The thrilling sounds of Star Wars

    Photo by Crosa CC BY

    While still a student at the University of Southern California, Ben Burtt dreamed of space. In 1975, his dream was destined to come true. But not thanks to NASA.

    Once, George Lucas, screenwriter and director, asked producer Gary Kurtz to find a student who wouldn’t have to pay a lot to start looking for sounds for a new film. Harry called the University of Southern California and asked if they had “future Walter Merch?” There they recommended Ben Burtt. “Most students wanted to be screenwriters or directors, but certainly not sound engineers,” says Burtt.

    At that time, Ben couldn’t imagine that the film “Star Wars” by Lucas and Kurtz would make all participants in the filming process Hollywood celebrities. However, he already felt that he would remember his first acquaintance with the film industry for a long time.

    Often involved in the filmat least three specialists on whom the quality of the sound track depends (in fact, there can be much more, or one person can combine work on various tasks). One of them is a microphone player who is responsible for recording sound during filming. Wielding a microphone, he records dialogs and everything that happens on the site. The second profession is a sound engineer. This person works with a collection of sounds recorded using a recorder. The third person is a dubbing sound engineer whose task is to bring all sounds, dialogs and effects into one final audio track.

    “Usually, all responsibilities are strictly delimited. If you are a microfonder, then you will not be involved in editing and editing, and the sound engineer will not be engaged in dubbing. I became an exception to the rule, ”Burtt recalls. - I needed to come up with a new term to describe my occupation, because I called myself "director of sound effects" (sound designer). Ben gave advice on where to find these or those sounds, searched and recorded them himself, and also was engaged in editing and mixing. “At that time, such a frequent change of roles was something unusual for me,” he said.

    At the very beginning, Ben askedGeorge Lucas, what movie do they make? Realistic, like the “Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick, or a film in which you can spit on physics and do whatever you like? Lucas replied that space would be accompanied by music, so you can do anything with sound. “We forgot about physics and decided that we will have sound in space - this made the film much more interesting,” Ben said.

    As a graduate of the university, Ben Burtt liked to use a systematic approach to solving problems. He asked himself: “If this object really existed, what sound would it make?” His task was to make the public believe that this object, vehicle, weapon or place actually exists. The best way to do this is to use the sounds of real objects.

    And now, armed with the Nagra mono recorder and the microphone that his new bosses provided, Burtt went to collect sounds for the various creatures and mechanisms that appeared in the script. “While they were making the film, I went to different places and looked for sounds. At the zoo, I wrote the voices of animals, and at airports - the sounds of engines and planes. “I even went to a military base, where I recorded the sound of machine gun firing,” Ben recalls. “One day I went to the Marineland Waterpark in Long Beach, California, in the hope that the walrus voice would be suitable for Wookiee.”

    “The sound of lightsabers is one of my favorite sounds. I did it first of all, despite the fact that at first I needed to come up with “voices” for Chewbacca and R2-D2, and only then work with blasters and everything else, ” saysBurtt. “As soon as I read the script and saw illustrations made by Ralph McQuarrie, lightsabers captured my imagination.”

    At that moment, Ben Burtt was still a final year student at the University of Southern California, where he worked as a projectionist. Very old spotlights were installed in that cinema that made an interesting buzzing sound. However, it was not enough - the picture was incomplete. A new sound was found by accident. “I went to the movie studio with a microphone when I walked next to the TV. The microphone was directly above the picture tube, and because of this, a very strange noise appeared - a strong buzz, ”says Burtt. - I recorded this buzz and combined it with the sound from the spotlight. So the sound of a lightsaber was born. "


    The main villain Darth Vader was described in the script as an evil creature connected to a life support system. At first, Vader turned out to be very “noisy”: he breathed loudly and creakily, like a windmill, and when he turned his head, you could hear the sound of mechanisms. This made him look too much like a robot, so I had to deviate from this concept. In the first test recordings, Dart sounded like walking resuscitation.

    There is an opinion that in order to record the sound of a blaster, Ben climbed the Golden Gate bridge and tapped on its tension ropes. Ben's father Benjamin Burtt Sr. saysThat is not true. In the 70s, they traveled to the Pocono Mountains, and Ben, as usual, brought along a Nagra recorder. “There was a radio tower on one of the elevations, we climbed there, and a couple of times I hit a stone on one of the cables,” recalls Burtt Sr. - At that moment, my son exclaimed: “That is probably what the blaster should sound like!” After this incident, Ben Jr. decided to record the same sound again, but already in California, when he found a suitable tower in the Mojave desert.

    “These findings made me believe that finding sounds is a real adventure,” Ben said. And he was right. At age 27, Burtt received his first Oscar for his achievements in creating voices for aliens, creatures and robots in Star Wars, a film that raised the bar of cinema to a completely different level.

    In the 90s, Burtt had the opportunity to return to the past. To the release of the movie Star Wars. Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the studio decided to restore the old trilogy. For example, in some places special effects were added directly to the film after completion of work, because several blasters and ships did not make any sounds. Ben Burtt says: “The Star Wars movie was the first major project I worked on, so I was glad for any result - but these shortcomings annoyed me a little.”

    Lucas, Burtt and the team compiled a list of changes and, "relying on records from twenty years ago and their memory," began to edit the soundtracks of the films. As usual, Lucas gave Burtt complete freedom of action. “Most of the sounds in modern films are just faded and inexpressive noise,” says Ben. “We tried to“ hug ”the audience with sound.” The original sound effects were digitized and processed in Digidesign's Pro Tools, but in order to add sounds to the film, the team had to literally cut and glue the magnetic tapes on which the audio tracks were recorded. “As for the music, we wanted to use the original recordings to preserve the feeling that John Williams’s compositions gave,” Ben says.

    Burtt is pleased that Star Wars has fundamentally changed the attitude to sound in films. “I worked and studied new things in a team with experienced sound engineers from Hollywood,” he says, comparing himself to the young Luke Skywalker in the audio world. “The result of our collaboration has shocked the world.”

    Since then, much has changed, but something has remained the same. “I still have my Nagra,” he jokes. - This is a very reliable recorder that refuses to break. I will use it for the rest of my life. ”

    PS More materials on the topic of music and audio technology - in our " World of Hi-Fi ."

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