The Star Wars Special continues with our featured sound designer Ben Burtt. Let’s talk about the sound desgin of Episode I: Phantom Menace.
Ben Burtt left Lucasfilm in 1990 to pursue other interests as a freelancer: writing, directing, editing. He went back to Sound Designer’s chair again for the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition.
“I was the only one who could remember where most of the stuff was, where the tapes were, what we had done,” he says with a smile.
“It was exciting to go back and get in touch with the picture again, the old friends who were there. R2-D2, and the lightsabers.”
Following the Special Edition project, Ben Burtt stayed on board for Episode I. Even though he could draw from an extensive library of sounds, including those used in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies, for the Episode I project Burtt went out to record new samples.
He also drew upon the large collection of sounds he has recorded during the last decade. In all his travels, from his back yard to the far reaches of an exotic country, Burtt has carried his recording equipment with him, capturing everything and anything on digital tape.
“You have to be constantly ready,” he says, “because good sounds often come to you by accident: lightning storms, strange vehicle noises, glaciers breaking apart…it can happen anywhere.” These recordings, most of them never used before, have provided Burtt with fresh raw material to mold into new Star Wars sounds.
While creating innovative atmospheres, Burtt takes great care to stay true to the original Star Wars ambiance.
“We’ve got lightsabers, we’ve got lasers, we’ve got so many signature effects which reoccur in this movie, and I think it’s only appropriate to touch on those because they’re familiar to the fans.”
One of Burtt’s goals are to establish a set of sounds which could stand the test of time.
“I think we’ve achieved that with Star Wars,” he says. “We’ve created a ‘world of sounds’ that’s coherent and can endure the passage of time…it’s been over 20 years, and Star Wars still has a distinct sound to it.”
And… I can’t pass this Article/Interview by Maria L. Chang talking with Ben Burtt about the sound of Star Wars. Very interesting!
HOW DO YOU CREATE SOUNDS FOR A FANTASTIC UNIVERSE?
A sneak moment from this summer’s blockbuster movie The Phantom Menace, the latest installation in the Star Wars saga: Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi duels with the evil Darth Maul. Their sword-like lightsabers flash and sizzle as they clash. The warriors lunge at each other, yet their footfalls are barely audible on the metal floor.
Now imagine the same scene–but instead of the lethal buzz of lightsabers, you hear cracking wooden sticks. Instead of the thud of fighters’ leaps on metal, you hear thumps on a creaky wooden stage set. Sound like a big yawn?
Just as dazzling visual effects turn a sci-fi fantasy movie into near-reality, sound effects add the finishing notes. In the past few years, powerful computers, advanced software, and synthesizers (keyboard-like instruments that produce electronic sound signals) have elevated sound effects to new heights. After all, how believable is a computer-generated invading army of androids when you don’t hear a single stomp or whir?
MAY THE SOUND BE WITH YOU
Whether or not you’re aware of it, sound plays a key role in how you perceive reality. Picture a scene where a solitary car races down a stretch of empty highway. But what you hear is the churn of a motorcycle. Your brain instantly alerts you to the fact that what you hear doesn’t match what you see. In other words, your senses are in conflict–a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance. In a movie, this would immediately distract a viewer. Popcorn time?
Directors know that realistic sound is vital to hooking an audience. But what do laser cannons or a mobbed alien marketplace sound like? This was the challenge faced by The Phantom Menace’s sound designer Ben Burtt.
Burtt and his crew created up to 1,300 new sound effects for The Phantom Menace. “Each sound is for a specific weapon or a particular robot’s head revolving around,” Burtt says.
You might think the best way to create extraterrestrial sounds would be to invent them on synthesizers and computers. But Burtt’s most essential tool is the common tape recorder. “The style of Star Wars has always been to use an organic soundtrack,” says Burtt. “That means we collect real sounds that exist out there in the real world. We’ll go out and record racing sports cars or a roaring aircraft.”
Burtt’s secret trick is to alter recorded sounds so they’re not recognizable. How? After recording the thrust of a speeding plane, for instance, Burtt rerecords the sound into a synthesizer, which converts the sound signal into a digital signal of 1s and 0s. A plane engine’s sound is normally high-pitched and whiny. Pitch is how high or deep a sound is and depends on the frequency (the number of complete vibrations of a wave in one second). The higher the frequency, the higher the pitch.
Using the synthesizer, Burtt lowers the frequency and deepens the engine’s pitch. “It still sounds powerful, like a vehicle roaring along, but you don’t recognize it as a World War II fighter plane,” he says. Add an explosion or thunder to the sound, and you’ve got a booming spaceship.
BACK TO BASICS
Say the spaceship accelerates across the screen to jump into hyperspace. Would it maintain a steady sound? Not really.
Think of a wailing fire truck speeding by. As the fire truck approaches, the siren’s frequency increases and its pitch rises. As it passes, the frequency decreases and the pitch drops. This phenomenon is known as the Doppler effect (see below). New computer software easily simulates the Doppler effect. Programs alter the pitch so you get the sensation of an object flying by at breakneck speed.
But there are more imaginative ways to create the same effect. Take the motion of Star Wars’ lightsaber, for instance. Believe it or not, its sound came from the motor of an old movie projector and a sputtering TV picture tube. Combining the two sounds produced the humming tone of a steady lightsaber. But to simulate a swinging lightsaber in a duel, Burtt played the original sound over a speaker, whipped a microphone past the speaker, and rerecorded the resulting whish. “You get a big Doppler shift in the sound, as if it’s a sword swinging through air,” Burtt says.
Creating all the sounds necessary for The Phantom Menace has taken Burtt and his crew about three years to complete. Was it worth it? The audience’s ovations will tell.
COMING SOON TO THEATERS: 3-D SOUND
Sound designers Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom labored for more than three years to create the fantastic sounds in The Phantom Menace. To ensure that the soundtrack doesn’t sound flat in theaters, LucasFilm THX and Dolby Laboratories created Dolby Digital-Surround EX, a new movie sound format (see right).
Surround EX, which will debut in theaters at the same time as The Phantom Menace, adds extra speakers and a rear sound channel on the back wall. (Current Surround Sound systems separate sound into left and right channels, so you hear sounds move from one side of the screen to the other.) “I wanted to develop a format that would place sounds exactly where you would hear them in the real world,” Rydstrom says. With Surround EX, audiences can actually hear a plane, for example, fly around them.
Will the new system make movies even louder? No, says Kurt Schwenk, director of THX. “Surround EX just allows more precise placement of the sound.”
What exactly does a sound designer do?
I create a “library” of sounds for everything you see and don’t see in a film. I have to create sounds that are totally believable. And the sounds need to orchestrate well together. You fool the audience into thinking everything is real.
How did you get interested in sound effects?
When I was 6 in Syracuse, New York, my father gave me a tape recorder. My friends and I filmed little dramas and I’d create music and sound effects to go with the movie. It was just a hobby.
What did you want to be?
I really wanted to be an astronaut. I have a physics degree from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. But in college I made a few amateur films that won national awards. Then I studied film production in graduate school at the University of Southern California.
How did you get a job as a sound designer?
I got a job as a sound recordist because there weren’t too many people in the field. I made the sounds for the very first Star Wars film. LucasFilms asked me to come back for The Phantom Menace.
What’s one of the most unusual sounds we’ll hear on The Phantom Menace?
There’s an underwater monster with a big roar, which is the voice of my 18-month-old daughter. At one point she had a growl in her voice when she was crying. So I recorded that and then lowered the pitch way down in the computer.
Any advice for kids who’d like to work on movies?
Filmmaking is a combination of practically every subject you can study–art, writing, history, music, etc. To be original and creative, major in a subject other than filmmaking.
What do sound designers earn?
You can earn up to $100 an hour in a major film.
Ben Burtt, 50. Movie Sound Designer at Skywalker Ranch, California.