This interview was originally conducted for inclusion in our “Failure” theme. Some extenuating circumstances kept it in the wings for a while, but it’s Ben Burtt. How could we not post it?!
…and, you know, better late than never!
DS: This month we’re looking at the subject of failure…
BB: [Laughs] Really?
DS: Yeah, we’re going a little self reflective with our theme this month. When we were hanging out in here one day a few months ago, listening to those bullet ricochets you recently recorded in the desert, I asked you a question. They were really unique, and had this modulated tumbling quality that I haven’t really heard before, and I asked you how you got bullets to sound like that. You response was, “It took decades.”
To me, that implies that you tried over and over again to get these unique sounds.
BB: Yes. Thousands of rounds have gone down the barrel of a gun. My interest in ricochets goes back to my love of the films I listened to growing up; either westerns on TV or what I saw at the movies. I got very familiar with the old movies, because I used to make tape recordings off of television, and listen to them for fun…just for entertainment. There were no DVRs or DVDs in those days to instantly recall things. I recognized immediately that studios and movies had sound effects that often repeated in different films. You could tell the difference between a Paramount movie and an MGM movie, or Warner Brothers, because they had unique libraries.
A lot of what we heard in movies…a face punch, a ricochet, a rifle in a canyon…these are things we only heard in movies. We didn’t hear them in our every day life; so we tended to think that they sounded just like they did in that last John Wayne movie we saw. When I started designing sounds I found that not to be the case. When recording ricochets and gunshots, they didn’t sound like they did in the old movies. They sounded and recorded differently. There was some kind of translation taking place. I got frustrated, because I was hoping to get things much closer to the style of the older movies that I wanted to imitate…the things that I loved. And that sent me off on a quest every once in a while to search how something might have been done, until I got the right answer. I wanted to get something that was “classic,” in my sense of the term.
So that’s a pretty long answer to a question… You’re asking specifically about ricochets?
DS: Well it seemed like an interesting way to get into the subject, because here’s something that a lot of people think is straight forward to record (though not simple). Your response to that question was “decades” though. It took a lot of trial and error to get to something that you were happy with.
BB: Yes. I went out as a teen with my recorder and a .22 rifle, and I thought all you had to do was shoot at a rock. “If I put a microphone near a rock and shot at it, I’d get a sound just like all those war movies.” And it didn’t happen at all. I’d get no sound, or maybe a faint little hum, or a zing. I concluded that the sound that you hear in real life wasn’t what was presented in movies. What happened in movies was either not really a ricochet, or it had been enhanced in some way, because I couldn’t get that sound.
When the regular .22 bullets didn’t work, we tried firing some pellet guns. We tried loading the pellets into the gun backwards so that they would fly down range with the open end into the air flow. I thought maybe they would tumble and I could get a sound that was better than the regular bullets. The sound was very, very quiet and the sound seemed to not be anywhere near where the bullet hit the rock. It was much further away, so I kept moving the mics further and further away. Eventually, I wasn’t getting anything.
We did a lot of ricochet recordings for the first Indiana Jones film. On Raiders we were, in many ways, updating the classic adventure movie, so I took that feature as an approach to the sound. You could have gone to many of the existing libraries and gotten face punches, gunshots and fire, but I wanted to pay homage to the best of things that I used to hear in old movies…try to redo them in high fidelity, do them in stereo with Dolby noise reduction, but exaggerate them a lot more… Stylistically, they would hearken back to these old movies. I believe there’s a cinema language. What we expect in movies is based on what we’ve heard in the past. With Raiders, we wanted it to seem like it was an old movie, but be very updated technically. So a lot of effort was put into that movie, and its sequels, to reproduce those classic sounds with better frequency response and greater dynamics.
We came out here to the ranch property, right where the Tech Building is now. In this open canyon, we set up a shooting range. We did a lot of different weapons: .22s, shotguns, various rifles and pistols of different calibers. We tried bouncing bullets along the ground, started hitting bullets off of cement blocks, we’d bring rocks down from the hillside…this sort of thing. We got some good sounds, but I was never satisfied. We did use some of them in Raiders, but I had to take them back to the studio and slow them down to get the pitch down to what I thought was a more interesting range…like what I heard in the old movies.
We got some good ricos, and I found that one of the problems was that, when you fire a gun, you’ve got the report of the gun itself and then you have the ricochet. The ricochet is very quiet compared to the actual gunshot. That muzzle blast, if you’re in a place with echoes, overlaps the ricochet. You can’t separate them back out later; the ricochet is not clean and by itself. So you try to find ways of separating the ricochet sound from the gunshot itself. The first attempt was to take the gunshot much further away: Move it to the other side of the valley and use a telescopic sight. Then shoot at a target and microphone that was hundreds of yards away. That helped. It reduced the sound of the muzzle blast, and it also delayed the sound for a fraction of a second. It still wasn’t perfect, because you still got too much gun echo.
Next we tried building a shelter for the gun. We assembled a box out of hay bales with a tiny hole in the front of it. We got inside that with the gun. We hoped that the hay would help muffle the sound of the blast, and keep it away from the microphones. That helped a little bit, but still not enough. It just became a hassle; all of these different things to try.
DS: You’re talking about a lot of different experimentation…
BB: We did many experiments. Gary Summers and I would come out to the ranch on a quiet afternoon. We didn’t have a recording studio that was quiet, so we go to where it was very quiet. We would stage all different types of sound events; whether they were foley type sounds, driving a vehicle, or fire. I would periodically say, “Let’s try some more ricochets.” I’d come up with a new idea for separating the gun, or we’d find different kinds of ammunition. You could eventually buy a kind of indoor target ammunition, which was very low power. The gun wouldn’t make more than a little pop, like a cap gun. That helped, and the bullet travelled a lot slower. And that was good, because the sound of the ricochet…which is where the bullet hits something and begins moving out of balance (or tumbling)…since it has a lower muzzle velocity, the pitch is lower. That’s much more interesting to me, like the old movies.
DS: To go back to the experimentation idea…
If you go with the definition of a scientific experiment, you have a hypothesis that you’re testing. Does it work, or is it wrong? How much of your sound design is experimentation, and how much is what people tend to describe as experimentation…which is actually play?
BB: You mean improv.
DS: Yeah, improv. Do you let your instincts overrule a hypothesis? Sticking to a purely scientific approach can feel a little stifling sometimes, can’t it?
BB: I do both. I was trained as a scientist. I was a physics major. My parents were professors, as well as my grandfather. So I knew what the scientific method was. My general approach was, first, look at something scientifically. Why does something sound the way it does? Take note of it, and then say, “Can I reproduce those circumstances?” Now that I understand those circumstances, can I move the variables around to get something, different, new or undiscovered.”
I was always experimenting. There was always another hypothesis. Trial and error. We would fail, and then the next day a new idea or technique to try would dawn on us. It was important to try radical things and just listen to the results. Eventually, once I’ve got a certain set of data or ideas, then I improvise with that and just play. I analyze first, and then improv afterwards.
DS: I think that’s what’s interesting about experiments, failure is a valid result.
DS: And it’s something you can learn from, and draw more information from to inspire your improv later.
BB: I learned that I would have a theory as to why something should sound a certain way. I would investigate it, and it might not work at all. I’d get frustrated, but I would always keep in mind what HAD happened. I’d tuck that information away; for the knowledge would certainly become useful for a future sound design project.
We had a phrase early on called a “chicken hit.” We were trying to create a good face sock in the Indiana Jones movie. Gary Summers, who was my assistant at the time, and I were trying all sorts of different things. You know, “You just hit yourself…that should work!” It doesn’t sound like anything on mic. One day, I can’t remember if it was Gary or me said, “You know, the perfect thing would be to beat a dead chicken. We’ll get a chicken at the store, thaw it out and sock it.” You can hit it hard enough, and that should be a good sound. You’re hitting flesh and bone.
When we recorded it, it was just a smack…like a click. It wasn’t any different than smacking a book closed, or slapping some paper down on a desk. We said, “That’s a chicken hit!” That became our word for failure. For example, we wanted some gigantic hangar doors opening for Empire Strikes Back; big rolling back doors. “OK, where are the biggest doors we have access to?” Well, it was Moffett Field’s zeppelin hangar, south of San Francisco. Their doors are 200 feet high. They slide open, and they’ve been there since the place opened in the 1930’s. Those were going to sound exactly like we want. We made arrangements, went down and recorded those doors…and it was a chicken hit. It was just a little bit of air hiss, and a little rolling sound. It wasn’t what we wanted at all. We expected it to be this big rumble.
Later, we’re recording some clocks at a clock store in San Rafael. We needed some ticking for a mechanical sound. We wanted a whole bunch of clocks together. The shop owner goes to a glass fronted display case and slides it open to get an antique clock out, and that sliding glass door made a great rumble. It had a big doppler effect to it. We recorded that, and it became the main component of the giant door. A failure had led to placement in our wish list, “We want to find this giant door sound,” because it turned out not to be that actual giant door. Of course, any sound effects person can tell you that it’s more often something unexpected that has the right character of the sound you’re looking for. That’s especially true if it’s an imaginary sound, or something that doesn’t exist. So failure is important because it forces you to await the success of the unexpected.
In the long run, what I’ve learned is that any sound that catches my attention is worth recording. I may not be able to think of any use for it at the time, but if it catches my attention, there must be something appealing, perhaps emotional, about that sound. “It has a quality to it. I associate it with some feeling perhaps. It’s going to be useful to me someday.” That idea has held true. I learned this, through many failures, that you can’t always reason it out ahead of time. You have to try some things, be patient and go off and do something else. Then, one day, you’re going to hear something that’s exactly what you’re looking for.
That kind of trial and error method is a scientific method…it’s empiricism. The empirical process is where you try things and keep track of your data; eventually, you’re able to predict what something will do. Failure led to that loosening up of my scientific approach, of trying to reason it out ahead of time. You go on a recording expedition to record rockets at White Sands missile range in New Mexico. None of the actual rockets sound very interesting, even though they’re real rockets. But the broken air conditioner in the motel you’re staying in has a nice rumble and tremolo to it, and that becomes your space ship. Those kinds of things have happened throughout my sound design career.
DS: I imagine also… Well, we all have a bit of experience with this. Since we’re in a collaborative medium trying to help someone else’s vision of a story, you’re going to run into failures from that perspective as well.
BB: You absolutely run into failures, because you’re always working for a client. They’re in charge, and your progress is dependent on that person’s subjectivity. You’re going to create a sound and say, “Here’s the sound of the monster you’re going to hear.” You play that for the director, and he looks skeptical. He shakes his head and says, “What are you thinking of? That sounds like a cat!” or, “That sounds like a squeaky door.” You’re hurt and you’ve failed because they didn’t like what you made. Everybody hears things differently. That’s part of the process.
One of the early failures I had in this regard was with Ridley Scott on Alien. I went to the U.K. to create sounds for the movie, and he wanted something very specific. He wanted the sound of an alien transmission from this crashed space ship. It was a homing beacon that broadcasted out over the galaxy and was luring our protagonists to the crash site. His description of it was, “Something that’s about 8 seconds long, it repeats itself over and over again, YET…it always seems different and evolving. It has to be evocative, fascinating, you can’t take your attention away from it…”
DS: So a really low bar. [Laughs]
BB: Right. That’s the simple description. I say to myself, “Wow. That’s going to be a challenge!” Scott continued: He said, “You might even hear this sound constantly for the first 20 minutes of the film, until we get to the crashed space ship.” I worked on many versions of this and sent tapes off from the studio in California. It was obviously difficult to collaborate when it is not face-to-face. You don’t know how they hear it. I made lots of possibilities, but he didn’t like any of them. Word came back from the producer, “Nope. He’s decided he’s just going to cut that whole thing out of the movie.”
In the final mix of the film the passengers of the Nostromo talk about the beacon, but the audience never hears it. So for me this was a devastating failure. I could not come up with something that made Ridley Scott feel that it was right for him. However, my favorite sound of all the ones I made, I later used for the sound of the ghosts coming out of the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark. That got me an Oscar.
DS: [Laughs] So it’s all about context.
BB: It’s all about context, yes. My ghosts were not his alien beacon. Ironically, I did notice that when they re-released Alien on Blu-Ray a while ago, and they did a new cut of the film, they put that sound back in. One of the original sounds I sent.
DS: We’re going to have a bunch of our readers pulling up Alien and Raiders now, and playing them side by side to compare.
BB: Did they use the one that was in Raiders?
Two of my sounds, including the one used in Raiders, are mixed together for the alien beacon.
Context is important. It always hurts when you fail. It’s hard not to take it personally. You may feel sometimes that it’s career ending, but it happens to everyone. As time goes on, you learn that you can’t come up with something that pleases every one of your clients. You might have two hundred sounds to make in a movie that might be considered particularly special to the director, and you’re going to find cases where they just don’t hear what you did the way you do. It should also be important to note that it is often that collaboration that has taken me to a higher level. Whereas I might have stopped at a certain point and said, “I like that sound. Let’s go on to the next thing,” the client says, “It just isn’t right yet. It needs more low frequency, or it needs a voice.” Some pushing through failure results in wonderful undiscovered worlds that both client and sound designer never would have found alone.
There’s many, many, cases like that. It’s important to have a collaboration that’s fruitful; one that promotes trust.
DS: So, to have the opportunity for failure.
BB: You have to recognize that. I’ve been a picture editor as well. You don’t achieve the final cut of your movie the first time that you cut it. It’s too big of a job. You assemble the first cut based upon all of your best available knowledge. You’re finding your way through the story. You’re checking notes, a script, and seeing what the material might dictate. Then you build each successive cut, and you see what’s wrong and what’s right. It takes time and a series of developmental steps. No director want to rush through it. The same process should hold true for sound design. There needs to be a development phase where you have the same type of time to experiment, fail, and nurture the sound design to full bloom in all its beauty.
Failure without punishment is what we want in this business. [Laughs] There are frequent circumstances nowadays where clients are just too impatient. They want immediate solutions to sound design issues they perhaps can’t even describe. When that happens you need to operate collaboratively with mutual trust to find the answer. It takes time, and it always takes encouragement.
DS: Anything else you’d like to say about failure before we wrap up?
BB: Just, again, what I’ve learned through failure is that any sound that interests me should be recorded. You can’t always reason it out, and you don’t know what something is going to be useful for. It’s great in this age of miniature recorders. I’d always have one with me if I can, in case I hear something. A few years back I go into a convenience store to get a soda, and open up the refrigerator and hear this amazing sound.
It happened in San Anselmo, there was a refrigerator that went “woowoowoowoowoo”…one of the fans wasn’t in sync with the other. I walked out to get my little Zoom recorder from the car, and walked back in and pretended to be shopping. Turn it on, put it in record, open the door and put it in the refrigerator. You go shop some more while it’s recording this motor. You get it back to the studio later, and it makes a great force field or something when it’s slowed down. It’s that kind of stuff I love to discover.
Trial and error, is that maybe a better term than failure?
DS: I think that’s the big take away that a lot of people should consider. Eventually, if you keep going, a failure can turn into something else.
BB: I’ve even labeled things failures that have made me eat my words later. I was giving this high-minded talk about gun shots a while ago at the Rafael Theater. I talked about going into canyons and getting these great echoes, using the right compression to achieve this wonderful western gunshot, and I brought a gun onto the stage with blanks in it. I said, “If you just fire a gun into a room like this, it’s pretty dull.” I fired this gun… with the blank…and it was just a loud “pop.” . Later, when I was playing back the video of it, I thought, “Hey, that’s a pretty good gunshot.” I was working on the film Munich, and on Munich we were trying to go for a very documentary style. I couldn’t use Indiana Jones style, hugely bassy, cannon-like things. I wanted something more like a news recording of a gunfight on a street. I had this crazy, poorly recorded, off-mic video of a gun being fired. And that sound was the perfect gun for Munich.
DS: In the context…
BB: Yeah, in the context. To me, it sounded like a real documentary sound. It’s nothing fancy. It’s just a bang, and that was it. So I ate my words on that one! I love learning those lessons…as long as you can afford it along the way. [Laughs]
Great insights (as expected). Always having a recorder with me is invaluable, as Ben already explained, it similar to being a journalist, you need to have pen and paper with you, always.
I’ll make sure I revisit the ‘indiana jones’ sound universe this Christmas!
Fantastic. I always love the delicious intersection between philosophy and practice that Ben brings to his interviews and writings.
Jon P says
Awesome! Great interview with a legend. Thanks so much!
E.Radha krishna says
Such an experienced engineer. Great stories and life lessons. Always a fan!