Star Wars: Episode IV sound design explained by Ben Burtt

July 8, 2019

elegant weapon for a more civilized day now the lightsaber was the very first sound that I ever manufactured for Star Wars at the time I was just leaving USC film school I was a projection estat the school I had a part-time job and in the projection booth where these old 35 millimeter theater projectors which when they were just turned on and sat idle they had a very interesting humming sound it was part of the interlock motors in the projectors and I used to be in the booth working and I would enjoy that sound it was a nice musical kind of hum and when I saw the pictures of the lightsaber in the artwork for the film I thought wow I think that hum of that projector motor is just the right thing so I went and recorded the home and held on to it as the basis for the lightsabers as I thought about it some more I felt that the home was not quite dangerous enough sounding it needed some other element and the other element came about by accident I had a microphone cable that was broken partially and as I was carrying my tape recorder across my apartment one day and I went near the television set the microphone picked up the buzz from the television picture tube just a direct electronic interference and I took the buzz and combined it with the projector hum and the two sounds together became the basis for the laser story to produce the sound of the moving lightsabers I took the steady recording of the hum and Buzz and played it over a speaker in a room and then re-recorded that sound with another microphone and I could take that microphone and wave it around in the air and it would produce what's called a Doppler effect that is a pitch shift because the sound is moving relative to the microphone and by doing that I was able to take the steady sound of the lightsaber and give it a sense of movement of coming to and fro or back and forth and if you did it very quickly in front of the speaker in order to make the sound seemed like it was quizzing towards someone in a fight so it wasn't it was a matter of not only creating this town but also creating a movement of the sand which gave the lightsabres a basis for their their noise and you know their credibility the hits of the lightsabers were a combination of several different sources principally a carbon arc being ignited the old motion picture projectors and large bright lamps at the old studios well the actual light was produced by burning two carbon rods running electricity through them and the spark would jump between them and they'd actually burn and when you start up one of these carbon arcs there's a jump of sparks from one rod to another and it makes a wonderful squeaking sound and you can play around with it you get a spark and a squeaking at the same time in addition there were sounds of dry ice and metal combined if you take a piece of metal and place it against the piece of dry ice you get a squeaky sound as the dry ice evaporates and taking the dry ice sound as well as the carbon arc sounds and combining them together made up the sounds of the lightsabre hits [Applause] the voice of our two deeds who turned out to be the most prolonged and difficult sound to develop that took a long time that was the hardest task I had on Star Wars you know the first time that I actually ever made for it was a lightsaber I came up with that basically in three or four days I just had an idea for it right away but r2d2 took I was about a year of work of collecting experimenting trying to get something because it involved a performance and it also had no precedent there hadn't been a film before which had a main character that didn't speak English and didn't have a moving mouth just you reconsider playing that message for him no I don't think he likes you at all no I don't like you either r2 was described in the script as beeping and buzzing and whistling the script did not prescribe the specific lines of dialogue that he had but merely said that r2 responded or r2 beeped or something of that sort and it was left up to me to try to come up with possibilities for George Lucas to listen to George at one point thought that perhaps even recording babies before they could talk but the sounds that babies make cooing and sighing and little vocalizations they make as they learn to talk might be the key to our to voice and it was definitely the right direction to go because r2 is what kind of a only child he's smart but he's also has a certain innocence about him he can be insubordinate but overall he's lovable and as the film was being developed and being cut in the editing room I would try out different r2 voices and then get an assessment from George as to what he thought and time and time again he wasn't satisfied with what I was doing and that we really needed the voice to have more characters to it one day when George and I were discussing the voice we both found ourselves imitating making little funny noises as we kind of described what arts you might be like and it dawned on us that well maybe the very noises that we were making little cute vocalizations that we were using as kind of a means of symbolically manufacturing art to his voice well maybe that would lead us in the right direction I ended up doing vocalizations at the same time I clay a keyboard on an old ARP synthesizer and I learned to sort of whistle and beep along with what I was playing on a keyboard and through a lot of practice I would get something that sounded expressive and I could say although that's hard to saying come this way or he's making a rude remark to Threepio or something once I combined my voice with the synthesizer I would often take the sounds of art to and out into the real world and play them over a speaker in a room in a hallway in a bathroom and rerecord the lines such that they actually were recorded in not in a studio they actually had the quality of being in a real place and that was key to getting a lot of the the sounds to blend in and seem natural as if they were really done on the set the key being to process what we call world I using the voices that is taking the sounds and playing them back and re recording them in real places where you get a sense of the reflections of sound in the environment a lot of the attempts at doing r2d2 s voice the outtakes so to speak ended up being the voices of other robots in the film the binocular robot the various other r2 units on board the sandcrawler so most of the material that I generated got used somewhere in the film it just became robots of less importance there are several creatures approaching to the southeast [Applause] Anthony Daniels was not initially considered to be the final voice of c-3po originally was gonna be Stan Freberg we did some tracks with with him and he was good George wanted this kind of as he described it used-car salesmen feel to Threepio originally they told me you well John and Yoko were a little nervous because they you're a satirist they thought you would have at them or something huh which is just pure bull you know anyhow so I'm sitting out in the audience now and John and Yoko come out you know and the first thing he says is words free big blood once the film began being put together in the editing room and the tracks of Tony Daniels were there this reference everybody eventually just fell in love with them I think that's really where my relationship will three piers relationship with Artie really started because he was such a menace I used to get cross with him anyway and then you know throughout the films now there's always this relationship Rama was kicking him a big stupid and although it wasn't the original intention that true piya would have a British accent the fact that Tony was so good in the part and his body language was so coordinated with his vocal talents that it really didn't seem to make sense to try to develop another voice and impose it on to the Threepio character it was just something that came about so successfully through the talents of Tony Daniels so eventually tony was brought into the studio and all those lines recorded properly those lines down the set were hardly audible because of the you know the face mask that's on him made it hard to the pick his sound up clearly and then the costume itself made a tremendous amount of noise the plastic scraping and crackling as he talked and none of the tracks of Threepio that done on the set were usable in fact the sound of three PS costume was so noisy that often required the replacement of dialogue by other actors in the scene because his suit made so much noise between our 2 and 3 P oh the r2 made a lot of noise and clunking around in 3b OHS costs and pretty much required us to loop a lot of the other actors along the way I was listening to a lot of different African languages and Zulu came up in a recording and in listening to it I thought that this might be a good basis for the Jawa language to for a start the Java voices and their development became the prototype for how we would develop languages and alien voices for those characters in the films that were not electronic that they spoke an actual organic tongue I listened to a lot of language tapes from around the world out of that came samples of languages real languages which sounded very exotic and they weren't recognisable as something familiar but like any real language they come with their unique historic and you know cultural details they usually developed over a long period of time the laser guns were developed on the basis of one particular sound I was hiking in Pennsylvania on a vacation during the early stages of the production of Star Wars and I was hiking over a mountaintop in the Pocono Mountains and went beneath a radio tower which had large guy wires coming down to anchor it in my pack caught on one of these guy wires and as I went by it made a planning sound an unusual sound and I immediately said to myself well that's a laser gun it had an otherworldly sound to it and when I returned to California I went around Southern California in the region of Los Angeles banging on the guy wires of different radio towers to come up with just the right sound I finally found the right radio tower out in the Mojave Desert and near Palmdale California there was a small radio station out there which had a sort of broken-down tower next to its little transmitting station they had one particular guy wire which was did not have the wind dampeners on it sometimes they have these large styrofoam balls on the wires which prevent them from vibrating they're actually there to reduce the drag of the wind on the wires and I found this one particular cable on that tower and banged it with different pieces of metal and and out of that came the sound which was fused as the the basic sound for all the laser guns one of the very few sound effects recorded during the location shooting was the mules which were used to backpack the camera gear into the location in Tunisia and I think it was Gary curse maybe George Lucas had heard the braying of these mules and had the sound man go out and record them in the rocks and they sent them back to me they didn't really know what they were gonna be used for but it seemed to me that they were Tusken Raiders and so the basis for the Tusken Raiders were really mules which they were cut off a bit and cheese and speed and then eventually I did some more animals back here in the United States I even recorded a person who could imitate a mule and by taking those various recordings we were able to able to come up with several different Tuscan Raider voices we must be cautious I went all over the place to record things one of the places I went was to a company which tests jet engines inside before they're put on a full-size aircraft and I went into their test chambers and put some microphones up and of course then you don't stay in the test chamber because the they run the engines up to full speed in a tiny room and the sound would probably kill you if you stayed in there but I had a microphone in there wrapped in towels to kind of muffle the sound just a little bit but out of that recording came the sound of reverse thrusters which is the sound of a jet engine when an airplane commercial jet lands that hits the runway it actually reverses the airflow and the engines to slow the plane down and that reverse thrusting whining sound the engine makes is what was used for the past buys of Luke's landspeeder droid on the scanner dead ahead might be our little r2 unit hit the accelerator one day maybe I was bored I took my microphone I put it inside the pipe that's part of the suction device on a vacuum cleaner and I held it out the window and I just pointed it at the Los Angeles freeway and the roar of the freeway as it went through this metal pipe and then to the microphone had a funny kind of phasing or slight echoing to it and that became the sound of a force field of the landspeeder as it hovers in space became the basis actually for all the kind of levitation force fields which are used in many Star Wars speeders and other and other vehicles the cantina really represents a sort of variety of packable all the different things I tried in the development of voices or robots for the film it required so many different characters and voices and there were unique individuals and aliens all throughout the place and so out of the recordings I had been making of animals and of exotic foreign languages and the various processing I was doing some of the sounds were dogs growling there were the sounds of bats squeaking there was a variety of different African languages recorded a number of different foreign students in conversation that could speak Swahili or hyah I produce some electronic sounds for little voices but we also needed just a general what's called wala that is the background babble of voices throughout the cantina going steady and I actually made that by getting a group of the editors together on the film and we all got into a room together and we all got balloons full of helium and everybody inhaled a good dose of helium and now helium makes your voice go up and pitch and of course it does make people laugh a little bit because it sounds funny and if you had a variety of both male and female voices all on helium at the same time it produced an interesting kind of babbling sound which was used for a lot of the background voices in the cantina that yes Greedo as a matter of fact I'm just going to see your boss tell Java that I've got his money so beetle a maritime cheetah monkey cheetah job are one in Chico the voice of Guido was the first time we ever really heard Patty's spoken in star wars and later of course hati's would become a prominent language throughout the whole series hati's came about because in my search for interesting real languages I came across a language called Kate Chuang which was related to the Incan Indians of Peru and it was a language still did exist in remote parts of South America and I brought into the picture a man named Larry Ward and Larry was a linguist and he was very good at hearing a foreign language and then imitating it even even though he didn't know how to speak it he was very good at doing a double talk that made you believe that he could speak Italian or German very quickly and then I played him the que Chauhan and taking Larry's voice and Flanigan a little that as it made it sound a little bit like it was coming through that snout on his face we were able to produce what became angry or the Bounty Hunter there was never an attempt to create a definitive complete language with all of the verb conjugations or the things that you'd really you know imagine the goal and all of these developments of sound as always to create the impression create the impression that there's a real language that we don't understand it but it sounds intelligent and it sounds like it has enough culture and background to it to be plausible I never rigorously insisted on one word having a particular meaning most of the spaceships like the blockade runner at the beginning of the film it turned out that using World War 2 warbirds and slowing the sound down a lot gave a visceral pass by quality which worked well and sometimes I would add an explosion or a thunderclap or even an animal roar like a lion underneath the sound of the airplane pass by there's a few different effects associated with Vader using the force we always put in a deep low-frequency kind of earthquake Rumble which could be amped up as Vader tightened the force on someone I find your lack of faith disturbing the deep rumbles came from a number of different sources some of it was just a thunder that was slowed way down and the high frequencies rolled off some of it was the slowdown sound of a missile launch and some of it was from the Fox library actually it was some earthquake material made for a journey to the center of the earth Vader was described in the script as having this life-support suit on him and keeping him alive as if he was badly damaged in some way and so what I did in the early concepts of Vader I had some clicking like there was some kind of relays and mechanism associated with him I thought about these say for instance the crocodile and Peter Pan got all the ticking clock something like that some signature that you always told you he was around the script mentioned that he had some kind of breathing apparatus and so on the early concepts of Vader I made up he was beeping and clicking and breathing and he sounded like that er through the whole room it wasn't see that it was too much it's kind of distracting and we ended up keeping just the breathing and the breathing is me breathing through a particular scuba tank regulator I went to a local scuba shop here in Northern California in San Rafael called the bamboo reef when evening and after they had a class where people left there were numerous tanks and regulators laying around the pool I just want to run record a different ones I would breathe through it and I had a little tiny microphone a little Sony ECM 50 and I actually put that down inside one of the regulators so it was extremely close to the valve that opens and closes and then I breathed through it that ended up being the breathing that we use for Vader it slightly slowed down from the original recording after the voice George Lucas was auditioning different people to deliver the words on the set of the voice was delivered by David Prowse who was in the member of the Imperial Senate on a diplomatic you are part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor heroic but he had our strong Welsh accent and it just wasn't what the character needed so George eventually picked James Earl Jones and the traitor taken away the trick was to record James Earl Jones which we did and in an ADR session which means you're you know watching the movie and saying the lines along with the character and then I combined the breathing and a voice together into one track and then what I did was take that recording and play it over a speaker and go to different rooms like a bathroom or a hallway or a lobby somewhere and rerecord the sound again so that the voice and the breathing were now affected by the acoustics of the same room and that brought them together so they felt like it was done on the set as one unit of sound and that what we call world izing which means taking a sound and putting it out there in the real world is a technique we've used frequently and all the Star Wars films especially for exotic voices because you don't want to build something in the studio that's clean and up close to the mic and just perfect you want to make it seem like it was done on the set someone turns her head away from the mic that you want that impression and so we would go to Payne's later to simulate that kind of recording of voices when Darth Vader crushes the neck of the rebel officer the actual crushing of the officers neck was produced by putting some walnut shells in a grapefruit and then crushing the whole thing and so you got a smooshing and a crackling all at the same time and it seemed to sound like his young neck was being broken yeah where is the ambassador come on or tear this ship apart until you've found those plans and bring me the passengers my first assignment was to develop the voice of Chewbacca they wanted to have samples of what Chewbacca might sound like prior to shooting because it would be an aid in the actual directing of the film and it would help the actor Peter Mayhew to actually perform the voice of Chewbacca if we knew what Chewie would sound like Peter Mayhew once he got really familiar with the sounds and in fact in some of the later Star Wars films would actually make the Chewbacca sounds himself they got pretty good as at imitating and we never used his voice for the actual track of the final movie but he picked up on the technique and the voice texture of it and did a good imitation ultimately Julie's voice was made up of mostly recordings of bears and eventually I was led to a cute little pet bear named Pooh who lived on a farm in Tehachapi California and I would take the sounds and break them down into groupings that had different emotions that I associated with them I took the angry sounds and put them in one collection I took the cute sounds and put them in another I took the sounds which sounded like an animal asking a question at least the intonation was such that it sounded inquisitive and once the sounds had been broken down into their individual parts you could then edit them together and form little sequences of sound and in that manner build up some sense as to what Chuy was saying and it was good because the sound of bear makes is kind of from the back of the throat there's no articulation of the lips to form consonants he went along well with Chuy's mask which basically can only open and close the mouth there wasn't really any lip articulation to speak of and so the actual sounds from the bear seemed to work well with the mask of Chewbacca because you could believe that those types of sounds were coming from a mouth the way of operating you made a family screaming about it can't have it's not Y sub said walkie but Sir nobody worries about upsetting a droid that's cause a droid don't pull people's arms out of their sockets when they lose these are known to do that all the voices in the hologram are my voice treated different ways I kind of got down to the end of the production and was running out of time when this material finally came in and out of desperation I pretty much sat down and just made up the voices myself ran them through a filter so they sounded tiny and then put them together and you know orchestrated them in the little voices in the little fight that takes place on the chess board the jump to hyperspace was an explosive sound that really were two sounds the first thing was a generator start which is a kind of a quick changing pitch of an engine it was a actually an electronic motor I recorded in an elevator shaft it was the motor which starts an elevator up and down and that was combined with a explosion which was really just a piece of a thunderclap the actual sharp beginning of the thunderclap was cut off and and then it was um the more mid-range explosive part of the clap was used for that moment that they actually break out in a hyperspace if you listen to the Deathstar and you go to different locations in it you pretty much always hearing a low rumble and quite often you hear a rhythmic pounding kind of like a big heartbeat and that was a deliberate attempt to kind of give the space station the sense of being alive and very powerful a lot of the doors on the Deathstar the clattering of the doors opening or closing and the banging of the doors were recorded at Mount Palomar Observatory in California I had gone up there and had the privilege of going inside the giant telescope room and recording the big motors that rotate the telescope and the big shutters which opened and closed on the dome and it was in a huge echoey space and a lot of those recordings from Mount Palomar ended up being incidental mechanical sounds in the Death Star a lot of electronic backgrounds that are used throughout the film the telemetry the kind of radio sounds you hear low level which make this place seem alive and kind of futuristic came from recordings off an old shortwave radio that belonged to my grandfather built in the 1930s it seems as though it receives sound that nobody else could get and I used to dial around and be fascinated by all the electronic noise and signals that seemed to be coming from space or somewhere in the atmosphere and I recorded some of the shortwave sounds as a teenager and save the tapes and when it came to developing a lot of the ambiences for Star Wars I went back through those old shortwave radio recordings and pulled out little snippets of sound here and there you know ran it at different speeds and put it through echo chambers and had a lot of fun building the telemetry backgrounds which are part of the fabric of Star Wars one of the joys of being a sound editor is when you can really create an off-screen world the trash masher is a great example of this because when it starts up everything that happens really is off-screen the sounds of the mechanism falling into place the sound of the motor starting and accelerating as it begins to you know close in on our heroes and of course none of that really exists there's no real mechanics there I guess there was you know the the set could be collapsed I was probably manually driven I really don't know but it can be very satisfying to you know take old motor sounds and dumpster door creaks and the sound of a piledriver which was used for the acceleration the pounding of the trash masher as it got you know tighter and tighter on our group of heroes Oh baby out one thing's for sure we're all going to be a lot thinner in most film production you don't have all the time you want sometimes the easiest thing to do and your only choice is just do it yourself so a lot of the voices that get thrown in little incidental sounds like the mouse robot going down the hallway it was really just myself doing funny little vocalizations and speeding the tape up and running it backwards and so on to produce little tiny robot voices once again you have to be kind of inventive and low-budget as you go along a lot of the voices that you hear in the PA system in the Musashi outpost hangar was just myself and two other friends I had John and Tom Silva we got a bullhorn went up to a local church when there was no one around and it was a big stone church so it had a lot of nice echo in it and we just read lines to the bullhorn things like prepare x-wings for a liftoff and and so on etc and then took those lines of dialogue recorded in the very echoey space and then later you know I've distributed them where needed in the mix to give the outpost and a hang or a sense of it being alive with military activity old-type in battle was fabricated from many different elements and they all had to orchestrate together in harmony principle among them was the voices the radio voices all the pilots and the controllers in the war room and George Lucas wanted it to sound realistic so we took all the lines of dialogue and we actually transmitted them over a shortwave radio and then at the receiving end of the shortwave we had a tape recorder and we were able to receive the voices as they were transmitted and also then to miss tuned the receiver a bit so that you could have voices come and go as if the signal was being interrupted or wavering off the actual wavelength and so when the final mix was being put together the original voices are there the radio transmission voices are there in different forms and a blend was made depending on whether the character was on screen or off screen and this added to the depth of the whole scene it made it seem like there was transmission distances between the ships and the war room and at the ships of course we're going through their aerobatics and there'd be a moment where the signal would drop out and wander off frequency a bit come on I'm going in I suppose the idea must have come from war movies in actual documentary sounds of helicopter fights things in Vietnam things the public was hearing over the years rather than having pristine studio recordings where everything was clean and absolutely intelligible adding this whole dimension of transmission to the voices made it seem more natural and real and gave it a whole new dimension Star Wars being a Fox Film allowed us to if we wanted to to use some sound effects from their old classic library and being a real fan of the old sound effects I did pull a few things and used them here and there but most of the effort was put into customizing original sounds for the movie [Applause] [Applause] of course there were many new ships that needed sounds the y-wing fighters have a kind of howling sound as you are flying in the cockpit with them and that howling is actually wind recorded atop a mountain actually when I was up trying to record guy wires for lasers the wind was blowing so hard through one set of guy wires that it actually was producing a musical note it was almost a musical chord and it was used principally for the background sounds of the pilots in the Y wing fighters what's wrong with that there are several creatures approaching to the southeast sandpeople there's a line in the film that Luke uses he says sandpeople or worse and for some reason somewhere along the way in post-production the picture editing department began to say to any sound editor that showed up Oh sound people or worse and at first it was a little bit of a mockery but we began to take that mockery serious we had a t-shirt made up that said sound people or worse which had a picture of a Tuscan Raider on it and instead of holding his gaff you stick he had a fish pole with a microphone on the end of it and so it became a badge of honour to be a sound person you

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