Multiple Academy Award winner BEN BURTT (WALLE/M-O/Sound & Character Voice Designer) joined Pixar Animation Studios in May 2005. A 30-year veteran and an accomplished filmmaker, Burtt has written, directed and served as film editor on a vast array of projects.
Burtt began his work with director George Lucas in 1977 as sound designer of the original "Star Wars," earning his first Academy Award - a Special Achievement Award. He rejoined Lucas 20 years later to supervise the sound work on the "Star Wars Trilogy" (Special Edition).
In addition to his work on the "Star Wars" films, Burtt has worked on many film and television projects. He has won Academy Awards for Best Sound Editing in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and for Best Sound Effects Editing in "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Burtt has also been recognized for his work with a number of Academy Award nominations including Best Sound in "Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi," Best Sound and Sound Effect Editing in "Willow," Best Sound Effects Editing in "Stars Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace," and as director of "Special Effects, Anything Can Happen," Best Short Subject Documentary.
In addition to his Academy Award wins and nominations, Burtt has also been awarded a British Academy Award for Best Sound in "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back," a Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Effects Editing in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and a British Academy Award nomination for Best Sound in "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace."
Sound designer Ben Burtt was the man hired to come up with the voices for WALL·E and all the other robots in the film, a task to which he brought considerable experience, having created the voice of R2-D2 in the Star Wars series and winning an Academy Award for his work on E.T The Extra-Terrestrial. "The challenge on WALL·E," Burtt says, "was to create voices that don't sound human but still allow audiences to relate to the robots with the intimacy and affection they'd feel for human characters." Here Burtt, who's a four-time Oscar-winner, explains how he got the job done.
Q. You're credited as the sound and character voice designer on the film. Is there any easy way to explain exactly what you do?
A. Yes, my job was to invent every sound you will hear in WALL·E except for the music.
Q. So are you involved early in the film's production?
A. I started three years ago and all we had then were drawings and paintings. Andrew [Stanton, the writer-director] would describe the different characters and how he thought they should sound and I would go away and work on things, then the animators would create an animation to fit the sound or I would come up with a sound to fit a drawing, so everybody influenced everybody else.
Q. Given the scope of a film like WALL·E, is it a dream project or one long nightmare?
A. [Laughs]. A dream come true, because I like creating a whole world of sounds from scratch and I like challenges, and there's nothing harder for any sound designer than creating voices. It's one thing to do sound effects like explosions and laser guns, but people don't use the same part of their brain to respond to a sound like that. We're very attuned to voices and we can tell if they're fake. So if you're doing a voice that belongs to robots or aliens it can't just sound like a machine with no personality, but it shouldn't sound like an actor behind a curtain either. R2D2 from Star Wars is a case in point because the thing with R2D2 was that we had to understand what he was thinking and what his emotions were without him using ordinary words. The same goes for the robots in WALL·E.
Q. So where do you go looking for the right sounds?
A. You want sounds that seem right for each character's function and design and personality. WALL·E is a piece of industrial equipment, so lots of his sounds are just old motors we gathered from all over. We would go around and record everything, from household appliances to old adding machines. For the treads of WALL·E's tires and the sound of him moving I bought an ex-army electric generator that you hand-crank, the sort used in World War II to generate power for radios in the field. You get ideas wherever you can. I heard that generator in an old newsreel movie and it just seemed right.
Q. How about EVE, the high-tech droid WALL·E falls for?
A. She's very sleek. She floats and her parts are held together with some sort of magnet, so I tried to give her a more magical and more musical type of sound, like a humming and somehow enchanted. In contrast to WALL·E, most of EVE's sounds were created in a synthesizer. Another avenue of our research was to look at the technology that is currently available to synthesize voices. For instance, for the character of Auto, who's the spaceship's autopilot, we used a program that allows you to enter text into a computer and convert it into sound. I had a special version of the program that allowed me to manipulate the sound by hand, and I could even input my own voice. It was like playing a musical instrument in a way and the result is a combination of my performance and the computer.
Q. Technologically it must seem a world away from Star Wars…
A. Yes, because in the first Star Wars we were in a world of analog and mechanical recordings. We didn't have the flexibility you have now to cut and paste and do all the things you can do with a computer. It is far more efficient now, but that doesn't mean it's easier, because what you end up doing is setting the bar so much higher.
Q. All in all, between the characters and the effects, do you know how many sounds you created for WALL·E?
A. Yes, about 2,400 and that's more than I have ever made for any film before, including the Star Wars movies, which usually had about 1,000 sounds each. And there are so many unusual things in WALL·E: nothing is conventional and every character has sounds associated with their movement or their voice.
Q. Do you have a favorite sound?
A. [Laughs]. That's a tough question. If we talk about the voices alone, I am very pleased with how the voices of WALL·E and EVE have come out because they are a nice blend of something that is electronic - which is their machine aspect -and something emotional.
Q. How about the film as a whole? Are you pleased with how it turned out?
A. Absolutely! The nice thing about WALL·E is that there are so many fresh ideas in it. I don't think there's ever been a film like it. It's got a great story to it and there's a lot of adventure, but it's also charming and romantic and emotional and personal, and it's not about war in space, overcoming evil or saving the world. I really hope audiences will connect with it because there are so many films out there that are dark and destructive, and they may have wonderful craftsmanship to them, but they don't add anything to my life. I like films that have hope and that are decent and ultimately uplifting in some way, and WALL·E is all of those things.
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