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Ben Burtt answers questions about sound design of Star Wars

Q: When you watch a movie for the first time, are you constantly paying attention to the sound design or editing, or can you just enjoy it as a movie?

A:  I think I can enjoy it just as a movie unless I know the person who did the sound, then I am often aware of the work unless it is truly a superior film and I am completely drawn in.

Q: When Anakin goes to see Watto in Episode II, there's a weird bubbling sound effect in the background. What is that?

A:  That sound is boiling liquid nitogen recorded in my father's chemistry lab.

Q: Why was there no "breathing" at the end of Episode II like there was at the end of Episode I ?

A:  The music in Episode II ended differently than in Episode I, and the juxtoposition of breathing seemed improper for the mood.

Q: When Luke is dropped on the ground by the Tusken Raiders in Episode IV, I swear I've heard that crunchy gravel sound before. Where is it from?

A:  That is an old body fall effect used in many movies since the 1940s. You can hear it in some Bogart films like Passage To Marseille and many westerns.

Q: What animal sounds were used to create the roars of the acklay, nexu and reek?

A:  Some dolphins and pigs were used, but actually a main component for both the acklay and the reek were made by dragging a huge wooden palette across the sound stage floor in Sydney.

Q: Why was Obi-Wan's "You haven't learned anything, Anakin..." line outside the nightclub cut from Episode II? I remember seeing it in the trailer.

A:  George Lucas made that decision. He was trying to reduce the contentiousness between the two Jedi at a tense moment when they were supposed to be chasing Zam rather than having a personal moment.

Q: Do you have a favorite sound effect?

 My favorite sound is the "Robin Hood Arrow" from the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood. I have many favorites. I could write a book on the ones I love and their stories.

Q: How did you decide to give Zam Wesell's speeder that howl? Is it based on its look? Where did that sound come from?

A:  The howl of Zam's speeder was produced with an old electric guitar. I play drums in a church band and I asked guitarist Dave Weaver to make the sounds for me one day after practice. I chopped the sound up with a synthesizer program and ran it through an old time spring reverb system. The idea was to produce a sound as if Zam's speeder were not rocket-powered, but ran on some sort of magnetism, perhaps in a field produced by the automatic Coruscant traffic control.

Q: Who's voice was used for Darth Vader in the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back? I'm talking about the part when he says "Alert my Star Destroyer to prepare for my arrival."

A:  That was James Earl Jones. The line was recorded for A New Hope but never used.

Q: During the meeting with the separatists, Wat Tambor fiddles with one of his dials and makes a noise that sounds like it's from the Q*Bert arcade game. Is this an inside joke, or mere coincidence?

A:  This sound must be a mere coincidence. I made it using a vowel generator in a synthesizer device called the Kyma.

Q: I noticed that the Slave I sounds different in Clones and in Empire. There was an overlapping low whine that wasn't present in Clones. Is there a reason for this?

A:  I expanded the library of sound for Slave I in Clones because the ship did a lot of new things. I used the sounds from Empire as a foundation, and made new sounds that would connect with the old.

Q: I think the whine you refer to was a sound I made on a trumpet for Slave I taking off in Empire. That sound, also combined with a Doppler pass-by of the horn from my old '71 Dodge Duster was not used prominently in Clones and you probably missed it.

A: I certainly tried to tie both old and new all together.

Q: When Zam Wesell falls prey to Jango's dart, she utters words in her native language which sound suspiciously like Sebulba's word for "slimeball". Do my ears deceive me?

A:  Zam speaks Huttese at this point and the word "Slimeball" is indeed correct. For a full translation of the line see my book Star Wars Galactic Phrase Book and Travel Guide.

Q: When you're editing and things are cut and moved around, is it difficult to get the pre-recorded music to sync up?

A:  The picture cut of the movie is always changing sync until the very last moment before release. Most often, the music is written and recorded for an earlier version of a scene than what appears in the final cut. Ken Wannberg, John Williams' music editor, has the difficult task of recutting the music to refit the new sync. This can be an extremely difficult job. He is the one solely responsible for making it fit after the fact.

Q: Why was Plo Koon and Ki-Adi-Mundi's commando raid on the Droid Control Ship cut from the final edit of Attack of the Clones?

A:  The attack on the Droid Control Ship was filmed and edited together, but never completed with final special effects. A Jedi attack force battled its way up the ship's ramp, through doorways, down halls, and into the bridge of the ship. The scene was filled with much swordplay and stunts.

The sequence was dropped from the cut because it added another story to be intercut with what already was becoming too complicated and time consuming for the climax of the movie. Including the sequence also meant time needed to set it up and resolve it while the arena battle and the Clone War land battle proceeded simultaneously.

There was lots and lots of material in each one of these sequences that needed to be trimmed. There was lots of Jedi action in the arena fight dropped, more Jango and Mace, and even at one point a battle in space with the Droid Control Ships.

All of these would have been great to see, but choices have to be made for the priorities of the storyline.

Q: Do I hear the voice of Qui-Gon Jinn shouting, "Anakin, Anakin... No!", in Yoda's apartment after Anakin attacks the Tusken Raiders?

A:  Yes indeed, the voice that Yoda hears is that of Qui-Gon Jinn.

Q: The sound produced by the seismic charges were simply awesome. How did you get that "twang" sound?

A:  I prefer not to discuss in detail this sound at this time. After all, can't I keep a few secrets?

I will say that this is something I've wanted to do since A New Hope, we just never had a sequence which allowed the explosion to be featured in a way that I could exploit the idea of delayed sound in space... what I call an "audio black hole", an explosion so cosmic that the energy of the sound is unable to escape at the time of ignition, but is released a moment later.

I originally made a variety of similar noises for what I called "Space Ether Explosions" for A New Hope. I used them as experiments, especially for exploding TIE fighters in the scene when Han and Luke are in the gun turrets. They were mixed into a scratch mix for the sequence, but George Lucas did not like them so I halted research.

Now, many years later I revived the idea using some new material and it seems to have found its place. 

Q: Darth Sidious' holograms have different distortion sounds from the rest. Do holograms have personality, just like different Podracers? How was this created?

A:  I tried to make the hologram sounds relate to the character they depicted.

The Sith hologram tonality is partly made on an electronic synthesizer. Two low frequency sine waves of nearly the same frequency are played at the same time. The slight difference in frequency produces a phenomena called beats (you learn about this in Physics class). The result is a wavering up and down in pitch of the sound. I also mixed in some short wave radio sounds that you can hear between broadcasting stations. This is one of my favorite sources of sound. Finally I added a very very slowed down sound of a jet plane firing a Vulcan Cannon, an electronically driven machine gun that fires 100 bullets per second.

Q: Have the tasks of Sound and Editing enabled you to overlap skills and concepts?

A:  Filmmaking is the blend of many skills and processes. I started out with an interest in writing, directing, music, special effects, sound, and editing. All of these tasks overlap and interrelate. I learned over many years of sound how to enhance drama with layers of sound. Now as a picture editor, I am asked to enhance drama with layers of images. The process of building up a complete dramatic sensation with sound is the same one I apply to picture editing. The key element in filmmaking is the juxtaposition of sound and picture elements to produce a desired emotional response in the audience.

I am really fortunate that Star Wars offers me the chance to straddle both disciplines. It is not the norm.

Q:  I loved your Star Wars language book. Do you think that you'd like to pursue writing in the future?

A:   I love to write. If I was able to earn a steady income as a writer (I have two children in college) I would do it. I have several script and novel ideas I would love to pursue. I would really like to write a book on the history of sound effects in motion pictures, with the emphasis on the aesthetics and language of film sound, and a detailed account of my adventures in sound design over the past 25 years. >> Star Wars Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide

Q: Now that everything is digital, why do you still talk about editing and completing specific reels of the movie?

A:  It is hard to let go of some traditions.

However, for organization reasons, we still break the movie into segments, or reels, because most storage systems, even digital ones, would be sorely taxed by having to hold all the picture and sound data for a two hour movie at one time and still run quickly and smoothly.

In addition, the film will still be printed in the lab in reels and shipped to the theater in reels. Film rolls, or reels, cannot be made spliceless in sizes much greater than 20 minutes in running time. The theater recieves the individual reels and the projectionist still splices them together into one big platter.

Q: What sounds, if any, from the classic trilogy could be re-used for Episodes I or II?

A:  Obviously certain reoccurring characters such as Jawas, Tusken Raiders, and Artoo can be reused but added to as necessary in the new episodes. Jedi lightsabers, many lasers, and some environments like Tatooine can be "recycled" where appropriate. However, I am always getting new sounds and new ideas as I go along, and each film adds hundreds of new sound effects. I hope to keep expanding the sonic lexicon already built up over 25 years of sound design for these films.

Q: Are "natural" sounds easier to find and work with than those made from scratch digitally?

A:  I prefer to record natural sounds as the basis for the audio in the Star Wars universe. Real "organic" sounds bring credibility with them. I try to create something that sounds "familiar" but unrecognizable. This gives the characters, vehicles, and objects the illusion of reality.

Q: How did you decide on the "personality" of the different engine sounds for each Podracer? What real-world noises did you use?

A: I definitely try to give each vehicle a personality. I consider the pilot of the craft and whether I want the audience to like or fear a certain ship or character.

A pod sound can be powerful, angry, comical, smooth, cool, hip, old-fashioned, goofy, or dangerous. I try to make a sound that will relate to that type of coloration. Pod sounds were made from race cars, boats, warbirds, electric tooth brushes, shavers, motorcycles, rockets, and helicopters.

Hear Sebulba's Podracer!

Q: What sounds were used to create Chewbacca's famous voice?

A:  Mostly bears, with a dash of walrus, dog, and lion thrown in.

Hear Chewie roar!

Q: What process is used to create the languages for the different alien species?

A:   The process is very complicated, but I usually start by finding a rare language that appeals to me and has the character of the alien species I'm working on. Inspired by the real language with all it's cultural signifigance and detail, I write out in phonetics the sounds which are the essence of that language. I then work with actors with special vocal talents and record them mimicking my "sound-alike" phrases. Often I process and combine their sounds with animals if need be to give the desired effect.

Q: I've been wondering for 20 years: How are the various lightsaber sounds made?

A:   The lightsaber was, in fact, the very first sound I created for A New Hope. Inspired by the McQuarrie concept paintings, I remembered a sound of an interlock motor on the old film projectors at the USC Cinema Department (I had been a projectionist there). The motors made a musical "hum" which I felt immediately would complement the image in the painting. I recorded that motor, and a few days later I had a broken microphone cable that caused my recorder to accidently pick up the buzz from the back of my TV picture tube. I recorded that buzz, and mixed it with the hum of the projector motor. Together these sounds became the basis for all the lightsabers.

Q: When creating engine sounds, such as the hyperdrive engine for the Queen's ship or the submarine, do you base these sound designs in physics or simply come up with something that sounds 'cool'?

A:   I earned my degree in Physics, so I invariably begin my imaginings of sound on a scientific basis. At first, I may often reason a sound out on the basis of scientific fact, in the end I will make my choice among the possibilities subjectively, not objectively. After all, I put sound in the vacuum of space! Now that violates the laws of physics. I guess I made a good choice, otherwise I would be out of a job.



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