Sounds of Cinema/Ben Burtt

Ben Burtt’s  name might not be instantly recognizable around the world, but his work is:  He’s the genius who composed the hum of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, the rasp of E.T.’s voice, and the crack of Indiana Jones’s whip.



DT:  Ironically, because you gather sounds from the real world rather than manufacturing them in a studio, you’re considered the father of modern sound design.


BB:  When sound movies came in, sound effects were generated in the studio because equipment was clumsy and you needed a big truck to go out and record something.  But as the portable tape recorder developed in the late 1950s, suddenly there was technology available for a person like myself to wander around and just carry a battery-powered recorder.  You were released into the whole world to record things.  It had been done before, but it usually required a truck and several people to do it.  I didn’t invent that process.  But to go back a little bit…when Star Wars started and I was first hired to collect sounds, I was just given a Nagra tape recorder and a portable microphone, and they said, “Just collect things.”  So I spent a year just wandering around recording everything that interested me and anything that I thought would work for the movie. I didn’t invent that process. George Lucas wanted to have the sounds in Star Wars built out of real things, out of organic, acoustic sounds that existed all around us.  He didn’t want an electronic science fiction world.  He didn’t want it synthesized in some way.  He wanted real motors, real vehicles, real squeaky, rusty doors, whatever he could get.  And so I went out and started gathering all those kinds of sounds.


DT:  But on your own, you recorded your grandfather’s short-wave radio when you were sixteen.


BB:  When I was around six years old, I was really sick and was in bed for a couple of weeks. I had nothing to do, so my father brought home a tape recorder for me to play with.  It was a great, big, heavy box and almost took two people to carry it.  He put it next to my bed, showed me how to record with it, and I had fun first recording myself, making noises, playing it back…that was unusual technology at the time…nobody in my neighborhood had a tape recorder.  And I got very interested in recording things,  and I discovered that if I put the microphone up and recorded a TV show or a movie off the air, I could play it back and enjoy the movie later.  This is way before videotape or videocassettes or DVDs.  So I got very interested in just listening to my favorite movies and shows, just the sounds, and I would lay in bed with headphones on listening to the movies, and I just got very interested in the role that sound played in movies.  I found that well-done sound tracks in films would sort of regenerate the imagery for me and I could see the movie play back in my head, and it was perhaps at that time I kind of either had a knack for it or I learned the relationship between sounds and images and how they are interrelated in movies.


DT:  You say a well-designed sound track will do that.  In what way does a badly designed sound track not do that?


BB:  Being a young boy, of course I loved action, you know, Westerns, and things with explosions in it, and violence, all the things that interest boys at that age.  So what I meant was that when there was something well done—a great fight scene, with punching sounds, or gunshots, or airplanes—it was exciting to hear.  One of my favorite films was The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn.


DT:  Yeah, it’s great.


BB:  And it had the great sound of the arrows in that movie. I went outside with my own bow and arrow, and it didn’t sound anything like the one in Robin Hood.  And so I got really interested:  Well, what was that sound?  My bow and arrow didn’t have this beautiful, almost musical sound as the arrow flew through the air.  And so I began to realize that the sounds in movies were enhanced in some way, there was something different about them.  So I think that films that had sound effects in them that caught my attention inspired me. You know, Jason and the Argonauts was a film I loved as a kid, and there were wonderful sounds for the monsters, or for the squeaking metal of a giant metallic monster, Talos…


DT:  That’s a great scene.


BB:  Yes.  And it brought it to life.  Here were these visual illusions like Jason and the Argonauts, and I realized that the sound was so effective in creating—in completing—the illusion.  You know, gave it weight, gave it scale, gave it personality, there was an expressiveness in the sounds, and that’s what I meant by good sound.  To collapse it down to one phrase, when sound effects were expressive and they brought something to mind for me, that’s what I liked.  I was interested also in music and how film music enhanced movies.  And the film Fantasia, which my mother took me to see when I was little….I just couldn’t get over that.  I couldn’t get over how music and visuals were interrelated.  Especially the sequence where there’s just abstract impressions to the Beethoven toccata and fugue.  That’s something that’s never left me, the idea that there’s some relationship between music and imagery that when put together they were greater than the sum of its parts. There’s something magical about that, and you can apply the same thing to sound effects.  Sound effects and sound design are a form of composing.


DT:  Well, that’s my next question, actually.  Do you think of your sounds as musical compositions?


BB:  The goal when you are orchestrating sounds is very much like creating music, except you’re just not using notes and a scale and the conventions of music, but you’re trying to achieve the same thing.  You’re using sound to express a feeling.  And you are arranging those sounds in a time line, and there can be a rhythm and an orchestration of sounds just like the instruments in an orchestra.  That’s kind of a high-falutin’ way of putting it.


DT:  No, it’s not.


BB:   But you really are trying to achieve the same thing.  You want to arrange these noises such that ultimately they tell a story or they create a feeling, and that applies even if you’re doing a motorcycle chase or something crazy.  You can try to create the sounds, make them seem realistic, and complete the illusion, but you can try to design the sounds such that it’s more than reality, so that the right impression is there of what you want, whether it’s speed or power or danger.  The sounds can be chosen to enhance those dramatic goals.


DT:  That’s a sort of linear approach, but you were talking about the way you created the lightsaber sound.  First you recorded the hum of a projector, but then you needed something scintillating, so you added the buzz of the TV, and then you needed something that seemed like motion, so you did this with the mic…


BB:  Swung it around.


DT:  That one sound itself— not through time but at a given point in time—is like a bar of music:  you had a melody, and then you added counterpoint, and then you added the harmony…


BB:  Most of those things you don’t reason out ahead of time, but in retrospect it’s exactly the way you describe it.  I knew after reading the script for Star Wars and seeing  the concept paintings of what the scenes would look like, with these lightsabers in it: you’re tuned up to try to discover those sounds around you.  You’re listening for it.  I found that historically if any sound catches my attention, it’s worth recording and stockpiling.  I may not know what I’ll use it for or have a film that I can use it in at that time, but if it catches my attention, it’s something worth saving.  Last summer I stopped at a convenience store to get gas for my car.  I went into the store to get a soda or something, and I opened the refrigerator cabinet where the drinks were and I could hear this great hum of the refrigerator motor—there was something wrong with it, it was a kind of wavering tone, and I said, “It’s great, it’s interesting.”  So I went back to my car, got my little recorder, came back in the store and pretended to shop, opened the refrigerator door, put the recorder in and closed the door, then pretended to shop some more while my recorder was on its own assignment.  And I got something which I can use in the next Star Trek movie or something.


DT:  That’s fabulous.


BB:  The lightsaber was developed that same way.  I could sort of hear something in my head, and I was on the lookout for it.  I could hear this humming sound that was more musical than many sounds because it had a tone, so I was on the alert.  I remembered the projector, that story is well documented ( And I realized again, when I was going through my childhood records, these yellow, thick 78s… I found this record called Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.  It was early 1950s, and it was just a little episode about Rocky Jones encountering a meteor storm.  And it has a sound in it so much like the lightsaber, and I know I loved that record, and I think ultimately I was fishing back in my mind to that hum that was in that little radio drama when they turn on a force field to repel the meteors, and you here this VVVVVRRRM. I realized later what the sound was—it was a degausser.  In the old recording studios it was a device that bulk erased tapes, and when you turn it on it has this great hum very much like the lightsaber.  I think maybe that’s where the seed came from that was planted in my mind.


DT:  It’s all so subconscious.


BB:  I think it was, cause when I went back and heard it, I said, omigosh, I suddenly recalled something I hadn’t ever thought of before.  Maybe that’s where it came from, you know, those little influences in your past.


DT:  What music do you listen to?

BB:  More often than not I listen to classical music.


DT:  Like what?


BB:  Bach, Beethoven, you can’t go wrong.  I have a huge collection.


DT:  Arvo Pärt?


BB:  Tchaikovsky.  A lot of the classic things, I’ve grown up loving those things ever since Fantasia, I suppose.  When I start a movie I often discover a thread of sound in classical music that I can work with. I’ll just hear some kind of orchestration, some kind of relationship between the cellos, and the flutes or something, and it just triggers an inspiration for me.  I have to say that music is always at the back of my process.  There’s something there; it’s the magic of music; who can explain why music creates immediate feelings?  We can’t answer that question in this interview.  I think it’s a wonderful mystery, it’s great being a mystery.


DT:  Like you were talking about before—bad sounds and good sounds.  Bad music doesn’t inspire a feeling.


BB:  I don’t know why for me it’s always classical music—I mean, I listen to other types of music.  Like most people, I listen to the oldies that were important when I was seventeen.  And of course, Switched-On Bach, you know the album that came out in the ‘60s?


DT:  The Swingle Singers?


BB:  No, Switched-On Bach was the first time a synthesizer was used to re-create Bach.  It was done by Wendy Carlos, and it was around 1966, somewhere in there?  And because the electronic music in that record was a different kind of voice, it was a hugely popular album, and he—he became she later, you can look up that story elsewhere—was a big influence.  I have to say that hearing Bach in electronic form opened a new door.  Of course there were other influences in my life from the movies I watched.


DT:  Such as?


BB:   I loved so many of the Warner Bros. Errol Flynn action adventure movies, so I fell in love with the Warners’ stock library of everything from horses to thunderclaps.  In particular, I was inspired by the sounds in the Warner Bros. cartoons…you know, Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes.  I often think that a lot of what I’ve done in the Star Wars or Indiana Jones movies is really just a big version of the Warner Bros. cartoons.  They have something in common, which is an exaggeration of sound.  Subtlety is not usually part of it.  It can be, but it’s generally a process of coming up with increased color, sonic color—how big can something be?  how exciting can something be?—that lies at the basis of a lot of those films.


DT:  For Wings, music comprised essentially the entire sound track. What was the relationship between what you did on the reconstruction of the sound track and the music itself?


BB: First of all, I love the movie,  it had always been one of my favorites.


DT:  Your first directorial attempt was an airplane movie…


BB:  I loved these old WWI airplane movies like Dawn Patrol, and I’d seen some of the sound ones.  And by coincidence, before I’d ever seen Wings, I made a Super 8 film with my friends called Yankee Squadron in 1968, and it won the National Student Film Festival.  It was just a war movie with airplanes shooting each other down and all this kind of stuff.  In fact, two of the judges in the contest were Richard Schickel and Pauline Kael.  And Ernest Tidyman, the documentarian.  And they invited me to come to New York.  And I came here, and I spent an afternoon with Pauline Kael and, later, Richard Schickel, and they all encouraged me to go on and be a filmmaker.  And that was very interesting.  At that time I was in school finishing up my work in physics; I wanted to be an astronaut, and study science …I never considered movies or movie sound in particular as any kind of career.  But they kept saying something like, “Well, you should make movies.”  So I thought about that a lot, and I went home, and after I finished my college degree I tried to get into film school, which I eventually did.  And so on.  Where were we?


DT:  Wings.


BB:  A few years ago the Niles Silent Film Museum in Niles, California, was going to run the movie, and they were going to have a piano player play the live score.


DT:   It’s such a lush score.


BB:  We had two screenings.  One was with Frederick Hodges, who has a faithful reconstruction of the original score for piano.  The other screening was with John Marsalis, who has a synthesizer score of his own making.  Since Wings had sound effects accompanying it from the very beginning, I was called and asked, “Would you want to do live sound effects along with these musicians?”  And I thought, I’ve never done that before, but it sounds like it would be fun.  So I took a keyboard down there, and instead of putting notes on the keyboard I put sounds—airplanes, guns, explosions, you know , prerecorded sounds from my vast collection—and I tried to synchronize myself with the film. I’d read that Wings had sounds during the battles, so I wasn’t putting in footsteps or doors closing or anything like that, just battle and aviation sounds.  I didn’t have enough hands to do it, so I actually brought my daughter along, who was twelve.  She plays piano, and I gave her a keyboard with a bunch of sounds on it, and my only prep for her, because we didn’t have time, was “Emma, any time you see an airplane spinning, going down in flames, just run these keys here”—there were sounds of whirling airplane, and she did a great job!  So Emma and I, sweating like crazy, because it’s a two-and-a-half-hour movie—


DT: It’s a long silent film—


BB:  —we did this live.  Half the time we were out of synch, but the impression was right, and being a live performance, the audience loved it. And I got very inspired by it. Paramount decided to restore the movie officially and had heard about what I did, so they said, “Why don’t you come in and re-create your sound effects?”  We knew that Wings had an original score by John Zamecnik, which had never really been attached to the movie in any of its surviving forms. Only the sheet music existed for the piano parts. The sequence was this:  Frederick Hodges, who is a superb professional silent-film accompanist, had reconstructed a piano score from bits and pieces.  Starting with that reconstruction, a woman named Jeannie Pool, who was a musicologist and music archivist at Paramount, began the laborious process of finding out what the names of all the cues were, clearing them legally, because they had to go back in time…the score that Zamecnik did was partly original cues he composed, some of them were cues that he had done for previous movies, and some of them were other composers’ cues, because at that time [1927] in film music, it wasn’t generally thought that a compser would make an original score for the whole movie.  He would pick a little bit of Mendelssohn, he would take some Liszt, he would maybe make something of his own, he’d borrow a love theme that the studio owned from another movie, and you’d build up a cue sheet of all this material. So the idea was to get the most faithful score together.  Jeannie Pool did the legwork to get it up and running, then they hired Dominik Hauser, a composer in L.A., to actually orchestrate it so that you could expand the score from piano to a full orchestra. That’s a major job, the reorchestration.



DT:  Two and a half hours?  Yeah.


BB:  So Dominik pieced together and created all the music that needed to be recorded.  He created a lot of it on his MIDI synthesizer to do it as realistically as possible.  Then they overdubbed about thirty orchestra players, string players, with it in a studio in L.A.  So they actually rerecorded the score, all 140 minutes.  That score was sent to me, and I took it and mixed it with my sound effects, so I did the sort of final mix of the movie.  I’d done a lot of research about what sounds were in Wings, and we were trying to be faithful to the experience as it was then.


DT:  You mean the experience of sitting in the theater then?


BB:  Yeah.  I didn’t want to just go through and add sounds because I could.  I wanted to make the experience similar to what audiences experienced in 1927, 28.  There’s no surviving print or track to tell us  what the audiences actually heard.  When the film opened in New York in 1927, it had a full orchestra score by John Zamecnik, and the percussionists in the orchestra were doing booms on drums and hitting things for explosions, kind of enhancing the battle sounds, but Paramount really wanted to have synchronized sound with the film because that was the year The Jazz Singer came out, and there was a lot of pressure and desire on the part of the studio to get a track into this movie.  So the next thing they did was to have screenings of the film with the orchestra and a few men running sound effects machines that sounded like the roar of planes and the rat-tat-tat of  guns—props that would generate sound.  And then in some venues they began using four turntables and prerecorded records; they’d put on airplane sounds and play it at the right point, synchronizing, like DJing the movie.  In fact many of those original sounds for that version were recorded by David Sarnoff. He was sent out to some army facilities in New Jersey to record airplanes and munitions, and those sounds were used to augment Wings.  Eventually they recorded a synchronized sound track  that’s actually on the edge of the film so they could send it out to theaters.  So by late 1928, when Wings gets into general release, it has a synchronized sound track of music and sound effects.  There was never any dialogue.  Some experiments were done at Paramount, apparently; they did shoot a few dialogue scenes to see if it would work, but it was rejected somehow.  And that hasn’t survived, but there’s a little record that hints at that.  So Wings had all these different forms, but it always had sound effects in some form connected with it, so I felt justified in doing what I did.  I used recordings I’d made of guns and airplanes and munitions.  I tried to fish back into very old libraries of sound, things that I didn’t record but that were recorded in the early 1930s so that it had a vintage quality to it.  It would match the black-and-white slightly grainy texture of the movie that has survived.  Two of us really worked on the sound track—me and Dustin Cawood.  Dustin and I split the movie in half and edited all the sounds and the airplanes together, then I combined it with the music and ended up with the final mix.  So what we tried to do is reconstruct the experience, and we’re very proud of what we did.  It was fun.


DT:  The sound track is terrific.


BB:  I’m sure there were still be venues that run it with a piano score, some with an organ cause people saw it that way, and those are all justifiable.  All those things happened.  But the thing that’s really different is that it is the original music, as much as you could link up to and get rights to, and that’s something that hasn’t been played for audiences since the film first came out, an orchestral score like this. You get the rich original experience intended by the studio and the filmmakers.


DT:  You create voices.  When you were working on Wings, did you have any impulse to create voices?


BB:   Well, of course, we’re always fooling around with sound.  For a joke I put in some eWok ones, and Dustin and I listened to those.  You know, we do things behind the scenes.  But I didn’t keep it.  We did a few.  I actually did have a lot of soldiers yelling during the fighting and the crowds of German soldiers retreating in a mass.  That was in the mix for a while, but when we finally got it all done, we thought, You know, we haven’t put any voices anywhere in the movie, and maybe it’s not right, so we stripped that out.  It did work, and it was good, but we were always worried that we would push it a little too far and then audiences would kind of be aware of it or it would step out of the style.  We added more sound effects than they ever probably had in the original; back then you just couldn’t have layered the things in that we did. We did it in stereo, and we did it with surround speakers so airplanes could be around you.  It’s obviously a modern-day enhancement of what the experience would have been.


DT:  Your work requires a creative imagination.  When you work on WALL-E, for instance, does your head work differently from when you work on Munich?


BB:  Definitely.  Munich and WALL-E are very different.  I’m proud of Munich because it’s the only quiet movie I’ve ever worked on.  I never get those; I envy other filmmakers who work on something suspenseful and quiet.  I’m always doing a black hole blowing up or an atomic bomb or a jump to hyperspace.  With each film you search for inspiration.  If  I’m brought on early in the movie I can read the script and see artwork, conceptual art, and that is probably where I start.  I look at it.  I see imagery.


DT:  Conceptual art from the film.


BB:  Yeah.  When I started on WALL-E,  there was no animation of WALL-E, but there were drawings and storyboards, and the director, Andrew  Stanton, could kind of act it all out.  He’d mime the movie, and I could listen to him and talk to him.  So I try to grab onto something that grows out of whoever’s in charge.  You sit down with Spielberg and you watch the whole movie without any sound and he tells you how he feels about things, and you get an idea of where to start.  You kind of live the setting of each movie cause you try to come up with something original, and the earlier on you can get started, the better.  You know—talk to the filmmakers in charge, get them to describe to you what they think they want to hear.  The best films result when we can experiment, put in temporary sounds, experimental things, temporary music in order to see what direction it should go.  The more you can do that, the better the result will be.  Sometimes people think sound is just an engineering process—just record something and stick it in.  But you have to make a lot of creative choices as to what you’re going to hear.  You can feature one thing and leave something else out, and that can be very meaningful.  In Munich, it all mattered about that little squeak of a footstep on a stairway, or a little door being opened, or something tiny.  Some of the most effective moments in Munich, occurred when I tried to create silence prior to a major event, to try to find a way to get down to nothing.


DT:  You’re talking about the black hole before…


BB:  Right.  Having 21 frames of nothing. Like the sonic charges in Star Wars.  Those can be great moments of contrast; if you want something big you need to go small first.  That’s why I think so many movies today are a mess, because they stay loud and they’re just dense, unbroken.  And after a few minutes of that nobody’s really feeling anything anymore.  That’s a big mistake. You’ve got to have dynamics.  That’s another whole interview.


DT:  What’s the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard?


BB:  (laughs) Whew…like in real life?  Well…something that always comes to mind is a distant ringing of a church bell.  I don’t know why, but any time I’m in a town in Europe or the United states, and things are quiet, and you hear a carillon or the individual chiming of a distant bell, I don’t know why, but that’s so enchanting to me.  I would say that it’s something that always resets me, in a way.  It’s like a coming back to base, square one, I can always start fresh from that point.  There’s probably other things; no one’s ever asked me that question before.  The slight wisp of air in a mountain forest, that sense of space, but it’s very quiet.  Once again that’s an amazing, tranquilizing sort of experience.


DT:  That’s my favorite sound.


BB:  I’m sure there’s a connection there to something in my childhood.  You know, camping or something, but those are very meaningful things.


DT:  OK, two more questions.  You did all this stuff to create the rumbling sound of the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. How much of what you do is calculated reasoning, and how much is just trial and error or problem solving?


BB:  Most of it is trial and error, I would say.  Usually I have a list in my head of all the things I need to create.  Just the names of them:  big boulder; exploding airplane; opening of the ark…whatever it might be.  Then I’ll start going through my collection of sounds, or I’ll go out and set up a situation in which I can create something and see what happens.  Many times I’ll start out on a given day or session trying to record something specific—I’m going to record the giant boulder today—but after ten minutes of trying I find something else.  Yup…looks like today we’re going to do the truck crash instead.  And I’ll walk away with something I didn’t expect but it was on the list.  You set yourself up mentally with what you’re looking for and you look at it scientifically.  What would something like this really sound like?  And I sort of justify it somehow.  But I’m open for spontaneous events, and often that’s where the best results are.  You improvise, and then you recognize something…oh, this is going to work this way, and you follow that inspiration.  On a big feature film there’ll be hundreds of sounds I want to create, and I’ll break it down, saying, “I’ve got to create twenty-two sounds a day in order to stay up with it,” so I start working and whittling away at that list.  And skipping over things I can’t get right away and coming back later.  There’s that sort of mechanical obvious task problem solving.  You go into your own library a lot, too.  Especially nowadays that you’re not given the time to go out and record something new for every event in the film.  First you go to your library and say, “What have I done before like this?”  You hang onto that stuff and then you try to work on the new things.  I recorded something this morning.  There was an elevator in the hotel that was pretty good.  The motor’s right above the top of the elevator; you start up and choo-hoo (imitates an elevator).  Got that one.


DT:  What do you use to record?


BB:  I just carry this little Zoom H2 recorder, a little digital recorder that records onto a drive.  It’s great for on-the-spot jobs, and I keep it around cause you can put it somewhere and come back and get it.  There’s all kinds of stuff.  There was somebody over at the radio station we went to this morning. They were talking about boxing in the green room, and they had an old boxing bell, like when they rang BING in the old movies.  I managed to convince them to let me record it.  So that’s just fortuitous kind of stuff.  If I ever do a boxing movie I’ll have that…or I’ll do something else with it.  You have to be on the alert.

© Director Talk 2012

Thanks to Jenny Jediny, Film Forum, for arranging the interview.





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5 Responses to Sounds of Cinema/Ben Burtt

  1. dmyers18 says:

    I can hear those sounds now!

  2. Helen Altieri says:

    The eloquence and generosity of Ben Burtt , in describing his creative process, was absolutely thrilling. I’ve never read
    an interview this alive, exciting, and close to the bone as this
    one! Bravo!!!

  3. Christine Vaccari says:

    Ben Burtt’s description of his sounds integrated into film is a remarkable art form unbeknown to me! Very intriguing!

    • judithmyers says:

      Christine–Thanks for the comment. It was great fun exploring Ben Burtt’s unique approach to sound. It certainly changed the way I listen to films now. Best, JGM

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