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Despite all the technological wonders at the disposal of today’s sound designers, most sound effects begin their life as recordings of organic sources. In order to record sound for special scenes in Episode I, Star Wars veteran Sound Designer Ben Burtt and Recordist Matthew Wood invited a group of “vocal extras” to become an alien community for one night.
Computers and synthesizers are powerful tools, but a finished sound effect is seldom purely artificial: most of the time, a “real” sound is first recorded, then modified using computers and synthesizers. Even the voice of R2-D2, a mechanical droid character, was achieved through the combination of electronic tones and human vocal chords.
For Episode I, Ben Burtt faces new challenges. Particular scenes require particular effects, and his vast sound library is not always enough to answer every need. “In every movie,” says Burtt, “there are always a few scenes or elements that can’t be matched to anything you have in your sound library, because they’re so specific. You have to go out and record entirely new samples.” Some of these specific sequences in Episode I involve environments where many alien creatures will be present together, and a convincing “crowd effect” needed to be created. To that end, Burtt assembled a group of “vocal extras” on January 14th for a special project.
This group of fifty was brought together in the Stag Theater at Skywalker Ranch, where the acoustics are especially suited to this type of “atmosphere” recording. Burtt proceeded to seat his volunteers properly so that there would be no gap in the sound field, and gave them some advice on how to avoid making accidental noises during the recording. “It’s amazing what the microphone can pick up,” says Burtt. “The rustle of a leather jacket, the soft clinging of two rings touching each other, the jingling of earrings – everything.”
Then Burtt started turning the group into an audio sample from planet Tatooine. For each take, Burtt explained the effect he was looking for, how he wanted to achieve it, and gave specific directions. “Imagine you’re in a busy marketplace on a foreign planet, and you hear all sorts of alien creatures around you, discussing among themselves, bartering for an item, or telling jokes…” The performers would improvise an alien language of their own and get going, chatting with their neighbors and exchanging words no one could make sense of. Some individuals particularly educated in Star Wars lore even spoke a few words of actual Huttese, the language used by the crime lord Jabba the Hutt. “Everybody gets to be the sound designer tonight,” says Burtt with a smile. However he adds a warning: “It’s important not to use English at all, or any other real language, because actual words might be recognized. We need something totally alien for the background crowds – the movie doesn’t take place on the planet Earth. Huttese is welcome, of course.”
Gesturing like an orchestra conductor, Burtt directed his choir: more or less volume, a calmer ambiance, an electrified atmosphere, and so on. Using the final sound effect in his head as a guide, Burtt was effectively starting to mold and sculpt the sounds during the recording process itself. Burtt tried several different things, from having just one row of people perform, to sweeping across the group with his hands and making the “aliens” speak up in sequence. “I try to get a variety of audio textures and different depths,” Burtt says. This way, Burtt will be able to combine different samples together and obtain just the right effect for every scene. “We did go out and record a crowd during a football game,” says Burtt. “We collected good recordings, which will be used to create the backdrop to a massive crowd setting. But this procedure only gives you a generic crowd ambiance. For more specific material, you have to use a smaller, directed group, like this.”
The alien assembly went from one take to the other, speaking a thousand tongues and uttering mysterious words. “Picture yourselves with scales on your back or webbed feet…Imagine you’re at a big sporting event and that something awful just happened on the field…Imagine that you’re in your alien home village, and that something unexpected suddenly caused total panic…” Like a painter, Burtt splashed colors here and there, slowly creating the aural portrait of a breathing, living alien community. Building the same effects from scratch with a computer, using, say, one voice multiplied 50 times, would have been much more complicated and time-consuming, and might never have achieved the same convincing, organic effect. Also, the physical presence of the performers produced genuine interaction, which helped to create the illusion of a true group of aliens gathered together.
“At the end of the evening, I had a very good collection of samples,” says Burtt. “Some of that stuff is excellent, with fascinating textures and true alien environments. It will add important coloration to the final mix.” As the imaginary languages faded and the performers reverted to English while leaving their seats, the Stag Theater kept within its padded walls the echoes of an ephemeral alien community that won’t speak again for several months, until Episode I reaches the screens in spring of 1999.