Sound Technician. Nationality: American. Born: Benjamin Burtt Jr., in Syracuse, New York, 1948. Education: Attended Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania, B.S. in physics; University of Southern California film school, Los Angeles, three years. Career: Assistant on several Roger Corman films; then sound designer for Lucasfilm: first sound engineering film work on Star Wars, 1977; also designed the Star Wars radio series sound. Awards: Academy Award, for Star Wars, 1977, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981, E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial, 1982, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989.
Films as Sound Technician:
Star Wars (Lucas)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg)
E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg); The Dark Crystal (Henson)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand); WarGames (Badham)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Spielberg)
Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (Lucas) (+ ed)
The Great Heep (Smith) (sc)
Blue Planet (d)
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (series for TV) (d)
Destiny in Space (d)
Young Indiana Jones and the Attack of the Hawkmen (d)
Special Effects: Anything Can Happen (d,ed, co-sc)
By BURTT: article—
Cinefantastique (New York), Spring 1978.
American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), August 1996.
On BURTT: article—
Mancini, Marc, in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1983.
Weaver, J.M., in Skrien (Amsterdam), February/March 1995.
Garcia, F., in Cinefantastique (Forest Park), vol. 28, no. 8, 1997.
Chiarella, Chris, in Films in Review (Denville), vol. 48, no. 1–2, January-February 1997.
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As head supervisor of Skywalker Sound (formerly Sprocket Systems), Ben Burtt is chiefly known as George Lucas's personal sound designer, creating the now telltale sound effects for Lucas's Star Wars trilogy. Equally impressive is Burtt's insistence on using original sounds, or distorting classical sounds through electronic processing. Rather than rely on stock sounds, computers, or synthesizers, Burtt finds his own sounds and reinvents them in the laboratory. This dedication to sounds discovered in the physical world leads Burtt to unusual sources. A Star Wars laser blast, for example, is Burtt tapping a radio wire in the Mojave Desert. The rolling boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a station wagon coasting down a gravel road. Animals are primary sources for a slew of creatures and machines: Chewbacca's growl, E.T.'s voice, and even a Star Wars TIE-Fighter derive from sounds of bears, seals, elephants, dogs, cats, badgers, racoons, lions, and walruses.
Burtt has few peers in his orchestration of jarring, realistic sound effects in large-scale action sequences: the truck chase in Raiders has more than 200 camera cuts, and Burtt's attention to nearly every detail—the loud crank of the truck's hood ornament as Indiana Jones pulls it off, the smash of a windshield as a Nazi falls through it—shows he is a precise, gifted editor. But his expertise is in science-fiction/fantasy pictures whose settings and characters are without "natural" sounds. The spacecraft and creatures out of E.T., Alien, The Dark Crystal, and the Star Wars films have no voice beyond Burtt's invention.
Rarely is a Burtt sound effect limited to one noise for one event; he prefers mixes—overlapping or sequential effects arranged in a sound montage. These montages vary in length from a split second (the Millenium Falcon's door opening in Star Wars) to several minutes (the birth of a pod person in Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Many of Burtt's assigned pictures have long passages without dialogue; the only sounds in these sequences come from Burtt and the musician (John Williams is a frequent collaborator), and to a large extent, Burtt's effects have to tell the story. Body Snatchers is a prime example: the exhausted heroes have to keep quiet to elude the pod people, who alert each other with a horrifying scream devised by Burtt—the only confirmation of their alien identity.
Burtt is especially adept at creating offscreen action with offscreen sounds. A scene crowded with chattering aliens and futuristic machinery (the cantina in Star Wars, Jabba's palace in Return of the Jedi, the holding docks in The Empire Strikes Back) depends on background noise for ambience and authenticity. In the Star Wars pictures, Burtt creates an intergalactic hubbub so busy and familiar it is irresistibly funny, if a little sophomoric: gluttonous monsters slobber and belch (see also—or hear—The Dark Crystal's infamous banquet scene); Jabba's palace minions hoot and holler at Luke's fight against the Rancor with catcalls, whistles, and yee-hahs; robots beep and argue in languages that need no translation. The background effects in Star Wars almost always suggest an Earthly setting, bridging Lucas's galaxy with our own through an aural similarity.
At times the offscreen sound effects provide more than mere background: they depict actions we cannot see, or supply information withheld from the camera. This dependence on the sound expert to "fill in" crucial elements absent from the screen is, of course, fiscally prudent: Yoda's resurrection of Luke's X-Wing Fighter from a bog in Empire is largely conveyed through close-ups of Yoda and a burbling, sloshing sound inserted by Burtt (as well as some stirring music by Williams)—a more cost-effective method than simply air-lifting the whole fighter. But the closeups and the sloshing are also dramatically effective: they leave more to the imagination. In several pictures, Burtt's offscreen montages heighten suspense or inject humor into a scene. They range from a quick fistfight in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—we hear an offscreen Indy punch out a Thuggee guard, who slides on-screen through a group of slave children who had been watching the fight with their mouths open—to Ripley's mad, prolonged scurrying through the corridors of the Nostromo in Alien, accompanied by endlessly overlapping hisses and shudders that both suggest and cloak the sounds of the monster chasing her. The Star Wars radio series, released after Jedi, owes its success entirely to Burtt's mastery of audio drama.
Given Burtt's painstaking technique, it's not surprising that he's a perfectionist who expects theaters to do justice to his effects. Dissatisfied with the poor quality of sound equipment in most theaters showing Jedi, Burtt designed a surround speaker system that more advanced theaters have adopted: all dialogue issues from two speakers in the bottom center of the screen, while a network of speakers all around the theater broadcast the more spectacular sound effects in digital stereo. Although the system is expensive, and not every film can benefit from surround sound—few films are on the massive scale of Lucas's and Spielberg's—a monotrack system quashes many of Burtt's compositions.
Perhaps disenchanted with most theatrical sound systems, Burtt has avoided the feature film industry in recent years, concentrating on such projects as 1990's Blue Planet, an IMAX film released only in those theaters equipped with IMAX screens two stories high. IMAX theaters are a sound expert's dream, featuring a multitrack, floor-rumbling speaker system more complex than Cinerama and twice as loud. A towering IMAX image from Blue Planet, coupled with pristine, undistorted sounds mixed in Burtt's laboratory, inspire awe in the audience, a response as rare as the talents worthy of evoking it. In terms of audio-visual extravagance, Burtt has broken the sound barrier.