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Back in 1976, Ben Burtt coined the title “Sound Designer” with his award-winning work on Star Wars. Before that watershed, no one had pushed the creation and development of sound to the extremes explored by Burtt. His work gave birth to a whole aural universe, complete with characters expressing themselves almost exclusively through sound effects — and that earned Burtt a Special Achievement Award at the Oscars ceremony of 1978. He then refined his art through several major projects, including The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and all three Indiana Jones movies. [Chewbacca growls]Since then, Burtt has gone on to explore much more than sound in the world of filmmaking, but fans will be glad to know that he is lending his special talent to Star Wars once more, as Sound Designer for Star Wars: Episode I.
Burtt left Lucasfilm in 1990 to pursue other interests as a freelancer: writing, directing, editing. Although he always kept in touch with his former colleagues — doing work on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, for instance — he never really came back to Luke Skywalker’s universe until Producer Rick McCallum asked him to sit in the Sound Designer’s chair again for the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition. “I was the only one who could remember where most of the stuff was, where the tapes were, what we had done,” he says with a smile. “It was exciting to go back and get in touch with the picture again, the old friends who were there. R2-D2, and the lightsabers.” Following the Special Edition project, McCallum made Burtt “an offer he couldn’t refuse” and so Burtt stayed on board for Episode I.
Even though he could draw from an extensive library of sounds, including those used in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies, for the Episode I project Burtt went out to record new samples. He also drew upon the large collection of sounds he has recorded during the last decade. In all his travels, from his back yard to the far reaches of an exotic country, Burtt has carried his recording equipment with him, capturing everything and anything on digital tape. “You have to be constantly ready,” he says, “because good sounds often come to you by accident: lightning storms, strange vehicle noises, glaciers breaking apart…it can happen anywhere.” These recordings, most of them never used before, have provided Burtt with fresh raw material to mold into new Star Wars sounds.
While creating innovative atmospheres, Burtt takes great care to stay true to the original Star Wars ambiance. “There are things we will reuse, of course,” he says. “We’ve got [Laser fight from Episode I]lightsabers, we’ve got lasers, we’ve got so many signature effects which reoccur in this movie, and I think it’s only appropriate to touch on those because they’re familiar to the fans.” Indeed, one of Burtt’s goals had always been to establish a set of sounds which could stand the test of time. “I think we’ve achieved that with Star Wars,” he says. “We’ve created a ‘world of sounds’ that’s coherent and can endure the passage of time…it’s been over 20 years, and Star Wars still has a distinct sound to it.”
One of those distinct and memorable sounds is the voice of R2-D2. “R2 was, on the first film, the most difficult sound project,” Burtt recalls. “He appears again in this film, and he is very much in character, as he always is.” The old lightsaber sounds also appear in Episode I, though Burtt is reworking them to fit the faster fighting sequences that take place in the new movie. Each of the new lightsabers will also have its own signature sound, slightly different from the others. “I always try to match the sound of a unique weapon with the personality of the character who wields it,” Burtt says. “The Jedi lightsabers have a warm, almost musical sound, while the villain’s lightsaber sounds a lot more dangerous and nasty, a little like a buzz-saw. It sounds like the guy who uses this is truly evil.”
These sounds have been assembled into a rough mix to accompany the rough cut of Episode I. “We’ve already got all the basic ships and explosions and ambiances in it,” Burtt says. “It’s a continuation of the pre-visualization process achieved through animatics, except it’s done with sound. ‘Pre-auralization’, if you will.” At first, all of the effects are temporary. Then, as the final sounds are developed and perfected, the trial sound effects are slowly replaced by their permanent, official counterparts. “On the first movie, we had several experimental mixes of the picture. They were all temporary versions, of course, and some of them were rather sloppy. But we could sit down and run the picture from beginning to end and, with sound added, it would seem complete,” Burtt explains. This process allows everyone to critique the film’s sound based on a close approximation of the final version.
The digital revolution has made manipulating sound and sound mixes much easier than it was when Star Wars began twenty years ago. “Since we’re working with computer files now,” Burtt says, “it’s technically easier to manipulate the sounds and move them around. Adding sound to a movie that’s still being edited is just like applying paint to a house that’s being constantly modified and rebuilt. If someone adds a balcony or removes a wall, you have to start over, and that’s the way it was with sound back then.”
But with today’s technology, the computer can keep track of everything, which makes such dynamic sound designing and editing less of a headache. “Now we can build a very complex temporary mix, which is so much richer and deeper,” says Burtt. The translation from temporary sound tracks to final mix has also become less problematic. “It used to be that when the final cut of a movie was decided upon, you would scrap the temporary sound mix and start building the final tracks. But now, you get to keep everything, because it’s all digital and can be handled much more easily. So I’d say roughly 80% of the temp mix will end up in the final one.”
However, all of these technological advances don’t necessarily mean that sound work is easier now than it was twenty years ago. “The creative process is just as big and just as hard,” says Burtt, “but technology allows a smaller crew to tackle the challenge, and to do it in a more effective way. The sound crew on Episode I is about a third of what it was on Return of the Jedi, even though the task is just as complex.” The extensive use of new technology allows for more freedom in the exploration and creation of sound, enabling the crew to concentrate more on art than on technical considerations.
Much of Burtt’s time lately was spent finishing the sound mix for the Episode I teaser trailer. Despite the fact that it’s much shorter than an actual movie, a trailer presents unique and interesting sound challenges. “During the last few years, the trend has been to build trailers with very short shots, tightly linked together, maintaining a very quick pace,” Burtt says.
“This trend is hard on sound, because while the brain can process visuals this way — a quick succession of different images — it can’t do the same thing with sound. Short samples of sound take a longer time for the brain to decipher. If they’re bundled together too tightly, they don’t make any sense at all.” The sound can’t be as choppy as the stream of images, but at the same time it must follow the action and move at the same pace. Burtt and his team strive to get just the right balance of clarity and speed. “The team is new, and we’re still learning to work together. We’re getting a sense of what we can do, what we cannot do, and just how far we can push ourselves before our concerted efforts start losing effectiveness. So the work we did on the trailer is a great shakedown for us. We’re sort of gearing up for the final mix of the actual movie.”
George Lucas has often said that sound is 50% of the movie experience, and Ben Burtt fully intends to continue pushing sound development to the limit for Episode I. “This film is so filled with activity, people, and places,” he says. “There’s always something going on in the foreground, the middleground, the background — even off-screen. It’s a wonderful environment in which to let the sound go wild, expand, and completely fill all this world.”