Ben Burtt is the sound designer behind some of cinema’s most iconic sounds – the light saber, Darth Vader’s voice, the X-Wing fighter, Chewbacca, and all the other brilliant effects from Star Wars.
Not only that, but he’s also worked on many other Hollywood films from the Dark Crystal to Wall-E. When a friend suggested we went to a talk at the National Film Theatre given by Burtt I leapt at the chance.
Ben showed how the sound design for Star Wars had come about, not just through his own personal interests, but through the overall evolution of film in the 20th century.
He started with a truly strange clip made by Edison in 1894 – showing a man playing a violin with two men waltzing together in front of him – which apparently is the earliest surviving film that has synchronised sound. Being cumbersome and expensive it didn’t go mainstream until the late 1920′s. Everyone knows The Jazz Singer was the earliest talkie, but Burtt showed a clip from a Don Juan film dating from a couple of years earlier with synchronised sword clash sounds in a fight sequence. Ok, they sounded like knitting needles clashing, and the whole picture was absurd to the modern viewer, but it was a small seed leading to the modern action movie genre.
After that, Burtt presented some of the influences and ideas behind Star Wars: a magnificant 70mm excerpt from Lawrence of Arabia (man, that film needs to be seen on that scale on that print – absoutely extraordinary. With regard to Star Wars – think Tantuine), some Tarzan clips of Cheetah (think Chewbacca), and Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts (fantastical and alien creatures)
Then we got into how he actually made the sounds for Star Wars. Now, we’ve all read bits and bobs about the sound of the light saber, etc, but this is what he said during the talk and therefore pretty much the definitive methods for creating these iconic sounds:
The Light Saber
Is in fact comprised of two sounds: 1) The flywheel from a film projector Burtt used to operate. This flywheel which when interfered with would slow down and speed up, producing a very musical change in pitch. On it’s own sounded very much like the hum of a transformer, but very smooth. Burtt said it was a nice sound but too smooth to match the aggression of the lightsaber so required another sound layered with it: 2) the rasp of a transformer from a tv set. A very buzzy, clicky transformer sound that sits over the top of the sound: you can hear the discrete clicks of it in the film layered over the top of the smooth swooping noises of the flywheel. This layered sound was then played by an amp in front of which Burtt waved a microphone mimicking the swoop of the lightsabers in the film, producing a doppler effect on the original layered sound. Voila!
Excitingly Burtt recreated this for us on the spot using a scuba oxygen tank. The intense breathing sound of Darth Vader is the microphone placed inside the respirator while breaths are taken through the respirator. Produces that distinctive electronic rushing of air. Talking through it sounds just like Darth Vader! We applauded! Apparently lots more sounds were produced to accompany Darth Vader to simulate all aspects of his life support system, but were deemed too much, and the respirator sound is the only one that made it through to the final cut.
This was a young bear in a Californian zoo that had been deprived of food for a day and then teased with food. The mournful and pitiful sounds of Chewbacca are that bear! We heard the original recordings and they are really not that different from how they ended up in the film. Poor bear – we saw a little film of him. But it suffered only a little to contribute to a great film.
If you’ve ever twanged taut metal or been near railway tracks when there’s an approaching train, you’ll know that long stretches of metal resonate sound in a very pleasing way. Burtt auditioned many high tension metal guylines of pylons, and found the perfect one somewhere in the desert. Tapped with a wedding ring, it produces that lovely recoiling sound as the impact zaps up and down the metal. Recorded using a contact microphone.
You know – the funny alien creature who tells the storm troopers where to find Luke. He has a sort of extended gas mask affair like a snout. Anyway, it’s a vocoder seeded by some Harrison Ford out-takes that Burtt found on the cutting room floor (or rather the bin of discarded audio)
Giving a robot a tangible character when it’s really just a glorified wastepaper bin is a challenge. It was solved using great sound design. Burtt avoided synthesizers for the most part on Star Wars, but used one for R2-D2. He said that he would come up with equivalent lines in English for what R2-D2 would be ‘saying’ and twiddle the filter and other knobs of a synth whilst reading the lines out loud, to try and articulate the words using the synth. He obviously got quite good at it! A similar challenge was required for the voice of Wall-E, which Burtt also produced. That seems to have been created using a formant/pitch correction type process.
Burtt and his team spent lots of time at vintage air shows recording turbo-prop aeroplanes (one of which crashed – I think he said no one was killed). Those recordings were then processed and pitch-shifted down to produce most of the spacecraft noises. For the record I think the hollow open roar of the X-wing fighter is one of my favourite sounds ever. I must pitch shift some turbo prop plane recordings!
I think one of the reasons the sound effects are so successful in Star Wars – and Ben Burtt certainly says this was their intention – is that they are mainly based on real-world sounds. This gives them a root in the world and a richness that can’t always be achieved by electronic means alone (certainly not in the mid 70′s anyway) Chewbacca sounds like a real creature because he’s really a bear, and spaceships sound like spaceships because they’re real military aircraft*.
*apart from the fact that spaceships wouldn’t make a noise in the vacuum of space. But then Burtt also pointed out that tyres always screech in the movies – even when driving through oil or mud. Film is hyper-reality, so let’s not split hairs…
Of course, the sound design is just one element of many that makes Star Wars the epoch defining film that it turned out to be – John William’s score, the primal tale of good vs evil, cool spaceships, maverick pilots, etc, etc – but it is an often overlooked factor – without good sound design we simply wouldn’t believe the fantastical things presented on screen.
Following Ben Burtt was a brief talk by Norman Wanstall, who is the British sound designer behind the early Bond films (Dr No, Goldfinger, etc), which Burtt said was a big influence on his work. Norman is a pleasing old school boffin type you could imagine working in the BBC Radiophonic workshop whilst wearing labcoat and tie. By a fun co-incidence, I’d just watched The Ipcress File the night before and then here was Norman who turned out to have also done the sound design on that too!
A Good Night Out!