Ben Burtt – Sound Designer

Ben Burtt is a prolific sound designer who has worked on the sound design of the majority of Hollywood movies. He has worked on movies such as: Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Wall-e, E.T, etc. The list goes on!

Some of his most notable work is that on the Star Wars movies for which he designed the sound for R2D2, the light sabre and the voice of Darth Vader. Until 1977, science-fiction films tended to use electronic-sounding effects for futuristic devices. Burtt sought a more natural sound, blending in “found sounds” to create the effects. The lightsaber hum, for instance, was derived from a film projector idling combined with feedback from a broken television set, and the blaster effect started with the sound acquired from hitting a wire on a radio tower with a wrench.

Ben Burtt also repuditely designed the “Wilhelm Scream”. The sound can be heard in countless films: for instance, in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope when a stormtrooper falls into a chasm and in Raiders of the Lost Ark when a Nazi soldier falls off the back of a moving car. As my students say to me, once you have heard the scream once, their is no escaping it, it appears everywhere.

One of Burtt’s more subtle, but highly effective sound effects is the “audio black hole.” In Attack of the Clones, Burtt’s use of the audio black hole involved the insertion of a short interval of absolute silence in the audio track, just prior to the detonation of “seismic charges” fired at the escaping Jedi spaceship. The effect of this second or less of silence is to accentuate the resulting explosion in the mind of the listener. Burtt recalled the source of this idea as follows:

“I think back to where that idea might have come to me…I remember in film school a talk I had with an old retired sound editor who said they used to leave a few frames of silence in the track just before a big explosion. In those days they would ‘paint’ out the optical sound with ink. Then I thought of the airlock entry sequence in 2001. I guess the seeds were there for me to nourish when it came to the seismic charges.”

One of my favourite films that Ben Burtt worked on was the Pixar movie, Wall-E. Wall-E is a really different kind of kids animation, in that the first 45mins – 60 mins does not have any dialog. ALL of the first part of the movie is based primarily on Sound Design. To engage not just the average listener, but to the younger audience, and keep them engaged for that period of time with no dialog is pretty amazing. The documentary below covers the sound design for Wall E and some of the history of sound design at Disney. Ben Burtt is a major influence on my work.

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