Bob Thompson: Bet on Burtt to get the right Wall-E sounds
Posted: July 03, 2008, 4:15 PM by Bob Thompson

[Video: Ben Burtt and Andrew Stanton discuss the sound design in WALL-E]

Wall-E (review) director Andrew Stanton knew exactly what he was doing when he hired Ben Burtt to do the sound for Wall-E, the latest Pixar animated love story and environmental cautionary tale. The movie has earned great reviews and was number one at the box office with an opening weekend take of more than $60 million.

That’s good news for everybody, including Burtt. But Burtt has been associated with hits before. The 59-year-old is a renowned four-time Oscar winning sound engineer who has set a high standard for more than three decades. “I knew what it meant to get him,” says Stanton. “He’s part of an amazing history in movies and I wanted and needed that for Wall-E.”

And while the great result for Stanton and Wall-E has a Pixar stamp on it,  there is no question some of the success is thanks to Burtt’s expertise. That’s especially notable during the endearing sound conversations that take place between the robot Wall-E and the probe Eve which count as the movie’s pivotal opening sequences.

Not surprisingly, Stanton played off the familiarity of Wall-E’s electronic dialogue with Eve’s beeps reminiscent of more than few Burtt sound classics.

Stanton says that Burtt worked on sounds for the Wall-E voice for over two years by electronically distorting Burtt’s own voice for the required effect. For Wall-E’s movement, Stanton says Burtt used sound from a hand-cranked generator and an inertia starter machine that helps manually crank prop planes.

He’s the same guy who created the computerized vocal signaling of robot R2-D2 in the Star Wars films, which managed to tread the fine line of expression and automation. He also formulated the light saber sound effects by mixing noises from his TV set with an old 35mm projector.

The heavy breathing of Darth Vader came from Burtt recording his own breathing in a scuba regulator. Chewbacca’s guttural roar was a combination of bear, lion and walrus sounds that Burtt painstakingly recorded and meshed into one.

For his efforts (notably on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, including in Indy 4) Burtt is the go-to guy. He has been awarded two Oscars in sound editing; for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, not to mention two special achievement awards for sound editing in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He has also earned sound editing nod for Return of the JediWillowIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and a short subject documentary nomination for Special Effects: Anything Can Happen.

“His genius is using complex recordings to get simple but dynamic results,” says Stanton. “Whatever he does, he comes up with the sound that always seems appropriate.”

-- Bob Thompson

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