MoviesOnline sat down with Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt at the Los Angeles press day for his new film, “WALL-E.”
“WALL-E’s” expressive range of robotic voices was created by Burtt, whose memorable work includes creating the “voices” of other legendary robots, such as R2-D2 from the “Star Wars” films. Drawing on 30 years of experience as one of the industry’s top sound experts, Burtt was involved from the film’s earliest stages in creating an entire world of sound for all of the robotic characters and the spacecraft, as well as all environments.
Burtt is an accomplished filmmaker who has served as film editor on a vast array of projects. He began his work with director George Lucas in 1977 as sound designer of the original “Star Wars,” earning his first Academy Award – a Special Achievement Award. He rejoined Lucas 20 years later to supervise the sound work on “Star Wars Trilogy” (Special Edition).
In addition to his work on the “Star Wars” films, Burtt has worked on many film and television projects. He has won Academy Awards for Best Sound Editing in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and for Best Sound Effects Editing in “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Burtt has also been recognized for his work with a number of Academy Award nominations, including Best Sound in “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi,” Best Sound and Sound Effects Editing in “Willow,” Best Sound Effects Editing in “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” and, as director of “Special Effects, Anything Can Happen,” Best Short Subject Documentary.
Burtt has also been awarded a British Academy Award for Best Sound in “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” a Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Effects Editing in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and a British Academy Award nomination for Best Sound in “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.”
Ben Burtt is a fabulous guy and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about his latest movie:
Q: Clearly one of the challenges in voicing a character like Wall-E is not to do R2-D2, but there was a little R2-D2 in there, wasn’t there?
BEN BURTT: Well, the challenge of doing robot voices – Andrew (Stanton), if he’d wanted to, I suppose could have hired actors and had them stand in front of a mike and recorded their voices and dubbed that in over character action, but that would have of course not taken the whole idea of the illusion very far. What he wanted was the illusion that these robot characters, the speech and sounds they made were really coming from their functions as machines, that there was either a chip on board that synthesized the voice or the squeak of their motor would sound cute, and that would give an indication how they feel. The problem does go back, for me, to the sort of primal R2-D2 idea, which is how do you have a character not speak words or, in the case of Wall-E, just a very few words, but you understand what is going on in their head and they also seem to have a depth of character.
The trick has always been to somehow balance the human input to the electronic input so you have the human side of it. In this case, for Wall-E, it ended up being my voice because I was always experimenting on myself sort of like the mad scientist in his lab, you inject yourself with the serum. After weeks and months of experimenting it was easier to try it on myself as we worked it out. You start with the human voice input and record words or sounds and then it is taken into a computer and I worked out a unique program which allowed me to deconstruct the sound into its component parts. We all know how pictures are pixels now and you can rearrange pixels to change the picture. You kind of do the same thing with sound.
I could reassemble the Wall-E vocals and perform it with a light pen on a tablet. You could change pitch by moving the pen or the pressure of the pen would sustain or stretch syllables or consonants and you could get an additional level of performance that way, kind of like playing a musical instrument. But that process had artifacts in it, things that made it unlike human speech, glitches you might say, things you might throw away if you were trying to convince someone it was a human voice. That’s what we liked, that electronic alias thing that went along with it, because that helped make the illusion that the sound was coming from a voice box or some kind of circuit depending on the character.
So it is a matter of that relationship, how much electronic, how much human, and you sway back and forth to create the different sounds. A great deal of the sounds, for him as well as the other characters, are also sound effects which are chosen to go with the robot’s character. Wall-E has lots of little motors and squeaks and little clicks of his hands and those are all mechanical sounds that come from many, many different sources. The idea is to orchestrate all those little bits of sound to also be a part of his character so he can cock his head and look at something and you can hear a little funny squeak and in a way it’s an expressive sound effect. So that is important too. It was really that array of sounds that were used to define each character.
Q: Do you find that sound design is still just as exciting for you now as it was when you first began your career?
BEN BURTT: Sure. I love recording sounds and exploring for sounds and yes, because every film seems to soak up and use everything I’ve got because there is always a need for something more and so I’m always on the alert for new things. They are harder to find because I’ve recorded so many airplanes and explosions and electronic noises that for Wall-E I think I and the team as well recorded every motor we ever came in touch with from appliances to jet planes, whatever. We just went wild. The world is full of sound and we found for a science fiction film like this – and others I’ve done – the idea of taking real natural sounds and imposing them into the fantasy film gives the illusion that these things are real because we kind of recognize them even though we can’t identify them specifically, but you say “Oh, it sounds like it is really a motor so I kind of believe it.” That has been the trick in these films.
Q: What are some of the sources of these sounds?
BEN BURTT: 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.
Q: Were Eve’s sounds more modern then?
BEN BURTT: 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.
Q: 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?
BEN BURTT: 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.
Q: The quality of the artistic presentation of the sound design of Wall-E was absolutely incomparable.
BEN BURTT: Thank you.
Q: Does the social commentary of the movie concern you at all as a sound designer? What do you make of the irony of Pixar and Disney making a film about the commercialization of entertainment?
BEN BURTT: [laughs] Did you ask Andrew that question? I can’t represent the thinking of the film on that level. I know that for my contact going back three years with the film when Andrew pitched it to me that in the forefront was always this romantic story. It was kind of a Buster Keaton movie. A lonely character left alone on an exotic island and an exotic female character enters the scene and he falls in love with her and he chases her back to the big city. That was always the driving story line.
The world that was set up, with the demise of civilization coming about through commercialization and no exercise and so on, that was the setting to set up the science fiction part of the story and we are seeing in the screenings a lot of reactions to that aspect of it. My point of view was that there wasn’t a big emphasis on that, but you know Pixar and the Disney overseers, if that’s the word, they give Pixar a lot of freedom and flexibility to let the directors write and pursue their story and what messages may come out of it. It allows a message to come out that could be very personal and very different and maybe not a corporate message either.
Q: Andrew said earlier that there was no political message, that he didn’t have an agenda in this film? You couldn’t see that at all?
BEN BURTT: I couldn’t see that at all. No. I was never part of a meeting or discussion where that was ever talked about as a goal. I always saw it as part of the science fiction set up. We want to create a world. What are the problems with the world? What is the world about? How did Wall-E get stranded here and why are the humans missing? Well, in order to set that up, there’s an appropriate series of events, which is an extension perhaps, of course, like most science fiction, of the present and where it might take us. So that was all I saw.
Q: 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.
BEN BURTT: 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.
Q: 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 seein?
BEN BURTT: 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.
Of course we are in this special effects driven era and certainly the most money is spent on films that involve huge fantastic concepts, and the sound becomes that kind of aspect of those films that holds them together and tries to convince the audience that it is dramatic and real even when in fact in some cases it doesn’t look all that good. You’re still doing it.
Q: I loved Sigourney Weaver as the voice of the ship’s computer in “Wall-E” and the parallels to Mother, the ship’s computer in “Alien.” What did you do with her voice and how different did it have to be?
BEN BURTT: Well, Andrew, of course, and myself included, we’re all fans of science fiction movies including Alien and its sequels. I worked on the first Alien movie and in fact made sounds for the mother computer and that sort of thing, so I had a little connection there. Her voice was recorded straight forward in a studio, but during the mix of the film, it was put in a big echo chamber so it comes from everywhere so it is this omnipotent voice. You actually never see the source of it like a speaker. It’s the broadest range high fidelity voice in the movie. The idea is to have it be omnipotent and all powerful I suppose.
Q: Was she aware of the inside joke?
BEN BURTT: I was not present when Andrew briefed her, so I’m not sure what he may have said or not to her.
Q: There is a famous scream sound effect that’s been used in every movie since 1933 or something. Was it in this film?
BEN BURTT: No, it’s actually not in WALL-E.
Q: What sound was the most difficult?
BEN BURTT: Voices are the hardest because the audience listens to them with much more critical ears than sound effects. We are all experts at interpreting the nuances of speech, so anything that might be interpreted as a vocal or expression the audience really listens carefully. So creating all these different characters, a dozen different kinds of voices in the film, from Eve and Wall-E you get down a vacuum bot which is just (bleebleeblah) while you run a vacuum cleaner (bleebleeblah) and things you did in third grade and got in trouble.
Q: How did he sneeze?
BEN BURTT: That was me sneezing. It is all done with a vacuum cleaner in concert so usually I do these things alone in the studio. There’s no footage so I’m glad.
Q: With these different computer voices, was it difficult to find that point where you sounded like a computer but were also understandable, especially for little kids?
BEN BURTT: I think with my experience with Star Wars I kind of knew the dangers of going too far with things so I sort of worked with Wall-E and, with Andrew’s attention to it all the time, the development was kind of slow. It came from the human side into the electronic side. There wasn’t a time in the film where things were completely extreme another way or anything. We thought originally that Wall-E might just beep and whistle and chirp like R2 but that changed.
Q: Wall-E reacts when something fascinates or surprises him. Where did those sounds come from?
BEN BURTT: There are a multitude of sounds like those little eyebrow type things are a Nikon camera shutter and his arms are the sound of a tank cannon, the asmyth motor on a tank. Name something and I will try to tell you what it is. There are a lot of things.
Q: There is one obvious sound joke which is the Mac boot-up sound. Are there others?
BEN BURTT: Once again, Andrew, that was his idea. I attribute that to him.
Q: Did you program MacInTalk to do Auto things?
BEN BURTT: With Auto we started with typing, inputting the sound. I got the software for MacInTalk, then I could use a microphone and use my own voice to say a performance and that could be injected and twist and warp the MacInTalk voice to follow that performance. So it was a combination. Some of these things I refer to as audio puppeteering. You know, you’re kind of behind the scenes with whatever means you can to interact, whether it is your own voice, whether it is your hands, whether it’s running a piece of equipment. Somehow the output is sound and hopefully expressive sound and when it comes to character what are meant to be vocals.