Ben Burtt - Sound Designer of Star Wars
Transcript of an excerpt from an interview of Ben Burtt in the Star Wars Trilogy: The Definitive Collection Laserdisc Box Set (If you want to see the full interview, rent it or buy it.)
"In the production of a film there's really three jobs that relate to what you hear in the final soundtrack, three creative jobs which ultimately result in what you hear and one of them is the production recordist. which is a person who is recording during the actual filming of the movie, they'll have a microphone on the set, and they will gather dialogue and some sound effects if they are available during the actual shooting.
Secondly, you'l l have a sound editor and this is a person back in a studio who generally has a collection of sound and is able to go out with a portable tape recorder or something like that. And bring them back and edit them and fit them into and add them onto the soundtrack of the film itself.
The term sound designer has gotten usage in the last decade really since the Star Wars films began a new interest in creative soundtracks in motion pictures. I called myself a sound designer because I wasn't really functioning as a production recordist, or a sound editor, or just a sound mixer. I did some of the job that all three of those people might do. But I was able to follow through from the point of production of a film. That is I can go out and advise and make suggestions about things that could be recorded once I'd seen the script of the film. I was on hand during some of the filming of the motion picture to gather sounds or at least see what was going on so i could run off myself and begin to manufacture and make sounds that I'd know we'd need later on. I was also on hand during the editing of the film to function as a sound editor, that job would be to pick out sounds out of a library of our own making and edit them and synchronize them with the action on the screen. And also I'd be involved with the sound mixing and it's not often that one person gets to move through all those different jobs on a film.
Usually there pretty strictly categorized. One person doesn't, you know, one sound recordist may not do the any sound editing. The sound editor may not do any sound mixing. That's the tradition of the division of labor in feature films. But since I was an exception to that traditional division if labor I needed to describe myself in some new terms. So I began to use the term sound designer, which essentially meant that although I emphasize my creative work in sound effects, my job was to coordinate all you heard in the final soundtrack of the film."
"The concept for the sound of Darth Vader came about from the first film, and the script described him as some kind of a strange dark being who is in some kind of life support system. That he was breathing strange, that maybe you heard the sounds of mechanics or motors, he might be part robot, he might be part human, we really didn't know. And so the original concept I had of Darth Vader was a very noise producing individual. He came into a scene he was breathing like some wheezing wind mill, you could hear his heart beating, you move his head you heard motors turning. He was almost like some robot in some sense and he made so much noise that we had to sort of cut back on that concept. In the first experiment the mixes
we did in Star Wars he sounded like an operating room, like a, you know, emergency room, you know, moving around."
"The lightsabers are one of my favorite sounds, and in fact it was the very first sound I made for the whole series. For some reason after I read the script even though my assignment was to find a voice for Chewbacca, and then a voice for Artoo, and then, well maybe come up with some sounds of laser guns and other things. The lightsaber fascinated me at the time when the script had first come out, they had some paintings that Ralph McQuarrie had done. So that there were some concepts visually of what some of these things would look like, and those pictures were very inspiring because they gave an idea of the direction we were trying to go in the look of the film and it was inspiring to me to therefore think of sounds that might fit that kind of visual style.
I could kind of hear the sound in my head of the lightsabers even though it was just a painting of a lightsaber. I could really just sort of hear the sound maybe somewhere in my subconscious I had seen a lightsaber before. I went to, at that time I was still a graduate student at USC, and I was a projectionist and we had a projection booth with some very, very old simplex projectors in them. They had an interlock motor which connected them to the system when they just sat there and idled and made a wonderful humming sound. It would slowly change in pitch, and it would beat against another motor, there were two motors, and they would harmonize with each other. It was kind of that inspiration, the sound was the inspiration for the lightsaber for the lightsaber and I went and recorded that sound, but it wasn't quite enough. It was just a humming sound, what was missing was a buzzy sort of sparkling sound, the scintillating which I was looking for, and I found it one day by accident.
I was carrying a microphone across the room between recording something over here and I walked over here when the microphone passeda television set which was on the floor which was on at the time without the sound turned up, but the microphone passed right behind the picture tube and as it did, this particular produced an unusual hum. It picked up a transmission from the television set and a signal was induced into it's sound reproducing mechanism, and that was a great buzz, actually. So I took that buzz and recorded it and combined it with the projector motor sound and that fifty-fifty kind of combination of those two sounds became the basic lightsaber tone, which was then, once we had established this tone of the lightsaber of course you had to get the sense of the lightsaber moving because characters would carry it around, they would whip it through the air. they would thrust and slash at each other in fights, and to achieve this addtional sense of movement I played the sound over a speaker in a room.
Just the humming sound, the humming and the buzzing combined as an endless sound, and then took another microphone and waved in the air next to that speaker so that it would come close to the speaker and go away and you could whip it by, and what happens when you do that by recording with a moving microphone is you geta Doppler's shift, you get a pitch shift in the sound and therefore you can produce a very authentic facsimilie of a moving sound. And therefore give the lightsaber a sense of movement and it worked well on the screen at that point."
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