Highlights from a Discussion with Ben Burtt

Pete Vilmur | May 26, 2007

Ben Burtt hardly needs an introduction for most fans attending Star Wars Celebration, but just in case you’re one of the few who doesn’t wait through the end credits of a Star Wars movie, we’ll fill you in.

Ben Burtt is the legendary sound designer for all six Star Wars movies – creating such iconic sounds as Artoo’s characteristic beeps and whistles, Darth Vader’s menacing rasp, and Chewbacca’s unforgettable howl. And that’s just three from the thousands of sounds Burtt has created for the Star Wars movies as well as the Indiana Jones saga.

Host David Collins invited Burtt to his Celebration Theater today to discuss some of the legendary contributions the sound designer has made to the Star Wars saga. Fittingly, Burtt came dressed in his original Star Wars crew t-shirt from 1976. Here are some of the highlights:

Voicing Artoo

“Artoo was a difficult problem. In the original script, it didn’t really tell you what Artoo would say or how he would speak. With Artoo it had to be a sound which implied the information and had the emotional content but were not words as we know them. At first I made a lot of electronic sounds with a synthesizer keyboard, and the results seemed kind of sterile – Artoo didn’t to seem to have a soul. What ended up working was to combine the electronic element of the keyboard which gave a machine-like quality and then add to it the human performance which ended up being me since I was available. [Artoo’s voice] is not actually recorded in real time – I do it slower at a lower pitch and then speed everything up. But out of that process came the idea that you can shape a performance with the intonations of sounds, like a little baby or a toddler who hasn’t quite learned to talk but can communicate a great deal of feeling without actually knowing the words.”

Duke Garindan

“I always wanted to do an insect man – we didn’t really have an insect man come along until Poggle the Lesser [from Episodes II and III]. We had that character that looked kind of like a mosquito from the first Star Wars [Garindan] that we found we needed a sound for. And I was wondering back a few months ago how I did it – because I keep notes and tapes – and I discovered it was an electronic buzzing which had come off of my synthesizer that was triggered by a human voice. And I listened to it and realized it was John Wayne – I had found some loop lines in the trash from the studio that had been thrown away. So the buzzing was triggered by some dialog like ‘All right, what are you doin’ in this town’ or something like that.

Charge of the Clones

“We tried this experiment in Attack of the Clones where we had these sonic charges in space. We were fooling around with that in the mix, and at first it was a joke, but I thought I’d try having silence for about a second and then delay the sound to give it scale – like the lightning occurring before the thunder. It worked great and reminded me that if you want something to have impact, you’ve got to design for it.”

Accidental Shooting

“Most of the good sounds have been accidents. The guy-wire, which became the basis for all the stormtrooper laser guns, was an accident. I was hiking with my family on vacation and we were going over the top of a ridge in Pennsylvania in the Pocono Mountains under a radio tower with guy-wires. My pack caught on the wire and plucked it as we went by, making this great sound. So I went back to California and auditioned guy-wire towers all over until I found the one that gave the most interesting sound.”

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