Ben Burtt Special: Star Trek (2009)
Some of us were surprised when it was announced that Ben Burtt would be the Sound Designer for the new Star Trek film. Undoubtedly, the sound work was incredible (again). Casually, U.S.O reported yesterdey at Twitter that the issue #21 of Star Trek Magazine has an interview with Ben Burtt. Here is an excerpt:
Sound Designer Ben Burtt talks about the elements of the original Star Trek TV show that he tried to emulate in the new movie…
Two things in the original Star Trek effects were revolutionary: Roddenberry had his team create lots of detail. Every room in the ship sounded different. Every button made a noise, when you pressed a lever or a switch. Not only were there sounds articulating all these things to make them sound like they were real, but they were very musical sounds. Somebody pressed a button, there was a little melody. That was not in the movie at the point I came on: you’d just hear a little beep. If it was Star Trek, it needed to sing a little bit and feel like it was alive. You really felt there was a complex operation going on and it was fun to listen to. The ships and the weapons and the ambiences of the places they went to were a form of music. When they went to planets there was always a tone going on, like a ringing bell, or chimes in echo. I tried to create sounds in that style.
The other thing that was used a lot in the original show a lot was shortwave radio recordings and sounds off of transmissions and Morse code, things you can pick up in-between the dials on a shortwave radio.
I love that sort of thing and I’ve collected it for years. There’s some of that in the original Star Trek television show – and the whole beginning of the movie, that first minute or two where the Kelvin is coming into view, is all short wave radio sounds. It reads to the audience that you’re way the heck out at the edge of the universe, barely in contact. Things are far away: there’s these disembodied sounds that are being transmitted back and forth. That’s not the way the sound was, but I wanted to make it seem like the ships were way out there. They’re supposed to be encountering something new so I tried to capitalize on this legacy in science fiction of using radio.
Motion Pictures Editors Guild published an interesting terview with Ben Burtt, called “More Sound Trekking: Ben Burtt’s Further Explorations of Audio Frontiers“. Let’s see:
You’ve been a sound designer, picture editor, mixer, writer, producer and director. How did that career path evolve?
I think it was the constantly evolving filmmaker in me, which started when I was a child adding sound to my family’s home movies. When I began my career, I was recording sounds and said, “Now, if I was also the sound editor, I could control what sounds were used.”
So I became a sound editor; but that wasn’t good enough. I then figured that if I was the sound mixer, I could really completely control what the movie sounds like. Well, that still wasn’t good enough, so I then looked at the influence that the picture editor had, and thought that if I could do that, I could inject a lot of ideas about how to use sound correctly in the first cut of a picture. Then I felt that if I was a director, I could tell everybody what to do, including the editor, and get it exactly my way [...]
We’ve talked about the library of sounds you created for J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star Trek. Can you talk about how you re-created some of the iconic effects for the movie? Let’s start with the hand phaser.
In the original series, the steady blast of the phaser was derived from the hovering sound of the Martian war machines made for the 1953 version of Paramount’s War of the Worlds. The original was made with tape feedback of an electric guitar and a harp. You can achieve a very similar sound on a Moog synthesizer by modulating a steady sine wave with pink noise. The phasers in the new movie are more like the blasters in Star Wars in the sense that they are flying bolts or tracer bullets, rather than a steady beam. The steady sound just wasn’t the right way to go because the visuals are so different, so I made something that recalls it, but features a Doppler effect and is shorter and sharper. My sounds were added to those that had already been supplied by Mark P. Stoeckinger and Alan Rankin.
Which recent films do you admire for their sound design work?
I loved Saving Private Ryan; I think it was one of the best sound design jobs ever. It was a film with quiet and loud segments and left plenty of space for music and sound effects to have their turns. Steven Spielberg and Gary Rydstrom made excellent choices as to when to let sound tell the story. For much the same reason, I loved Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Richard King did a sensational job of recreating the 18th-century world of great ships, starting out with all those great ambiences. I also thought Gladiator, Cars, and The Matrix were outstanding.
Are there still new worlds for you to conquer?
I’ve always been associated with big tentpole sci-fi and action films, which I love. But I yearn for challenging new assignments, such as Munich (2005). WALL-E (2008) was a sound designer’s dream. I would like to have a few projects with more realism and historic or social significance. However, I am delighted to be at Pixar because I know they are committed to entertainment that is both wholesome and hopeful. I’m always looking for ways to create voices and sounds for things that have never been heard before—to entertain, to escape and to give life to the magic of the moving image. There is always a new audio frontier for me to explore.