things to listen to that might be useful in Star Wars.
So initially you were not hired on to be the sound designer?
There wasn’t such a job then. It started out the way a lot of the employment at Lucasfilm continues to be—often they will hire young, relatively inexperienced, and inexpensive talent, and give them an opportunity to work in the “back room.” That is the opportunity I got. They [Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz] sent me a Nagra tape recorder and some microphones and said, “Can you collect some sounds for us?” And I said, “For what?” “Well, we’re doing this film called Star Wars.” They let me have a script and I looked at Ralph McQuarrie’s paintings—this was months before they went off to do the shooting of the film. This was when they were just organizing ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] in Van Nuys.
Did George have a clear idea about what kinds of sounds he wanted for Star Wars?
He wanted an organic sound track. He wanted the spaceships, the weapons, the vehicles to sound as if they were real. Rather than go in the direction that many science fiction films had done prior to Star Wars in the electronic tonality direction—films inspired by Forbidden Planet and War of the Worlds and so on—he wanted the sounds of real motors, squeaky doors, and rusty hinges on the spaceship doors. He encouraged me to record and compile sounds from the real world—acoustic sounds, rather than synthesized things. My first specific assignment was to develop the sound for Chewbacca.
I understand that you collected many different types of animal sounds and combined those sounds to create the voice of the Wookiee.
It turned out to be favoring the recording of bears, but also quite a number of other mammals. I went to Marineland and recorded walruses, dolphins and other animals. I went to different zoos and animal collections to record cats and birds. They wanted to develop the sound before filming so that Peter Mayhew, who played the Wookiee, would animate the mask in conjunction with the type of sound I developed. Once I started on the Wookiee and I got a look at the script, I began pulling out of the script all of this other material. We had R2-D2. We had robots. We had aliens, weapons, spaceships, environments. Essentially I just took over the job of sound design since I was the only one able to at that point. I said, “Well, I’ll start collecting and making sounds for everything.”
Were you working alone most of the time in the initial collecting of the sound effects?
I was basically given a recorder and a year on my own recording sounds—going out on my own expeditions. Going out to record animals, or going to a factory to record machinery, or standing out at the end of the runway to record jet planes. For many years, most of the studios in Hollywood had established sound effects libraries, and they used sounds over and over again—sounds that went back fifty years. I wanted to start our own sound effects library. They didn’t ask me to do that, but essentially that’s what happened. I just set about creating a Star Wars library of original material tailored for our specific uses in the film. It was the beginning of the collection which went on with all the films that were done at Lucasfilm up to the present day.
Have you been given more creative freedom over the years in regards to the sound design for the later Star Wars films?
With the successful results on the first film, I was asked to stay on and work full time as the sound editor. We then called it the sound designer. We thought that description made more sense, since the job was specifically to create new sounds rather than just transcribe old ones. So I stayed on, and on each film, Empire and then on to Jedi,
I had more responsibility and began to take on a whole crew of people. I began to administrate that group as well as focusing on the creative sound design. With Jedi, we built our first mixing facility here, and Gary Summers was hired. He was my assistant at that time, and we tried to actually mix the whole film, rather than go to a studio in Hollywood to finish it. We took on that responsibility on our own, and learned as we went.
What have been some of the most challenging sound effects that you’ve achieved?
Anything which had to do with language or a character presentation. Because to give a character life and a reality—the audience is very sensitive and critical to that. They may not be quite as sensitive to your creation of an explosion or laser gun, but something that involves communication and an attempt to portray emotion, certainly is subject to more scrutiny. Each film required different characters and elaborations of older characters, and there was always on each film several hundred sound effects projects. R2-D2, certainly on the first film, was the hardest sound because it was the most abstract. It had to be worked over from scratch.
Photos: Burtt developed alien languages from real sources. Nien Nunb (top) spoke Haya, an African dialect from Kenya while the Ewoks (center) borrowed from a Mongolian nomadic tribesmen dialect known as Chalmuk. In addition, unusual sounds became familiar Star Wars sounds such as Han Solo’s blaster (bottom) which was actually made by tapping a cable wire connected to a radio tower.
You did a great deal of research on languages. What were some of the languages usedfor characters in the Star Wars trilogy?
For Greedo (in Star Wars), there was an Incan dialect called Quechua. There were also quite a few others. There was also Nien Nunb who was Lando [Calrissian]’s co-pilot in Jedi. He was speaking Haya, an African dialect from Kenya. We got a student from Kenya named Kipsang Rotich to speak that. We used a lot of actual Hayan phrases which were recognized later in his country when the film played there. It caused quite a sensation because the people could understand what the character was saying. Fortunately, he was saying things that were comprehensible to the story. He became a minor movie star in Kenya for a while.
For the Ewoks, we used a lot Chalmuk. It’s a Mongolian, nomadic tribesman dialect. There were other examples of Zulu being used for Jawas. We tried to pick things that were not recognizable by the general North American or European audience.
When you use a real language, the advantage is the intelligence behind it, and the reality and detail that is hard to invent on your own.
When the films were shown in foreign countries, did you supervise the mixing for those particular languages?
Star Wars was dubbed into at least nine languages, and then it was subtitled in other places in the world. With Star Wars and with Empire, and less so with Jedi, we went to the foreign countries and supervised the mixing. We kept everything the same in terms of alien voices—Chewie and Artoo sounded the same—and we would redub the English-speaking characters. We would cast voices in the foreign countries who had the same character qualities, but they would be a French or Italian actor. That was always fun to do. The film would take on a real different flavor. The French version of Star Wars I thought was the most interesting sound track. Something about the language made it sound very poetic, and a lot of things seemed to actually rhyme.
Which of the three films in the Star Wars trilogy are you most proud of in terms of your work?
The typical situation is that when you finish, you’re so tired of it. You had a goal, and you usually see how you didn’t get close to that goal. Going back a year or two later, you’ve forgotten all of that. You see the good parts, and say, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad!” So as time has gone on, I’ve gotten more forgiving of the films. But I was never upset with them.
Certainly Star. Wars—I was so young and hadn’t done that sort of thing before—was exciting because I got so much attention and reinforcement in my career. On Empire and Jedi, I tend be more critical of my work because I’m comparing it to other expectations. I don’t see the films that often, but my children were watching Jedi last week on laser disc, and I thought it sounded great!
The first film [of the trilogy] established some particular styles. It established the basic sound of the laser weapons which really became the standard in the industry as a whole, and I still hear derivatives of that kind of sound all the time,be it Star Trek: The Next Generation or Space Precinct.
I was watching a TV special “The Making of Star Wars. ” in which you’re shown tapping a cable wire connected to a radio tower. This sound was eventually used for the blasters (laser weapons). How did you discover this effect?
You get yourself on the alert with your environment. Lots of sounds you'll just hear by accident. That sound came about while I was hiking with my family, in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. My father’s backpack caught on a wire—we were walking under it— and it made this great sound. I actually had the Nagra with me. I always carry it around just in case. Often times, you’ll find a great sound and you’ll go back later and you can’t get it. So I recorded there and that became the basis for the lasers. That particular sound is so widely imitated, that I get a little smile about having the effect on that because it was far reaching beyond Star Wars.
The lightsaber also seems to be a favorite with everyone. Oddly enough, it was the first sound 1 ever made for Star Wars. When 1 read the script, I immediately had something in mind. It was an old motor on a projector at the USC Cinema Department. I went and recorded it right away. The humming sound was partly based on that motor. And of course Artoo, as I look back on it, I realize how lucky we were to get something that really worked because it is so abstract. There’s really nothing quite like it before or after in terms of character sounds.
Has the advancement of technology changed the way in which you design sound tracks?
There’s been a tremendous revolution for the use of computers in the editing process of films. You can still go out and record organic sounds with your portable tape recorder, bring them back, and instead of what I used to do, which was transcribe it on to magnetic film stock or 1/4 inch tape, and then work with it mechanically by splicing and cutting it up with a razor blade—now you can do all of that in a computer. There’s so much you can do now once a sound is transferred into the digital domain. In terms of modification and processing of sound, it’s just opened up a whole new world and replaced basically all the old methods.
But personally, if I’m going to design sounds, my tendency is still to go out and record as many real acoustic things as possible, then transfer them into the computer realm for manipulation and editing. There are some real advantages and time-saving techniques. The digital revolution has allowed one person to do what took much more equipment and time in the past.
Over the past twenty years do you see people taking a greater interest in the field of sound?
There’s been a real revolution in the interest of sound. There’s more money and interest in creating specific design sounds for films. It’s become more commonplace nowadays. It wasn’t that way in the ten or fifteen years prior to Star Wars. Sound editing had fallen on the wayside. It was looked upon as just a technical area—not a creative zone as much. There’s been a lot more people employed in sound and there’s been a lot more equipment and inventions to work with.
Photo: Director Ben Burtt, Sean Patrick Flanery and David Tattersall (Dir. of photography) on the set of Young Indiana Jones and the Attack of the Hawkmen.
That’s all come about in the last twenty years since Star Wars came out. And there’s a lot more expectations on the part of the audience that the sound track will be more dazzling or louder. They expect better sound tracks. And sound tracks in general are much more detailed than they ever were.
Sounds seems to be an aspect of filmmaking that is often taken for granted by many audience members. Do you feel that the general public underestimates the importance of sound design in films?
The “magic” of sound—I would like to keep it hidden from the public. Because it’s really one of those few areas that you can still have a great deal of manipulation of the public’s emotions without them being conscious of it. There’s been so much written and shown about visual special effects and how they’re done, that audiences are much more critical now and more aware of how things are done. My kids will watch something and they’ll say, “Oh, look at the matte-lines. I can see the strings.” It will ruin it for them. Whereas I saw that as a kid and I thought it was great.
I think that sound, although there has certainly been a lot more awareness in the last decade, is still an area where there’s a lot of subliminal effects that you can have on the audience. They’re not aware that they’re hearing something that wasn’t real. A lot of people think that that microphone hanging over the set is getting all you need— all those voices, explosions, background am-biances—the fact of the matter is that virtually none of those are usually part of the actual shooting.
They’re all added later by somebody carefully selecting sounds and putting them in the film.
Do you have any desire to direct feature films?
Yes, of course. In the meantime, I’ve directed a few IMAX films, a couple documentaries, but the Young Indy experience certainly is great because it gave me the chance to work in drama, with all the routine kinds of challenges you get on a movie set. I was also editor of the show, and then I did some sound design and writing. I got a chance to do a bit of everything.
What were some of the IMAX films that you directed?
Blue Planet, which was a film for the Smithsonian which came out in 1991.1 was generously billed as principal director of that, but there were other directors that did segments of the film. Then I shot segments for a film called Destiny in Space, which came out last year, which is about the space shuttle. Currently, I'm directing an IMAX film on special effects, of all topics. That goes into production this summer. We’re seeking Star Wars and other Lucasfilm footage for that project but nothing has been confirmed yet.
Will you possibly be involved with any future Star Wars films?
It’s just too early in the process to anticipate a commitment. I’ve been involved a bit with working on the new restoration because we’re going to have to dig out all the old tracks and all the old music, and I’m probably the only one who knows where everything is. I’ll probably be involved certainly as a consultant in that. I guess I feel a historical responsibility to have some say in it.
[Source: Star Wars Insider #26, P.68-71. Text & Photos © copyright 1995 Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved.]