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.
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.
Once he had them on tape, Mr. Burtt took his sounds back to the studio to combine, rearrange, and otherwise alter for the proper effect.
The light sabers, for example, that Luke Skywalker (our hero) and the evil Darth Vader slash away at each other with are a combination "of the noise from an old movie projector at USC and the hum I recorded from the back of the TV set in my living room. . . . I had remembered the hum from that old projector, from my student days, an interesting noise, and when I was working on the laser swords it seemed to fit." Often, when he sees on film the object he must "audiolize," such as the laser swords, Mr. Burtt hears the right sound in his head first and then sets out to find it, or rather the elements of noises he will use to create it. Other times, he hears the sound and connects it with something in the movie needing a sound effect.
It can be a trying experience, particularly since he is the only one who knows what he hears in his head. The people who supply the visual special effects can at least describe their ideas in terms of measurements and shapes, and they can draw them for each other. It's not so easy to finish the sentence, "Well, it should sound like . . . ." The back of an old TV set?
An especially troublesome sound to produce for "Empire" was that of laser guns. He looked and listened for months but failed to dig up the right noise. "Finally, I was out recording some wind in the Pennsylvania mountains [ presumably, wind through the Catskills wouldn't do] when my backpack caught on the support wire of a radio tower. When it let go, the wire made this great twanging noise, and I knew that was it. We came back and auditioned every radio tower in the hills around Los Angeles until we got the right one."
In addition to Pennsylvania, he and an assistant, Richard Barrow, traveled to a US Army artillery base in New Mexico and asked some bewildered brass if they would kindly shoot some howitzer rounds in their direction. The shriek of those artillery shells howling by is the sound of spacecraft being launched from Darth Vader's ominous Star Destroyers.
An exploding glass window accompanied by a giant wind blast, in "The Empire," in a scene where Darth Vader gets the better of Luke and forces him through the window, came from the sound of P-38s flying by Burtt and Barrow at 400 m.p.h. combined with the sound of Hoover Dam being flushed out.
"I had heard that they flush Hoover Dam out every two years, so I called and asked if they would let me know the next time they did it so I could record it."
In the movie, though, the sound of laser guns is not exactly that of a radio tower support wire twanging off a backpack. Most of the sounds received considerable doctoring.
"Much of the work is editorial. We rearrange the sound. We build up layers of it, maybe boosting the bass or middle levels or bringing the background sounds to the foreground." The light sabers sound nothing like the back of someone's TV set. "The whole idea is to come up with sounds that people will accept and take for granted."
The creative work with sound adds an entirely new dimension to both those movies. The intensified sound of the helicopters in "Apocalypse," for example, makes them far more formidable than a normal sound track would have. In "Black Stallion," it is the sound that adds excitement to the racing and galloping scenes. Were it not for the sound and beautiful cinematography, the movie would have been little more than the melodrama of a boy and a horse. In both cases, the sound was not recorded on the spot but laid onto the film back in the studio. A person could not hear a galloping horse that well if the horse was running over him.
Despite the undeniable successes of designed sound, Hollywood probably will not witness any great talent search for the likes of more Ben Burtts. Studio executives take a dim view toward new ways of making movies, particularly if they cost more money. All three of the above sound designers, in fact, don't work in Hollywood at all. They work for the production companies (those headed by George Lucas and - Francis Ford Coppola) based in San Francisco.
In any event, such talents come few and far between. Professor Muira notes that "in my 16 years of teaching sound" at USC's cinema school, "I've only had two students like that," Burtt and Murch.