In collaboration with Click Communications and
Disney/Pixar, From Script To DVD is proud to present an interview with
sound designer, Ben Burtt. There isn't much more to say to say about
Burtt than what movie fans already know. Burtt is the man behind the
scenes who created the sound effects and sound design for the "Star
Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films. His sounds are famous. The whir of a
light saber, or the explosive crack from Indy's whip are embedded in our
Burtt is also the talented voice behind some of R2-D2's beeps. He came back to the world of fantasy robots to provide the voice for "Wall-E," Pixar's latest animated feature.
In time for the November 18th DVD and Blu-ray release, Burtt sat down to discuss his work on "Wall-E."
QUESTION: You had just finished a stint on "Star Wars" ("Revenge of the Sith" in 2005) when you were offered Wall-E and I imagine the last thing you wanted to work on was robots?
BEN BURTT: That is absolutely true. Creating the illusion of voices is the hardest task. It is hard to fool voices. When Andrew pitched this idea and I realized it was all robot voices. At first I thought I wasn't sure I had anything left in me. Have I got a new idea? Fortunately it was a very different set of characters. The idea always is to create the sense of a soul with the character with sound. You are given sounds or a few words and the aim is to create the feeling that these are talking machines. You could have imposed a human voice on to the robots and audiences would have accepted that. But with Wall-E it was important to give the sound an aspect of being a machine. So I went about that task.
My assignment was to create voices for the characters and audition them to Andrew (Stanton, director). He had about 10 minutes of the opening of the movie with sketches and storyboards and said it was a little peek of what he was trying to get. I was there from the beginning, which is the best thing. I am sure that when I started that they did not know that they were going to make his film. They were still having trials and one of the hurdles to jump was to get the voices.
QUESTION: What was your working process like on "Wall-E?"
BEN BURTT: A typical day, I work alone. I would be in a sound room with my recording gear and mixing consoles, speakers and a screen so that I can project images if I want to. And I really just start improvising. I work two different ways; one is that I have a keyboard and I can put sound effects on that and I can play things. This is how I experiment. I discover a combination and that gives me something to work on. If I need human input, then I can record myself or I can bring in a Pixar employee because they are readily available and free (smiles) for scratch voices. That is kind of what happened with "Wall-E." I was just using my own voice as a trial. I was not supposed to be the voice. Once we got a voice that we liked, Andrew realized that it would be pretty hard to go back and start over with a different human voice. So we stuck with it.
I auditioned for Andrew many concepts for "Wall-E." Some were sound effects because initially we did not know whether he would talk or he might just whistle like R2-D2. I think the first version of Wall-E that I did was pretty much like an R2-D2 type of character. It was almost with electronic tones. Every time I pitched Andrew an audition, he would pick two or three things out that he liked. So I began to make a little list. And then I built up a sort of favorites list. When Andrew first showed me the maybe 10 minutes or so of the storyboards cut together, and the opening of the movie, it had some music and some sound effects in it. That was kind of a way of enticing me into understanding the project. The vocal in that (opening) song appealed to me in a way that I sort of connected with the Wall-E character. There’s a feeling about that, so to some extent maybe the pitch of the voice started out that way with that kind of innocent feeling.
As I’ve said, we went through lots of experiments trying Wall-E just as motor sounds only. Some were beeps and whistles, a little bit more in the R2 realm. Although we extracted bits from all of those experiments, when it came down to some of the more expressive vocals it was a little bit in that tone from that singing voice. I’m not sure why. There was obviously something very charming and appealing about that song. I couldn’t quite pin it down.
I have always felt that the best way to get a robot voice is to have a human element & an electronic element and blend the two. So I worked out a circuit where I started with my voice and broke that down in the computer and then re-synthesized it. And the voice of EVE was done in a similar way. We used a woman at Pixar who was named Elissa Knight. We started using her as a scratch track and once again, just like with me, once I ran it through the laborious computer process, we got results that we liked and we felt we should keep it. For one sound I had heard a generator in a John Wayne movie called "Island In The Sky." It was a generator they cranked and I thought I had to get one of those. I got one on e-Bay that had not been unpacked since 1950. There are the sophisticated electronic things I do, and like the generator, there are things like the old days of radio when you used props.
QUESTION: What has been the most unusual prop you used?
BEN BURTT: Apart from the generator you could name something that is a household item and it is probably in the film. There is an electronic toothbrush in there.
QUESTION: Legend has it that you use everything that comes into your life as part of the sounds you create, even your wife’s pregnancy. Is this true?
BEN BURTT: I’ve always found, when you’re trying to create illusions with sound, especially in a science fiction or fantasy movie, that pulling sounds from the world around us is a great way to cement that illusion. You can go out and record an elevator in George Lucas’s house or something, and it will have that motor sound. It will be an elevator and you might associate it with that, but if you use it in a movie people will believe it’s a force field or maybe it’s the sound of a spaceship door opening.
The story about my wife was on "Invasion of the Bodysnatchers" (1978). We went to listen to a sonogram of the child. [My daughter Alice, who’s now grown up, and has her own child.] It was this great, throbbing sound, and at that time I was looking for the sound of an alien pod germinating and it sounded exactly like the alien pod germinating, so why not? But it did work, because it was a heartbeat and it was something from the womb and it was about these alien characters coming alive and being born. So there was probably some connection there that worked emotionally since we all were in the womb at one time. It’s forging those connections between familiar sound and illusionary sound that I think that sound designers have put in these movies.
QUESTION: Were you conscious of the environmental issues that are in "Wall-E" when you were working on the film?
BEN BURTT: Not really; only the way the story was expressed. This came out as the film grew and took on its details. I accepted from the start the premise of the story. Like Andrew was saying, science fiction rarely starts with a happy village. You start out with this lonely robot in a toxic wasteland.
I suppose my first concerns w what does a toxic wasteland sound like? You can’t smell it. It’s not Smell-O-Vision, so we can’t do it that way. But that agenda was not really in the forefront. I accepted it as the setting of the story. Obviously as we see this reaction to the film coming at this time, you see it as an echo, a coincidence of good timing. Often issues that are in films that are there for a legitimate reason come at a time when the film gets its attention. It’s one of those fortuitous moments now. That element gives you a point of discussion and gives you that much more value, which to us as entertainers, that’s fantastic. It gives us an added dimension.
QUESTION: How proud are you of "Wall-E?"
BEN BURTT: I am most proud when I see that people get it! When people come and say it’s a masterpiece, it’s hard to think about those reactions. I’m very proud of it all. I see it as a great opportunity. Most sound people don’t get the assignment to create worlds of sound and get freedom to try a lot of things. Most sound work in films is done very quickly and at the end of the schedule where it’s just jammed together. You always wish that you had more sympathy. I’ve been on this film for three years, so the work was being embedded right from the beginning. Sometimes we would do some sounds and then do an animation test to try those sounds out. Those kinds of opportunities are great. So of course I’m very proud of that. What film gives you a chance to do sound effects as well as key voices in the film?
Maybe the only other big assignment would be to do a movie with no music and see where you could go. I love the music, of course. What you do as a sound designer is something like doing music. You’re creating sounds especially in a film like this, and you're thinking what part of the story can those sounds play emotionally. Maybe they’re there to support credibility and to make these things seem real. That’s important, but it’s also great when you’re on an assignment and your director asks you for a motor that sounds cute, or wants more pathos in that servo. Those are not the questions you usually get when you’re rushing to get sound effects put in the movie.
QUESTION: What is your favorite scene?
BEN BURTT: I really love the scene where they’re out in space together with the fire extinguisher. I think it’s the lyrical nature of that calm in the middle of the storm. That moment there’s something about putting those two characters out there dancing in space that really takes me back to "Peter Pan" when I was a kid. I love that film, I think I was five years old when I saw it. I made my mother take me two or three times in one week, which was unheard of in those days. It’s that wonderful ability to be transported to a wonderful place where you feel warm and completely secure. Where it occurs in the movie it feels that way to me. It’s great.
Special thanks to Click Communications and Disney/Pixar
Photos: © 2008 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.
Introduction written by William Kallay