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Do you know what wookies sound like?

By Lynde McCormickStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 1980

Los Angeles

Most people try to go through life with their eyes open.Ben Burtt, however, leads with his ears. The man listens to everything.m He doesn't look at things so much as he hears them, and he somehow manages to catalog noises, not in terms of the object that made them, but what they sound like. He might hear a fighter jet screaming through the skies overhead and remember not just that jets make a loud roar, but the roar has a lot of volume in the bass end of it without much at the treble end. He will store that information away, either mentally or on his ever-present tape recorder, and keep in mind the possibilities for using that sound for something else.

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Mr. Burtt hears sounds most of us don't hear, and in turn he gives us sounds none of us have ever heard.

He is one of a meager handful of film technicians just beginning to show up on movie sets, giving movies a dimension their makers had previously ignored. Mr. Burtt created all the sounds for "Star Wars" and its newly released sequel, "The Empire Strikes Back." That may not sound like much, but youm try to figure out what a light saber, a Tauntaun, a robot, or a Wookie should sound like.

Mr. Burtt received an Academy Award in 1978 for his work in Star Wars, a definite sign that the film industry is beginning to recognize the importance of sound, one industry observer notes.

Although he doesn't have much competition in the field of sound creation and design, he has some very good company. To date, three people have been credited with something similar to his title -- sound design and supervising sound effects editor -- which rolls up at the end of "The Empire Strikes Back," notes Kenneth Muira, professor of cinema and television at the University of Southern California (USC). No one had received such a credit for sound prior to Ben Burtt and "Star Wars," he adds.

"Before you've never seen a production credit that says something like 'Sounds created by . . . .' They are synthesizing the sounds, orchestrating the sounds. Before, the idea was to get the sound technically recorded so that it was understandable, but people never really said, 'How can we take this sound and make it more creative. Orchestrate it.'"

Walter Murch not only received a credit for his spectacular sound work on "Apocalypse Now," he took home an Oscar in 1979. Alan Splet was given a credit title and special Oscar for his sound-effects editing in "Black Stallion," an effort that helped make the movie genuinely thrilling.

Mr. Burtt is almost singlehandedly responsible for the character of R2D2. Other people may have built him (or them -- there are eight), but the robot's personality comes solely from Mr. Burtt's sounds.

Since Wookies do not really exist (as I tried to explain, unsuccessfully, to my five-year-old son), the sounds they make don't either. Mr. Burtt has to make them up.

"Sound is worth probably a good one-third to one-half of these movies ["Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back"]," comments "Empire" director Irvin Kershner. "The audio has to be as exciting as the visual or else the picture is flat. Ben is a one-in-a-million find." For both movies, only the dialogue was recorded on the set. The rest of the sound track was added later at the recording studio.

Most Hollywood films get their sound off a shelf. "The director says, 'I need a car crash,' or a window breaking or a gunshot, and somebody goes into the sound library and pulls those sounds off the shelf," Mr. Burtt explains in an interview at the Lucasfilm offices near Hollywood. George Lucas -- creator of the Star Wars saga -- had something else in mind for "Star Wars," and when he rang up his old alma mater, the cinema school at USC, it told him about this sound nut student who relaxed by sitting down with a set of earphones in the sound library. Just the man.

For "Star Wars," Ben spent a year collecting and cataloging sounds, traveling anywhere and everywhere, poking his microphones into any situation he thought might contain interesting sounds: military bases, zoos, airfields, garbage trucks, prisons, up in the air in gliders. He followed the same methods for "The "Empire," but with the aid of a staff and a half-million-dollar budget this time.