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October 02, 2012

Ben Burtt on the sound of ‘Raiders,’ ‘ET’ and Spielberg’s inspiration

Posted in: Movies

Ben Burtt (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

The last few weeks have been a real and vivid trip down memory lane for Oscar-winning sound designer and sound effects editor Ben Burtt. The man who created the hum of the light saber, Darth Vader’s ominous, synthetic breathing and even the languages spoken by various “Star Wars” creatures is celebrating a new look at some other of his landmark cinematic achievements. He restored the sound for Steven Spielberg’s classic adventure “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for last month’s Blu-Ray release of “Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures,” and his handiwork also is on display in the upcoming 30th anniversary Blu-ray  release of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” (Burtt created the voice for Elliott’s otherworldly best friend for Spielberg’s beloved family film from a recording of his wife sleeping while she had a cold.)

Burtt earned Oscars for special achievement for sound effects editing for “Star Wars”; for special achievement for sound effects editing for “Raiders”; for best sound effects editing for “E.T” and for sound effects editing for 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” He’s also received six additional Oscar nominations including one for best documentary short for 1996’s “Special Effects: Anything Can Happen,” which he directed. The 64-year-old is still moving at a breakneck pace. He recently completed the sound design for Spielberg’s upcoming historical epic “Lincoln,” due in November, and is now working on J.J. Abrams’ highly anticipated “Star Trek” sequel.

Burtt recently spoke to Hero Complex contributor Susan King on the phone from George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch about all this activity.

HC: The stories are legendary about how you created the unique sounds for “Star Wars,” and the same holds true with “Raiders.” I read that a Honda played a key role in the sound of the runaway boulder in the movie’s opening sequence.

BB: The rolling boulder was one of the little sounds we got stuck on for a while. What could it be? [Sound re-recording mixer] Gary Summers was my assistant back then and we used to come out to Skywalker Ranch every afternoon and record sounds for “Raiders.” We would do gunshots and we would do explosions and we worked on the boulder. We rolled things down the hills out there–we got rocks and rolled them and nothing really seemed right. But one afternoon we were coming down one of the hills here in a little Honda Civic station wagon that belonged to the sound department. We were coasting on the road that had big rocks–sort of baseball size rocks.  There was this great crunching and rumbling of a sound with the car moving over the rocks. I thought, My god that could be the boulder! We had our gear with us, so I just hung out the back of the car and recorded where the tires rolled over the rocks–no motor–and that became the basis for the boulder.

Indiana Jones flees from a giant rolling boulder used to safeguard an ancient temple in a scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” (Lucasfilm)

HC: For the Blu-ray release of all of four Indiana Jones films, you restored the sound track for “Raiders.” What type of shape was it in?

BB: I had seen “Raiders” in the theater in the last year. They were celebrating the 30th anniversary. Seeing it on the big screen, not only was it exciting, I also noticed some things about the sound that was not entirely updated in terms of how we could present the film today. The technology of playback in theaters has changed since 1981 and “Raiders” was suffering a little bit from being a little too old. There were some things about the mix that I had some questions about. Some things didn’t sound quite like how I remembered them. It occurred to me there was a master mix recording of the film from 1981…that hadn’t been used since back then. Everything we had [heard] on DVDs and laser discs and VHS had been derived from copies of copies of things. That original master had been left alone sitting in the vault. I had this idea that maybe we should listen to that one and see how it compared to the current versions of the movie.

HC: What was that like?

BB: We played it up here at the ranch and we were impressed that the original recording sounded noticeably better because every time you copy things there is always a little bit of degradation. This original master really impressed us. [So we said], Let’s adapt it and remaster it. There were a few places of the movie where we had added and changed a few sound effects over the years and added extra things that weren’t in the original mix and we added those back in.

HC: Was “Raiders” the hardest of those four movies to work on?

BB: All four films have been in relative terms…the process has been a smooth one compared to other movies. I think it has a lot do with the scripts and the way they were directed and edited. They come together very precisely so there’s not many changes. The stress hasn’t been quite the same. I have always found plenty of inspiration to make things.

HC: You’ve worked with Spielberg for more than three decades, most recently on “Lincoln.” What makes him such a great collaborator?

BB: He is full of ideas and has precise ideas of what he wants. You get immediate inspiration from him. He gives you feedback. If  he likes something, he will get excited about it. He is well-organized and has precise ideas of what he wants. We usually don’t backtrack and do things over and over again. It is an efficient process. He loves movies and his general working style provides inspiration for the rest of us. We can get caught up in that same passion. We can be pushed to deliver things to fit his vision. It’s a very positive, optimistic atmosphere working on those films.

HC: “Lincoln” must be the complete opposite of the Indiana Jones adventures in terms of sound design.

BB: Unlike an Indiana Jones film, it was not a film thick with noise and layers. It was a film where you build things up. It was filled with subtleties all the way through.

– Susan King

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