You may not know what Ben Burtt looks like, but chances are you’ve heard him thousands of times over. Behind every rasp of Darth Vader’s breath, snap of Indiana Jones’ whip or bleep and whistle from R2-D2’s rusty innards lies one of the most influential movie sound designer of the last 30 years — a man whose voice and effects work comprises an iconic catalogue of popular American cinema.
As the sound artist on Pixar’s latest film, WALL•E, Burtt is more than just an audio effect — he’s integral to the soul of Andrew Stanton’s story, providing the distinctive, wordless voices of the robot hero and the gallery of mechanised characters around him.
After spending 28 years at Lucasfilm, did you ever think you’d be working with robots again?
When I finished the last Star Wars film three years ago, one thing I was relieved about is that I didn’t thin I’d have to do any more robot voices — ’cause they’ve always been tough — and so I thought that part of my career was probably behind me. But within a week or two of finishing Star Wars I got a call to go over to Pixar where Andrew Stanton pitched his idea for this film WALL•E, and of course what did he need—he needed a talking robot [Laughs]. So I was a little surprised by that, but the story was so charming and the energy that he put into the presentation to me was so persuasive that I joined up and came on to do the sound design for the film.
So you couldn’t resist?
I couldn’t resist WALL•E because it was just such an interesting story and I love the Pixar movies, having worked there before and respected what they did. So it was kinda the crown jewels of sound design because not only could I create sound effects for a science fiction world, which is always a fun challenge, but also create new voices as well. So it’s both sound effects and dialogue. It was really very exciting.
Have you kept in touch with Pixar over the years? You did the sound on The Adventures Of Andre and Wally B, back when Pixar was part of Lucasfilm…
Yes. Strangely enough I did the sound for the very first Pixar short, way back in 1984, which was The Adventures Of Andre and Wally B. My joke is that I only work on films for Pixar that have the word “wally” in them. That film was done a long time ago with a young animator named John Lasseter. It was basically about, I think, a one-minute film.
You said once that R2-D2 was the biggest sound design problem on the original Star Wars trilogy — because he had to act. Was WALL•E more of a challenge, given he has to carry the entire film?
Of course I was a little frightened by the size of the project, even compared to Star Wars. The robot characters in Star Wars usually weren’t the featured characters; they didn’t appear in every scene. In the case of WALL•E I had to create the voices of WALL•E and EVE and the Auto-pilot and M-O and all these other main characters, so there isn’t a moment during the film where the dialogue of the characters isn’t part of the storytelling. And it’s abstract sound as well, it’s not just straightforward words that we always understand. It’s sounds that communicate a feeling, so the audience can understand how our characters feel through their reaction to the sounds they’re hearing, rather than just being given little words as fact.
How did you actually create WALL•E’s voice — is it yours?
I did a lot of experiments to come up with WALL•E’s voice over a period of about a year, during the early development of the film. Since I was left alone in my studio most of the time to experiment it made sense to use my own voice once in a while when I wanted to find a method of treating the human voice to create a robot character. I did some experiments using my own voice which Andrew really liked, and we started putting some of those sounds in the edit of the movie as it was being developed, and they just stuck. It was a good enough concept that once we had done it for several months it just seemed obvious that I continue on providing the vocals for WALL•E. His voice is made up of sound effects and vocals — so there’s little whistles and there’s electronic sounds. Some of those are just done on the keyboard, some are little toys; blowing whistles and cranking little toy motors. It’s really an array of tings to give him a range of vocals, but when he says a specific word like “WALL•E” or “EVE” then it starts with my voice — although it gets highly processed along the way.
What about the other sounds in the film — didn’t you source them from junkyards?
Well, you know, in a science fiction film like this you end up creating a library of thousands of sounds. In fact I created more sound files for WALL•E than I did for any other feature film that I’ve ever worked on, because every moment you’re in an unusual environment with machinery or robots that needed sound. So the approach has always been to pretty much go out and record real things: real motors, recording toasters or electric toothbrushes, you know. There’s so many impacts or crashes in this film, with robots and other objects, so I went to a junkyard and also sent another recordist to a junkyard, where we just threw things around all day long, crashing one thing into another and picking things up and throwing them and building up a whole library of impacts. We did lots of field recording, and I would bring that material back into the studio and clip little pieces out of it and sample them and turn them into something different.
What’s the strangest place you’ve ever found a sound?
[Laughs] To me it’s not strange because I do it every day. I keep my ears open all the time. I was just in drug store buying something while I was on WALL•E and I heard a funny thumping sound, a throbbing sound, and it was actually a broken refrigerator motor where you get cold drinks. So I very carefully went back into the store and just opened it up and put my head inside with the microphone and started recording as if no one was watching me. [Laughs] That kind of stuff happens all the time, where I find something and I wanna document it when it’s happening because it’s not the kind of thing you’re going to be able to create in the studio. We used some shopping carts crashing in this film for something simple. There’s a little moment where WALL•E crashes into some carts, and I just went to the local grocery and put the recorder in the shopping cart. I took my daughter, who was 10, with me, so it would look like I was doing some shopping. We pretended to shop, but we were really banging the cart into things. So there’s all these little expeditions that take place; some of them are just done almost on the spur of the moment ’cause I hear something interesting and others are planned out.
Okay: is there a Wilhelm scream in WALL•E?
[Laughs] No. WALL•E is one of the rare films that I worked on in which I didn’t put a Wilhelm Scream. There just didn’t seem to be an appropriate place for it. The Wilhelm’s a whole other story; I’d have to tell you another time. Unfortunately there’s no Wilhelm in WALL•E.
First time ever?
Actually I did a film, a documentary on the Space Shuttle program and there was no Wilhelm in that. I couldn’t find a place for it — nobody screamed [laughs].
Originally published on Empire online