Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ben Burtt & WALL-E: a legacy of sound effects creativity

MoviesOnline sat down with Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt at the Los Angeles press day for his new film, “WALL-E.”
I could reassemble the Wall-E vocals and perform it with a light pen on a tablet. You could change pitch by moving the pen or the pressure of the pen would sustain or stretch syllables or consonants and you could get an additional level of performance that way, kind of like playing a musical instrument. But that process had artifacts in it, things that made it unlike human speech, glitches you might say, things you might throw away if you were trying to convince someone it was a human voice. That’s what we liked, that electronic alias thing that went along with it, because that helped make the illusion that the sound was coming from a voice box or some kind of circuit depending on the character.  

When Wall-E is going fast, he needed something higher pitched and more energetic. Once again, I went back through my memory of things. I had recorded bi-planes a long time ago for Raiders of the Lost Ark. The old 1930s bi-planes have an inertia starter. It’s a mechanical crank that cranks the engine up. You do it by hand and then clutch – you connect it and it makes a wonderful whirring sound. So I thought I want to get that and do more with it. I couldn’t bring a bi-plane into the studio but on eBay I found an inertia starter, bought that again, and brought it in. So we built these props for many things. You know, it’s a tradition in animation to have sound effects machines. This goes back to the earliest days of Disney cartoons -- like wind machines and blowing machines and things like that. We actually built several things so we could perform Wall-E sounds that way. 

I also love the history of sound effects and there is a great opportunity working for Pixar and Disney because you’re in touch there with a legacy of sound effects creativity that goes back into the 1930s. They used to build all kinds of machines. There is a machine that does flying insects, there is a machine that does a talking clock spring. They’ve got an archive of these machines out there in Burbank and I love that and I look at what a sound effects man does and I love the table top props and things like that. It’s the style.

[read the full interview:]

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