Exclusive: Ben Burtt's WALL-E Sound Masterclass

The world's most renowned Sound Designer teaches RT

by | July 18, 2008 | Comments

WALL-EBen Burtt needs very little introduction. The multi Award-winning Sound Designer, Director and Editor has been working in his field since 1975 and has created some of the most iconic movie sounds of all time. From Darth Vader’s breathing, to the crack of Indiana Jones’ whip, chances are if you heard it in a movie theatre when you were a kid it came from Ben Burtt’s sound desk.

WALL-E presents a new challenge for Burtt, as his sound designs are put front and centre, most noticeably as the voice of the titular robot himself. Exclusively for RT readers, Burtt explains the challenge of creating another personality-rich bot or two.

WALL-E

WALL-EThe fun of being a sound designer is always to create a world of sound and, especially if it’s a science-fiction movie, you get the challenge of really creating a whole world because most of the sounds you hear in the movie – from the ambiences, to the motors of the robots, to, in this film, the characters themselves – have to be created. You get to invent something that hasn’t been heard before. Of course, to some extent, it seems original, yet it has to be familiar enough that people know what it means. There’s almost that contradiction in the challenge for sound.

And that holds true especially for the voices, because Andrew Stanton, in the very beginning, wanted to convince the audience that the characters of EVE and WALL-E were machines, so they had to sound like machines. It’s not so difficult to create a talking machine, but usually they’re lifeless – there’s no soul to it. It’s a matter of coming up with a way of doing voices and collecting an array of sounds – of motors and other things – such that you give a character a sense of being alive; a soul, so to speak.

It goes back to R2D2, for me – problems I faced a long time ago – of trying to work out how to get the human element into it without making it too human and how to get the machine element into it without being too cold and impersonal. It’s a sort-of 50/50 blend.

WALL-E

A lot of the effects I produce are achieved either by going out into the field and collecting things – which is the majority of sounds of motors, jet planes and such which we can borrow, as it were, and twist around and use in the movie. And then other things, like props in the studio, can be controlled. This is particularly important in animation when you’re building up all these different elements, because you often want things you can control the timing of sound so that you can tailor it to the action of the movie.

We went to a number of different junk places – the movie needed so many crashes and impacts that we just threw things around all day. We’d pick up things like broken television sets and just toss them around and we’d get all different kinds of impact sounds.

A lot of the sounds aren’t changed a whole lot for those kinds of things, but in other places, sounds like the howling wind of Earth at the beginning of the movie – that’s actually Niagara Falls. If you run it through a reverb chamber and get a bit of feedback off the top of itself, just before the feedback becomes a howl you get that kind of sound. It’s kind-of a cold, icy, windy sound, but it’s really just the filtered sound of the Falls running.

Other sounds, like EVE’s laser for instance, are made by finding unusual sounds that most people wouldn’t hear in the course of their day. The sound of the laser is made by striking a very long Slinky. You stretch it out, and there’s a special way that you can impact it to get that sound travelling along the Slinky.

WALL-E

WALL-EIt’s similar to the blaster sound in Star Wars, but that was a very long cable attached to a radio tower. The same principal applies when you hit it – the sound travels along the wire and the high frequencies travel faster than the low frequencies so when you pick the sound up at the other end of it you get high, then middle, then low. You get a pass-by feeling to it.

I couldn’t use the Star Wars blaster, because I wanted to come up with something new, but I tend to think in the same terms – what does a laser sound like? I’ve already established it in Star Wars, so it makes sense to come up with a distant cousin for WALL-E.

There is a language of sound, and once you’ve established something it’s hard to approach it in a different way. The droids that came before us helped a lot in this movie!

I keep track of the number of sound files that we’ve made for the film, but it’d be hard to guess how many there are playing during any particular moment. We made something like 2,600 sound files, which is more than I’ve made for any single feature film that I’ve ever worked on, mainly because there was dialogue as well as sound to support. There was also a tremendous amount of development over the years and a lot of the dialogue changed, so that number includes sounds we didn’t end up using.

WALL-E

And the animation is so densely packed with action – there are so many things happening at any time and usually there’s a sound associated with everything. It’s easy to design one interesting sound but when you’ve got ten things happening at one time and they’re all there for fractions of a second, it gets difficult to orchestrate them and figure out the clarity. The mixture works very hard in the film to make something that’s coherent. It’s easy to make 2,600 sounds, but the next thing is to play them back in a way that makes some comprehension to the ear in the brain.

Ben’s contribution wraps up WALL-E Week on RT and sister site IGN. For a round-up of the special WALL-E features we’ve run this week:


WALL-E Week on RT and IGN

RT – Pixar’s and Stars’ Favourite WALL-E Moments

Sigourney Weaver, Angus MacLane, Ben Burtt, Jim Morris and Andrew Stanton share their most memorable moments from the film.

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IGN – WALL-E Explained

Get an insight into the animation process as WALL-E Directing Animator Angus MacLane.

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RT – Inside Pixar – A Photo Tour

Rotten Tomatoes’ cameras are given a look inside animation mecca as Pixar opens the doors of its Emeryville, CA campus to us.

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IGN – The Pixar Philosophy

Key WALL-E staff including Andrew Stanton, David DeVan and Derek Thompson tell IGN what it’s like to work at Pixar.

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RT – The World of WALL-E

To celebrate RT’s freshest film of the year, we bring together eight WALL-E crew to talk about the film’s journey from concept to completion.

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IGN – At the Heart of WALL-E

Director Andrew Stanton explains, in his own words, why the WALL-E experience has been a special one and how he crafted the film.

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RT – The Storyboards of WALL-E

Story Artist Derek Thompson gives RT readers an exclusive look at the storyboarding process on the film and shares some boards.

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IGN – WALL-E UK Review

Critic Anna Smith delivers her verdict on Pixar’s latest and adds to the film’s fresh Tomatometer…

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RT – Ben Burtt’s WALL-E Sound Masterclass

The world’s most renowned Sound Designer exclusively teaches RT readers the basics of building WALL-E‘s world of sound.


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