When nobody thought that Ben Burtt could return with his robots and laserguns, He strikes back (and even stronger) with WALL-E, an amazing animation film with the perfect dose of sound design that groups all the incredible knowledge, experience and talent of Ben Burtt in one place.
Is well as I did with Star Wars, I’m gonna divide the WALL-E Special in three parts:
- The Definitive Interview
- Sound Design – Making Of
- Animation Sound Design Revolution.
I called this “The Definitive Interview” because I made a mixture of the best videos, interviews, questions and information out there about WALL-E, all in one place. Below each part, you will find all references and links to all the complete interviews
Wait! Another film of robots!?
“I went to this meeting and said, ‘What is the movie about?’ ‘Robots!’ ” Burtt says. “At first I was a little frightened. I thought, ‘Is there another new voice that I could come up with, much less the half-dozen robot voices?’ ”
But he appreciated the fact that the Pixar filmmakers wanted him involved very early in development – much like George Lucas had done with “Star Wars.” Burtt became an employee of Pixar, working on a movie with more sound than any he had completed before. By the time it was over, he would also provide the voices for WALL-E and M-O, a cleaning robot who arrives later in the film. (Vía)
How long did you work on WALL•E? That’s a lot more sound work than you normally do.
For about nine months out of the year I spent time trying to create. I started creating the WALL•E voice, the EVE voice, the AutoPilot, MO and the others. What were the humans going to sound like in their gelatinous condition? Originally they were almost completely Jell-O. We made Jell-O voices that had shimmering, funny, shaking in the voices and stuff. That concept of the voices for the humans was eventually dropped as the sounds developed.
Out of these improvisations of taking sounds from both the real world and some synthesizations, I will fashion what you will hear in the movie. There are like 2600 sound files made for WALL•E, which is a lot; more than I made for any other movie. A Star Wars movie, which is huge, usually takes about 1,000 new sounds. Indiana Jones movies, maybe 700 or 800. So this was gigantic, partly because it just needed so much detail in the sound. Obviously nothing is recorded while you are making the movie. Everything has to be added after the fact. (Vía)
How did you come up with the sounds for WALL•E? I mean, he doesn’t speak, so you have to sort of make him sound unique.
Sometimes, most often, good sounds are just discovered when you are looking for one sound and you suddenly discover another. The sound we used for his treads, that is an army tank. Obvious choice; just go out and record something with treads. But it has been sped up so that it sounds a little tinnier. He does lots of movements in the film; lots of little driving this way, driving that way. We try to put a sound with everything and convince the audience that this character really exists; this illusion.
I needed some soft motors, something we could tailor to shape WALL•E’s movements. I was watching on Turner Classic Movies an old John Wayne movie and there was this army private cranking a generator. I said, “That is a great sound for WALL•E. How can I get one of those WW2 generators?” Well I got this on eBay. That’s what we used. (Vía)
How did you come up with WALL·E’s voice?
Well honestly I’m guided by Andrew, being the director. I would audition things for him, sets of sounds that might have initially just been motors and beeps and tones. Something I’ve never told him in fact, and now it relates to musical theatre, when he first showed me maybe 10 minutes or so of the storyboards cut together, and the opening of the movie, it had some music and some sound effects in it. That was kind of a way of enticing me into understanding the project. It was that opening song, the vocal in that song that appealed to me in a way that I sort of connected that with the WALL·E character.
There’s a feeling about that, so to some extent maybe the pitch of the voice started out that way, that kind of innocent feeling, that was a thread that I picked up on in that. As you know we went through lots of experiments trying WALL·E as just motor sounds only, some that were beeps and whistles, a little bit more in the R2D2 realm. Although We extracted bits from all of those experiments, when it came down to some of the more expressive vocals it was a little bit in that tone, from that singing voice. I’m not sure why, there was obviously something very charming and appealing about that song. I couldn’t quite pin it down. (Vía)
What are some of the sources of the sounds?
Well there are thousands of sounds. There were more sound files in Wall-E then any single feature film I’ve ever worked on, about 2500, because every character has a set of sounds and there are lots of movement and lots of dense activity. Stories of sounds, well let’s see – Wall-E’s treads, he drives around, he goes different speeds. When he’s going slowly, he makes a little whirring sound and that is the sound I heard it actually in a John Wayne movie called Island in the Sky on Turner Classic Movies. There was a guy turning a little generator, a soldier generating power. I said I like that generator sound, that is cool, and so where can I get one? I found one on eBay. I bought it. It came in its original 1949 box so we could take that into the studio and perform with it to tailor it to the speed of Wall-E. But that’s only good for when Wall-E is going slow.
When Wall-E is going fast, he needed something higher pitched and more energetic. Once again, I went back through my memory of things. I had recorded bi-planes a long time ago for Raiders of the Lost Ark. The old 1930s bi-planes have an inertia starter. It’s a mechanical crank that cranks the engine up. You do it by hand and then clutch – you connect it and it makes a wonderful whirring sound. So I thought I want to get that and do more with it. I couldn’t bring a bi-plane into the studio but on eBay I found an inertia starter, bought that again, and brought it in. So we built these props for many things. You know, it’s a tradition in animation to have sound effects machines. This goes back to the earliest days of Disney cartoons — like wind machines and blowing machines and things like that. We actually built several things so we could perform Wall-E sounds that way.(Vía)
Did you have a favorite robot or a favorite sound in WALL•E?
My favorite sound in WALL•E? Well I don’t know. I don’t know. I kind of fell in love with this character. [sound] Moe. I don’t know why. Someone I identify with Moe. Not that I am a good cleaner or anything, but I think that sort of feisty sort of sidekick character that he was appealing to me, and the fact that he has a big character change in the movie. He goes from a robot governed by his duties to a free thinker. That was part of the theme of the movie. (Vía)
Were Eve’s sounds more modern then?
Well, Eve is a very high-tech robot and so, unlike the motors and squeaks and metallic sounds you’ve got with Wall-E, Eve is held together with some sort of force fields and magnetism. A great deal of her sound is purely synthesized musical type of tones that I could make in a music synthesizer and treat it various ways, because her whole character was supposed to be graceful and ethereal, so she always has an electronic noise associated with her floating around. Sometimes she sounds angry if it’s a scene where she needs to be aggressive. Sometimes she’s very enchanting if it’s a more romantic moment. (Vía)
What about the interplay between the animators? Typically the voices are recorded before and the sound bytes are afterwards. How did it work with this?
You’re right. Normally in animation the dialogue is recorded and locked down, takes are selected, and the animators then use those as references for timing and performance. We did actually kind of the same thing here. I started working three years ago on the dialogue for this film and auditioning voices. At first I would make up sets of sounds as auditions for Andrew. I would play a voice and some motors and I’d say, “What do you think of this? Could this be Wall-E?” He might pick out the things he likes the most and we would keep that collection aside and I would string together little montages and then we started giving them to animators and animators would just freely animate to the sounds. Wall-E could come in and play with a ball, slip and fall, or do something, and we had numerous tests, and I could see immediately of course the huge input in a performance that the animation had.
In fact, you would think I would know better, but I was really surprised. They could do amazing things with just a pose, a little movement of the head and the sound seemed so much more authentic when it was sunc up so perfectly. So we went back and forth and developed a sound and picture together and so therefore we ended up with these little character studies. You could play it like a little audition tape. The character would come in, introduce himself and talk and show off their functions so you would hear it and see it. We got confident after awhile that this is what Eve should be and this is what Wall-E should be and then they could move ahead and start animating the movie itself and put it in the story so it was a back and forth process. (Vía)
How important is it to go back to the original sources of the sounds? I would imagine there is high tech equipment now that can be used to recreate those sounds.
Well, people think in this age of computers and digitization that we can now do anything, the way we see how visual effects have leaped to a much higher quantum level and it isn’t quite the same with sound. Sound is a really different creative dimension. The digital technology allows us to manipulate things and you can work quicker and you can practically do the sound for a movie on your laptop computer with a few additional pieces of equipment, whereas 25 years ago it required a huge studio with all kinds of engineers and many people. So, it’s a very personal tool now to do sound because it is digital.
The films that I worked on so much you’re always trying to create this illusion that in a fantasy world things are real, and the style I’ve always followed is to go out into the real world, get real sounds, and impose them into this fantasy world to convince people that these fantasy objects are credible. That has been successful to go out and gather real sounds.
I also love the history of sound effects and there is a great opportunity working for Pixar and Disney because you’re in touch there with a legacy of sound effects creativity that goes back into the 1930s. They used to build all kinds of machines. There is a machine that does flying insects, there is a machine that does a talking clock spring. They’ve got an archive of these machines out there in Burbank and I love that and I look at what a sound effects man does and I love the table top props and things like that. It’s the style.(Vía)
What’s your favourite moment from the film?
What’s the biggest explosion in the film? I really love the scene where they’re out in space together with the fire extinguisher, I think it’s the lyrical nature of that, the calm in the middle of the storm. That moment, there’s something about putting those two characters out there dancing in space that really takes me back to Peter Pan when I was a kid. I love that film, I think I was five years old when I saw it. I made my mother take me two or three times in one week which was unheard of in those days. It’s that wonderful ability to be transported to a wonderful place where you feel warm and completely secure. Where it occurs in the movie it feels that way to me, it’s great. (Vía)
When you talk about bringing the reality to the fantasy, do you find that as films have become more reliant on CG effects and things that aren’t actually there in camera your job has become much more important to ground us in terms of what we are seeing?
Certainly. As I said, in a fantasy film the sound is usually the thing – sound acts on people more invisibly because we are not asking you to be so aware of the process. I still think you can be a bit more of a magician being a sound person because people just aren’t aware of what you can do. It is a compliment when people look at a film and they stop and think “I guess that’s just what it sounded like.” Like there’s a mike hanging out there in the scene and they got it when in fact every sound, every footstep, every explosion – somebody had to decide what it was going to be and create it. (Vía)
That’s all folks! I hope you like it!