Described by Wall-E producer Lindsey Collins as “your seventh grade science teacher,” the kind of guy who truly enjoys showing you how anything and everything works, sound designer Ben Burtt is truly a living legend. He is the Academy Award winning sound designer behind the entire Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, the man who brought R2-D2 to life with bleeps and boops and gave Indiana Jones’ whip that iconic crack. He also won his first Oscar in 1983 for the sound design on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
Burtt’s most recent task has been to bring to life through the wonders of sound the world of another soon-to-be-iconic robot, Pixar’s Wall-E. Much like R2-D2, Wall-E can’t exactly talk — a factor that could have been problematic if not handled well, considering that unlike R2, Wall-E was the main character of his movie. But as anyone who has seen Wall-E, which hits DVD shelves on November 18th, can tell you, Burtt has once again pulled it off. He gave Wall-E all the right beeps and blips to make him a lovable, engaging character.
And to celebrate the DVD release next Tuesday, the folks at Disney/Pixar have hooked us up with a little Q&A with Burtt, as well as a really cool sound design cheat sheet, both of which can be seen below.
Question: You had just finished a stint on Star wars when you were offered Wall-E and I imagine the last thing you wanted to work on was robots?
Ben Burtt: That is absolutely true. Creating the illusion of voices is the hardest task. It is hard to fool voices. When Andrew pitched this idea and I realized it was all robot voices at first I thought I am sure I have anything left in me – have I got a new idea, But fortunately it was a very different set of characters. Nevertheless I am sure I approached the same, as I always would have because of my past experience. The idea always is to create the sense of a soul with the character with sound. You are given sounds or a few words and the aim is to create the feeling that these are talking machines. You could have imposed a human voice on to the robots and audiences would have accepted that. But with Wall-E it was important to give the sound an aspect of being a machine. So I went about that task, my assignment was to create voices for the characters and audition them to Andrew. He had about10 minutes of the opening of the movie with sketches and storyboards and said it was a little peek of what he was trying to get. I was there from the beginning, which is the best thing. I am sure that when I started that they did not know that they were going to make his film – they were still having trials and one of the hurdles to jump was to get the voices.
What was your working process like on Wall-E?
A typical day – I work alone – I would be in a sound room with my recording gear and mixing consoles, speakers and a screen so that I can project images if I want to. And I really just start improvising. I work two different ways; one is that I have a keyboard and I can put sound effects on that and I can play things. This is how I experiment. I sit alone, I suppose a little bit like musical composition and I try things on the keyboard. I discover a combination and that gives me something to work on. If I need a human input then I can record myself or I can bring in a Pixar employee because they are readily available and free (smiles) for scratch voices. That is kind of what happened with Wall-E. I was just using my own voice as a trial – I was not supposed to be the voice – but I was experimenting. Once we got a voice that we liked Andrew realized that it would be pretty hard to go back and start over with a different human voice. So we stuck with it. Plus I was there every day. I auditioned for Andrew many concepts for Wall-E. Some were sound effects because initially we did not know whether he would talk or he might just whistle like R2D2. I think the first version of Wall-E that I did was pretty much like an R2D2 type of character. It was almost with electronic tones. Every time I pitched Andrew an audition he would pick two or three things out that he liked. So I began to make a little list. And then I built up a sort of favorites list.
When Andrew first showed me the 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 I’ve said, we went through lots of experiments trying Wall-e as just motor sounds only, some that there were beeps and whistles, a little bit more in the R2 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. I have always felt that the best way to get a robot voice is to have a human element and an electronic element and blend the two. So I worked out a circuit where I started with my voice and broke that down in the computer and then re-synthesized it. And the voice of EVE was done in a similar way. We used a woman at Pixar, who was named Elissa Knight. We started using her as a scratch track and once again, just like with me, once I ran it through the laborious computer process, we got results that we liked, and we felt we should keep it. For one sound I had heard a generator in a John Wayne movie called Island In The Sky. It was a generator they cranked and I thought I had to get one of those. I got one on E-bay that had not been unpacked since 1950. There are the sophisticated electronic things I do and like the generator there are things like the old days of radio when you used props.
What has been the most unusual prop you used?
Apart from the generator you could name something that is a household item and it is probably in the film. There is an electronic toothbrush in there.
Legend has it that you use everything that comes into your life as part of the sounds you create, even your wife’s pregnancy, is this true?
I’ve always found, when you’re trying to create illusions with sound, especially in a science fiction or fantasy movie, that pulling sounds from the world around us is a great way to cement that illusion because you can go out and record an elevator in George Lucas’s house or something, and it will have that motor sound. It will be an elevator and you might associate it with that, but if you use it in a movie people will believe it’s a force field, or maybe it’s the sound of a spaceship door opening. The story about my wife was on Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers. We went to listen to a sonogram of the child, my daughter Alice who’s now grown up and has her own child. It was this great, throbbing sound, and at that time I was looking for the sound of an alien pod germinating and it sounded exactly like the alien pod germinating, so why not? But it did work, because it was a heartbeat and it was something from the womb and it was about these alien characters coming alive and being born, so there was probably some connection there that worked emotionally since we all were in the womb at one time. It’s forging those connections between familiar sound and illusionary sound that I think is the basis of the success for a lot of the sounds that sound designers have put in these movies. So whatever is happening in the environment, one of the reasons I’m so happy the movie’s coming out now is that all the news is so dire, this is actually such an encouraging movie to watch about the environment.
Were you conscious of the environmental issues that are in Wall-e when you were working on the film?
Not really, only the way the story was expressed. This came out as the film grew and took on its details. I accepted from the start the premise of the story, and like Andrew was saying science fiction rarely starts with a happy village that you start out with this lonely robot in a toxic wasteland I suppose my first concerns were what does a toxic wasteland sound like? You can’t smell it; it’s not Smell-O-Vision so we can’t do it that way. I did try and accomplish sounds that would bring a very lonely, isolating kinds of tones that reflected Wall-e’s isolation. But that agenda was not really in the forefront, I accepted it as the setting of the story, obviously as we see this reaction to the film coming at this time, you see it as an echo, a coincidence of good timing. Often issues that are in films that are there for a legitimate reason come at a time when the film gets its attention, and it’s one of those fortuitous moments now, that element gives you a point of discussion and gives you that much more value, which to us as entertainers, that’s fantastic. It gives us an added dimension.
How proud are you of Wall-e?
I am most proud when I see that people get it! When people come and say it’s a masterpiece it’s hard to think about those reactions. I’m very proud of it all. I see it as a great opportunity, most sound people don’t get the assignment to create worlds of sound and get freedom to try a lot of things and then get the scrutiny and support of the team over a long period of time. Most sound work in films is done very quickly, and at the end of the schedule where it’s just jammed together and you always wish that you had more sympathy.
I’ve been on this film for three years, so the work was being embedded right from the beginning, sometimes we would do some sounds and then do an animation test to try those sounds out. Those kinds of opportunities are great. So of course I’m very proud of that, what film gives you a chance to do sound effects as well as key voices in the film. Maybe the only other big assignment would be to do a movie with no music and see where you could go … I love the music of course. What you do as a sound designer is something like doing music you’re creating, sounds especially in a film like this, when you thinking what part of the story can those sounds play emotionally. Maybe they’re there to support credibility, to make these things seem real. That’s important, but it’s also great when you’re on an assignment and your director asks you for a motor that sounds cute, or wants more pathos in that servo. Those are not the questions you usually get when you’re rushing to get sound effects put in the movie.
What is your favorite scene?
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.
In addition to the interview, we also have this cool little cheat sheet to share with you. It shows you what was used to create some of the film’s more unique sounds. Just click below to enlarge.