Sounding out character in movies
Movie sound design proves more art than science.
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Burtt's career started the same way. As a boy, he'd act out movements to the classical music his mother enjoyed. Then he became fascinated with sounds on television shows and movies, such as "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." "I'd record favorite sounds and when I played them back, the whole drama came to mind. Then I saw Walt Disney's 'Fantasia.' " Burtt says the film's colorful movements, displayed in sync with Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" helped him understand visually how sound could initiate movement. Then he put it all together, making adventure films with friends using his dad's home-movie camera.Skip to next paragraph
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It was not until 1979 and the release of "Apocalypse Now" that the term "sound designer" was coined by Walter Murch, who created sound for the film. Prior to then, and with the exception of the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Wells, and a few others, movie sound was often an afterthought, plugged in between and under dialogue after filming was completed.
Randy Thom, sound designer for "Horton Hears a Who," "Ratatouille," and "The Polar Express," recalls, "Walter taught me the importance of sound in every aspect of life. The first sense active in a baby, before it's even born, is the sound of its mother's heartbeat, stomach, and voice," he says from his office at Skywalker Sound, north of San Francisco.
"It's all about listening," Mr. Thom adds, referring to the need to understand the director's artistic vision. "Walter taught me the importance of meeting with the director before shooting begins, so we can determine if the environment of the film is noisy or quiet, sinister or banal. Just because you have a script doesn't mean you know how a movie is supposed to sound."
Movie sound gained a new dimension with George Lucas, the creative force behind the "Star Wars" saga, when he articulated the need for organic or "real world" sound. For years movie sound was designed to be flawless. But Mr. Lucas recognized that movies could be more engaging by using everyday sound, instead of studio-perfect effects. "Ben Burtt took and ran with this idea," says Thom.
When Burtt was hired to collect sounds for "Star Wars" while a graduate film student at the University of Southern California, he recorded noises made by TV sets, vacuum cleaners, and howling bears among other things. These were modulated, amplified, and later became the sounds of laser swords, land rovers, and Chewbacca's "Wookie" voice. As for R2D2, it was his beeps and squeaks that helped moviegoers relate to the softer side of the sci-fi epic.