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His most famous creations are the sound of the lightsabers in Star Wars and of the speeder bikes as heard in Return of the Jedi. Now he has added another unforgettable voice to his collection, that of the little robot, WALL-E. Ben Burtt speaks - with his own voice - to Andrew L. Urban.

Perhaps ironically, Ben Burtt has ended up voicing WALL•E himself – but of course it’s synthesised and tweaked. It came about as a result of simple expediency. “I was experimenting with sounds as we were developing ideas for the film, and there was the issue of WALL•E having to speak some words at least... I work alone so there was only me and I wasn’t going to hire an actor to play around with a few words, so I recorded myself half speaking half singing [he mimics WALL•E’s childlike wail] “wall-eee”.

Burtt put it into his computer and synthesised the output using a unqiue mini-musical instrument he devised “like a pen, which responds to pressure. I could give it a quality the human voice could not, and we added motor sounds and so on.”

"an innocent appeal"

The importance of Burtt’s role cannot be understated. The filmmakers were not at all overconfident about the project’s potential. It had many risky elements as a big budget movie: In 2700, after hundreds of years doing what he was built for, WALL•E, short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth class, discovers a new purpose in life (besides collecting knick-knacks) when a sleek life-seeking robot, EVE (voice of Elissa Knight), is delivered to Earth by a spaceship, dispatched by the automated system aboard the Axiom – where humans have been existing in a peculiar state of robot-assisted daze for 700 years. EVE comes to realize that WALL•E has inadvertently stumbled upon the key to the planet’s future, and is sent back to space to report her findings to the mother ship – to advise that it is safe to return home. Meanwhile, WALL•E chases EVE across the galaxy.

“They felt that if I could come up with something … sounds, voices … that it might help.” It did, and confidence grew.

That, of course, didn’t happen overnight. It came as the result of a nine month development period in which various voices and sounds were tried and tested for the film. “I usually have a visual reference to start with, a drawing or at least a script, and the director’s briefing,” says Burtt. “We had various prototypes, some made up of bleeps, other collected from toys … I wanted to find something with an innocent appeal.

But there was one thing he didn’t use in WALL•E; the so called ‘Wilhelm scream’. Taken from a character named Wilhelm in Charge at Feather River, the sound can be heard in Star Wars when a stormtrooper falls into a chasm in the Death Star, and in Raiders of the Lost Ark when a Nazi soldier falls from a moving car and a lot of other movies. With his acute attention to sound in movies, Burtt first heard it in a movie as a kid. “I’d hear it repeated in other movies, and when I was at film school, with Richard Anderson [another highly respected and successful sound engineer], we used it in our student films – and then as the years went by and we were both making films, we’d try and top each other with the Wilhelm scream. But nobody noticed – until the internet, and people started talking about it, and then started charting it … other people would start to use it as a sort of badge of being a professional sound engineer.”

He inserted it in the final mix in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull - but no Wilhelm scream in WALL•E; “I felt it was time to move on, so I put in something else, to best Richard,” he boasts with a laugh. “Let’s see who will find it…”

"multiple Academy Award winner"

Burtt also created many of the languages heard in Star Wars - most of which are marked by shared etymological roots with English - and has written Beeps, Bleats and Boskas: The Star Wars Intergalactic Phrasebook and Travelguide (Ballantine Books 2001).

The multiple Academy Award winner joined Pixar Animation Studios in May 2005. Burtt began his work with director George Lucas in 1977 as sound designer of the original StarWars, earning his first Academy Award - a Special Achievement Award. He joined Lucas 20 years later to supervise the sound work on the Star Wars Trilogy (Special Edition).

Burtt also won an Academy Award for his work on E.T The Extra-Terrestrial. Drawing on his 30 years of experience as one of the industry’s top sound experts, Burtt was involved from the film’s earliest stages in creating an entire world of sound for all of the robotic characters and the space craft, as well as all environments.

Although he admits that his wife sometimes tells him that he’s too boring, too serious about his work, he likes to think he’s been a fun dad. He collects sounds, and his 11 year old daughter Emma is happy to oblige. “The other day she was playing with some playdough and as she squished it, it made a funny sort of farting noise, so she brought that to me to record and store. All our three children would bring me sounds ... they feel involved. I think they enjoy the fact that their dad makes monster sounds for a living.”

Published September 18, 2008

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