AV Analysis – Ben Burtt and the sounds of Wall-E

Wall-E Individual

A major influence on some of the techniques that I tried in the macrocosm project were inspired by the Hollywood sound designer, Ben Burtt. In particular 2 movies sprung to mind when creating my project; Star Wars and Wall-E. Star Wars due to the technique Burtt used to create more perceived impact from explosions for the audience, which I have talked about previously and the overall sound design and techniques that were used in the creation of the film, Wall-E.

Wall-E stands out for me due to its reliance purely upon sound design for the narrative, in particular the first 45 minutes, which feature no dialog, only the robotic characters sounds are used to bring the visuals to life and tell the story. To engage an audience (in particular, a young audience) for that period of time and draw people into a story with believable characters is quite an impressive feat.

The majority of sound effects and ambience within the film have been recorded on location and edited and combined with other sounds in post-production to create the unique sounds of the characters. Burtt has put a lot of thought into the sound design, alongside the director Andrew Stanton. Each sound has a meaning and intention; whether to convey a character like Wall-E’s emotion through a variety of mechanical sounds or to create the sound of rocket engines launching from the surface of the planet. Each sound was recorded individually and combined to fit with the timing of the image to convey the characters expressions and story.

Burtt was influenced by early Disney cartoons and the art of performing sound with image as they did (in the case of Disney, using musical instruments and custom-built devices). To create the sound of a character like Wall-E, Burtt combined a wide variety of sounds recorded on location, such as: machinery, cogs, a plane starter motor, engines and other old mechanical equipment. These were recorded, edited and sampled, and in some cases performed alongside the image.

To create other sounds like the rockets on a spaceship and windy planet atmospheres, Burtt recorded a sack being dragged along the carpet and used thunder sheets to create rumbling sounds of engines. To combine these sounds and engage an audience in believable characters and locations is very impressive. It crosses the boundaries between Foley, sound design and composition.

I drew inspiration from Burtt’s ethos and technique of recording sounds on location. A major focus of macrocosm was to record as much of my own original material as possible for the project, combine these sounds into something new and attempt to draw listeners into a different world. Burtt succeeds in doing this in Wall-E. You forget while watching the film that there is no dialog for the first part of the movie because the sound effects are used to create a dialog of sorts. The sound design and creation for Wall-E took two years, and for me is one of the best examples of sound design.

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