Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Layers of Sound

Ben Burtt reveals some of the Episode III's sound secrets.

"From the beginning of the first Star Wars film, George Lucas always encouraged the sound development to start in pre-production," says Ben Burtt, Sound Designer and Co-Editor of Revenge of the Sith. "That way, sound is being talked about when you first see the artwork, and sound effects and concepts for sound are there from the beginning as the films were shot. Once the film is being edited, sound is put in right away." Though that is the tradition with Star Wars movies, the standard Hollywood model had been to scramble to develop sound deep in the post production period. "In that case, there may be only a short amount of time left to work out all of the concepts; but for us, the sound has really been developed over a long period of time."

Like many elements in Episode III, the sound design is a mix of new and old as the Star Wars saga bridges together, and the prequel trilogy segues into the classics. Burtt was very much cognizant of that as he began putting together elements for the opening space battle. "I knew when those ships came in that they were going to be the new Jedi starfighters, which were related to the TIE fighters from A New Hope. I felt the sound should have some continuity, so I started working with the old TIE fighter sounds and adding NASCAR sounds to it to develop something that would hint at the direction of the technology."

Burtt describes there being about a thousand different sound projects for the film, not including foley effects like footsteps. In addition, the sound crew also provided performances both large (Matthew Wood as General Grievous) and small (Burtt as the Niemoidian captain). "We're a small operation, a sound crew of 9 people, so we tend to use ourselves as characters," says Burtt. "Matt and I played in the recent films probably about 30 or 40 incidental characters -- battle droids, Nemoidians, Gungans, Utapaun pit crews, R2-D2, all kinds of robots, and we've enjoyed that because it gives us the feeling that we can really put our performances into the film."

Since the first Star Wars, Ben has been the "voice" of R2-D2, combining synthesizer and organic sounds with his own voice to create the distinctive beeps and boops of the beloved astromech droid. "We revived some of our old equipment for this film," he says. "We pulled out an old ARP synthesizer from under my house, and it was all moldy. Howie Hammerman, our engineer, got it working again so we did lots of new Artoo for this."

The combination of many disparate and sometimes surprising sound sources has been a Ben Burtt trademark, and it continued with this final installment of the saga. "You look at General Grievous' wheel bike, and it's nasty, loud and dangerous. I thought a chainsaw would be perfect," says Burtt. Likewise, the low rumble of the very first Star Destroyer we see on screen is actually the filtered sound of Niagara Falls. And the sound of Vader's heartbeat while he is undergoing his final transformation into a Sith Lord who is more machine than man?

It was a sonic boom emitted by the space shuttle, as heard in northern California.

[source: 'Homing Beacon" #156, the official newsletter]

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