News Feature: Sounding out Ben Burtt

10 September, 2008 by IF

By Zona Marie Tan

He is the man behind the century’s iconic film sounds. E.T., R2-D2, the light sabre and the cinematic stock sound effect, The Wilhelm Scream – are all Ben Burtt’s creations. This four-time Academy Award-winning sound designer was in Sydney late last month to promote the upcoming release of Disney Pixar’s WALL-E (Australia release September 18). Burtt speaks to INSIDEFILM about his experience moving from sound designing for a live-action sci-fi universe to animation, and being embraced by the Pixar family.


(The following is a transcript of the recorded audio interview.)

Are you working permanently for Skywalker?
Actually I work for Disney Pixar now, I joined the company part way through WALL-E, I worked on WALL-E for three years, and for the first year I was more or less thinking I’d just be there for WALL-E and when it’s over I’ll be gone. But then we forged a relationship and there were other things I could do at Pixar and so it just made sense. They proposed, “Why don’t you join up? Drink the coolade.” And so I did. So my immediate future right now is to stay at Pixar and I’m not yet assigned to a specific thing to do next because I’m still doing WALL-E, but when we get all these press things done and I get home we’ll see what comes up.

You’re actually listed [in IMDB] to work on a new project called Chassis.
Well, that isn’t going to happen; that was a couple of years ago. It was when I first started on WALL-E. I’ve been independent since about 1989 although most of the time I was doing something with Lucas Film and they let me have an office there. I was doing some IMAX films, directing some TV and some other things. And Chassis was something talked about, I don’t think it will ever get made now because things like Speed Racer came out, and it was some respect similar to Speed Racer in the generic sense it was kind of futuristic racing, crime fighting story, superhero-esque, in many ways comic book. It had some difficulties getting funding, it’s not going to happen, I don’t think, I’m not pursuing it any longer.

I listened to an interview with Andrew Stanton, and he said this movie required a whole new world of sound. How was that a challenge for you? Is it something you’ve enjoyed doing?
Any sound designer like myself loves to create a world of sound, and of course science fiction movies allow you the freedom to invent things that have never been heard before. I’m much more interested in that kind of a movie because you can experiment and you can create sounds people have never heard before, you’re not bound by the rules or every day familiar things, and that’s always been an endeavour I’ve been connected with, and interested in. But the additional challenge for WALL-E is that not only do you want sound effects but you want voices of main characters, and that, although I’ve done plenty of robot and alien voices, they weren’t exclusively the voices of the main characters that were going to carry the weight of the whole drama, its not about them, so I was attracted to it. I was a little tired after Star Wars ended three years ago and thinking “at least I don’t have to do anymore robots”, I think I said to my wife, because they’re horrible. But lo and behold, I’m over at Pixar and within a few weeks, Andrew Stanton’s telling me about his movie WALL-E and asked me “Do you want to do this? Can you make this guy talk?” And I was intrigued of course. I love the Pixar movies, and Andrew is a great guy, how could I say no? Because artistically it was a real challenge – I get to do everything. And so I said yes and I started working on it.

You practically drive the movie because the first half is just WALL-E and you.
Yeah. In many ways I’ve said WALL-E is the crown jewel of sound design offerings, because you get to create a world and sustain the emotional tone, and to provide character emotions, character expressions, expressionistic sound that reveals how they’re thinking and feeling, and I love that, I can’t think of a movie where they ask for that in such quantity.

Was it a fresh challenge for you?
At first I was a little worried, I’d done so many science fiction movies, it was a time in my life where I’d like to do something new, but that dispelled pretty quickly, because it’s a comedy, a romance, a fun movie for families, and it also has some serious ideas woven into it. You couldn’t have asked for a better deal.

What was the creative process you went through to create the characters?
The process was initially that I spoke to Andrew and got him to download his descriptions of the characters, there wasn’t any animation in existence, I would start making sounds in my studio, and then I would present sounds to Andrew. He’d come over and I say “Hey Andrew, let’s listen to these possible sounds for WALL-E or EVE”, and then he would listen, and he’d pick things out he’d like, or he’d reject things he didn’t like, and some days I got rejections. That always happens. So I started putting together little sequences of sound – “Here’s WALL-E driving in, boxing up trash and driving away” – and I would just make those sounds, play it for Andrew, and then we would give those sounds to the animators, and they would freely create animation with the characters to fit the sound. And then we would look at the two together to look at how sound and picture related and that was wonderful for me, because I hadn’t worked in animation before really, and I was amazed the expressiveness that they could get in the characters just from poses – just the angle of the eyes could tell you a lot.

And so we worked back and forth with these tests, making sounds, doing animation, we did it for all the characters until we ended up with a set of little videos which anybody could look at, and it essentially told you that character. You know how in animation they’ll make a maquette, which is a sculpture of a character, you can look at it and everyone can analyse it, well I called this an audio maquettes, because the little video that had sound with it and everybody could look and say “Ok, I get it. That’s how EVE is going to behave, or that’s how M-O will sound and look,” and it gave everybody the confidence that “Ok, we now have a set of characters, now we can start telling the story with them.” So it went on that basis, it was developed over a year or so, and then animation started in earnest and I got to continue making other sounds, all the weapons and vehicles and other stuff in the movie. So that’s the ideal circumstance for a sound designer, you don’t normally get that kind of development time.

You’re creating a bible of sound for the characters.
You create a library for the movie. And essentially, what was created was a library of 2,600 sound files – it’s all highly organised in the computer, things are described and have names and numbers. And then Andrew or the editors of the movie can just dip into this database, they can listen to all the different sounds of WALL-E and then pull in the one they liked and they would create a library, a data bank, and they would use that as the film was slowly built up shot by shot.

What kind of sources, what was your inspiration, because I know there was a lot of unconventional ways you got the sound instead of creating it on the computer or a synthesiser.
Well, I really do three different things. One is I do a lot of field recording; that is I go out and I collect real sounds, just have a little recorder and microphone and I’m always collecting and exploring, even here in Sydney I’ve collected a few things, because you never know when you might need it, and so I’m stockpiling things, and I can always dip into that collection and find a particular motor or a funny squeak, or something. The second thing I did was I created props and things in the studio. Like this generator, well it drives around and I wanted something we could control, that would be the sound of his treads and things, and I saw an old John Wayne movie that a crashed airplane, and there was a soldier cranking a little generator, it had handles that would rotate, and it was an old army device. And I said “Where can I get one of those, it’s a world war two generator” and I found one on E-Bay and bought it. Then we took it in the studio and attached it to a cable and then we could turn it, and it made a nice “whirring” sound, and then we could tailor it to WALL-E’s performances. So the part two was that we would build props or bring an object into the studio that we can use to create and perform the sound, it’s kind of an odd form of being a musician.

It’s also called foley isn’t it?
Well, it relates to foley. Foley is where you’re recording props or footsteps, or anything while you watch the movie in the studio.

And it’s more controlled.
It’s controlled and you also customise it to fit the action. It’s the way that sounds use to be done of course, in radio shows and the earliest days of motion picture. You couldn’t go out and record something; the equipment wasn’t portable so you had to come up with ways to do wind, or a train or some sound in the studio. So we built props for a while, we built something for the wind that would be outside his trailer, it was a big canvas bag I discovered by accident just dragging it around the carpet at Pixar it would do ‘whirring’, and that’s good for wind, lets use that. So there were field recordings, there were props tailored to do the movie, and then the third thing would be generating things in the computer, synthesising completely. An in a science fiction film, that usually means you’re going to develop all the tones for the electronics and any time somebody presses a button there’s a noise, and also some of the vocals of EVE and WALL-E are electronic sounds, they’re intermixed with the vocals. So those were the three processes.

With WALL-E and EVE, I actually start with a human voice, in the case of WALL-E I used me, mainly because I was available, and I started experimenting for Andrew, I’d said “Where here’s a way we can take a voice and change it to be a character,” and he liked it, and since it was convenient that it was me, there everyday, so you could always change it or make it better, do new versions or takes, and the same with EVE, we used a woman at Pixar who’s named Elissa Knight. But those voices are changed a lot, I take the recordings of them, and then I can put them in the computer, I built a circuit which will break that voice down into all its component parts, just like images are made up of pixels, sound has little bits of data. And then I can play the sound out of the computer later using a light pen and a tablet. And by moving then pen and angling the pressure in the pen you can control the pitch and you can stretch or compress the sound, so you’d come up with weird things, just from one pitch to another, and do something the human voice can’t do, and you end up with this electronic version of the sound, and that was what we wanted. We wanted to try and convince people that these were not just actors recording in front of a microphone but it was machines talking, with their circuitry, imperfectly.

How has technology changed the whole process for you over the years since you first started?
There have been two really nice changes. For one thing, sound used to be a very physical process, you’d cut and splice and glue things together, and you hung sound on a hook and then ripped it down, glued it to something else. That’s all gone now, it all can be done in your laptop computer, kind of like word processor, you can paste and cut very conveniently. It means you can do it yourself in a very self contained little desktop set up, you can do it at home, you can do it in bed, and that’s convenient for the artist; I don’t have to have a big studio with rooms of equipment and lots of engineers to keep it running. The old system required a lot more people, and bulky machinery. The second advantage is it’s very fast. You can cut fast, copy things, and you don’t lose quality. As they say, it’s the difference between writing something on paper with a pen and word processing, it’s that advanced. Of course now they expect you to work faster and do more, so have we gained? I don’t know, but its certainly more efficient, you spend less time nursing things along then you used to.

Working with George Lucas, he usually likes to create a lot of products to fit what he wants to do in his films, has that ever happened to you, have you created any equipment or software?
No, I’ve used pretty much off the shelf applications. The things I used for WALL-E and EVE, I was able to alter software and use it in a way that was unique, that someone else hadn’t done before. I’m not a programmer. I didn’t create any product that would be something you’d now sell or license or have a royalty to. I’m pretty much a user of existing things.

Could you mention some of them?
We used Pro Tools as our principle recording, editing and mixing software, and all the things Pro Tools brings with it. I use a sound devices recorder, which is a little digital drive with microphone inputs on it for recording things in the field. In the computer, the two programs I use a lot, in addition to Pro Tools, are the Mach 5 – it’s a sampler program, it’s really for musicians but I steal all these things from musicians. Its a program where you can take little samples and sound and put them on a keyboard and play them, and that’s how I work, I put everything on a keyboard and I improvise, except rather than notes it’s explosions and glass breaking and motors. And that’s made by a company called MOTU. And the principle synthesiser is use is called the Kyma, and it’s a very rigorous musicians’ program but I found ways of using it to specifically do WALL-E and EVE’S voices in that programme.


WALL-E will be released in Australian cinemas September 18.