This is the end of the Ben Burtt Special. In the Extras of the DVD of Wall-E there are an amazing documentary called “Animation Sound Design: Building Worlds From The Sound Up”. You have to see it! Don’t worry if you don’t have the original DVD, I found that video on YouTube. The embed was disabled but you can see it through this links: Part 1 | Part 2.
Does a sound designer have to be as much librarian as artist?
‘Absolutely. The elements and resources that a sound designer works with are collected from the world around us, and I’ve been collecting sounds for years. Putting in sounds from the real world creates the illusion that these fantasies are credible. So I was always gathering sounds. Animals at the zoo, going out on an aircraft carrier to do motors and airplanes. Travelling around the world, I would always have my recorder with me. If there was a thunderstorm I’d record the thunder. If I got a flat tire I could get a good sound of the rubber slapping the road. I’ve found that almost every sound I’ve recorded, I’ve found a way to use.’
Did you actually invent the term sound designer?
‘Some people think I did. I was one of the first, I may not have been absolutely the first. The film industry in sound was originally divided quite sharply between those that recorded sounds, sound editors that synchronised the sounds and sound mixers who were blending everything together. And what George Lucas wanted me to do was record, do the sound edit and then be around to supervise the mixing, so there was one vision throughout. Because the problem with the process was that it wasn’t coordinated properly.’
How was it making the switch to digital?
‘There are many good things about switching from analogue to digital, mainly the fact that an individual with a collection of desktop equipment can record, edit and do a lot of elaborate mixing. It’s much more artist friendly. The negative things about it? There are some, because you can do things so quickly. Almost anybody can assemble a noise, pile things into a track without much thought. I say, let’s be careful about what we do here, let’s have a plan, let’s be simple if we can. Pick the right sound. Keep your objectivity, discipline yourself.’
How did you become involved with ‘Wall•E’?
‘When I finished “Revenge of the Sith”, I was pretty worn out with science fiction and laser guns and robots. I said to my wife, no more robots. But Jim Morris, the producer of “Wall-E”, called me up and invited me over to Pixar to meet Andrew Stanton who was going to pitch his idea. And I said, ‘What’s it about?’ And he said, ‘It’s a robot movie!’ So driving over there I had my doubts. I love Pixar, I had respect for their work, but I wanted to work on something that’d be new territory. But he sold me on the idea, I thought it was charming. The whole idea that the sound design would include developing lots of vocals, languages, be key material in a film which had relatively little conventional dialogue was a real attraction creatively. […]
Do you see yourself as a figurehead for the latest generation of sound technicians?
‘Well, I think “Star Wars” had a big impact. It made producers put more time and energy into their soundtracks. I’m proud of it, but it wasn’t just me, I wasn’t the only one who did the sound work on those films, there was always a team of people. I’m not capable of doing it all myself. But I think my calling has always been as the principal inventor. Somebody says, I’ve got a robot, or I’ve got a spaceship, or I’ve got an exploding volcano, get me something that’ll sound good. And that’s probably where I’m the happiest. Inventing something.’