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Ben Burtt Creates Sounds for an Alien World

[NOTE: This interview with took place in May 1999, a few weeks before the international release of Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace]

Forget about digital alien life forms and whole cities generated by computer: When Ben Burtt sat down to do his job on the new Star Wars movie, everything old was suddenly new again.

In 1977, he signed on as George Lucas' sound designer for Star Wars, creating R2-D2's voice by recording human baby talk, fooling around with it electronically, and using his music synthesizer to add the whistles and beeps.

And that's just what he did in Phantom Menage to revive the heroic little droid.

"It's a product of a very particular process which can't be substituted," Burtt said last week, by telephone, from his California home. "The new technology only allows me to edit Artoo's voice with greater flexibility."

It's not hard to find out that Burtt is 50 years old, a graduate of Allegheny College (Meadville, Pa.) with a physics degree, and the owner of four Academy Awards. The first two, for Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, are special Oscars because the fledgling title of "sound designer" didn't exist back then in competition. The others are for E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

What's not so commonly known is that Burtt's own singing, humming, baby talk and "Chip 'n' Dale-type noises" have always been the organic component of Artoo's voice. He used his own voice again for Phantom Menace, he says, because he didn't want to tamper with success.

While the special effects team for Phantom Menace created whole scenes and whole characters on computers, there's barely a sound in the movie that Burtt can't trace to something in the real world. His head is a library of sounds, and more importantly, he hears things that other people don't.

How do you invent the sound of jet skis piloted by airborne battle droids? You run an electric razor around the inside of a metal salad bowl. What should the wings of the hovering little alien creature Watto sound like? Burtt experimented with the sound of flapping cloth and leather, but none of it struck a chord. Then he recorded an umbrella popping open and speeded up the sound. Voila: Wings.

"The trick with Star Wars sound effects," says Burtt, "is always to use sound from the real world. But you have to alter it just enough so people don't quite recognize it."

A long-time aviation buff, Burtt goes out of his way to record airplanes, especially classic ones. A lot of those sounds make it into the movies. For Phantom Menace, he even got permission from Hughes Aircraft to record the Osprey, an experimental new vertical takeoff plane. He threw that sound into the mix of about 1,500 sound files he created for the movie.

Burtt can't really explain the genesis of his aural imagination, but he compares making sound to making music: You pay close attention to the world around you, then you sort of just hear it in your head. "Sometimes when I see images," he says, "I can hear in my mind what the sound might be. Then I have to search for something that fits that description."

That's about the best he can do to explain how he knew the propellers of a World War II fighter plane would eventually sound like a spacecraft, or how an Alaskan glacier breaking up and tumbling into the sea would sound like the spacecraft landing. Says Burtt: "There's rarely a sound [in the movie] that doesn't have a real or organic component to it."

Burtt also co-edited Phantom Menace with Paul Martin Smith and worked with a small team on "pre-visualizing" Lucas' script. (They created rough action scenes on a computer, then videotaped them and edited the footage for Lucas to examine.) He only truly finished tweaking the movie's final print on a Friday - 11 days before its opening. The following Monday - with time to himself, at last - he bought new shoes and new pants.

"I've been with these ideas for three years," says Burtt, weary from doing it and talking about it for so long, "since they were words in a script. Now I'm going back and relearning my life, like Rip van Winkle."

Read a review of Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace

Read a review of Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones

Read a review of Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith