Ben Burtt

Ben Burtt (b. 1948) is an American sound designer, film editor, director, screenwriter, and voice actor. As a sound designer, his credits include the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ film series, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1978), ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982), ‘WALL-E’ (2008), and ‘Star Trek’ (2009).

Burtt is notable for popularizing the ‘Wilhelm scream’ in-joke and creating many of the iconic sound effects heard in the ‘Star Wars’ film franchise, including the ‘voice’ of R2-D2, the lightsaber hum, the sound of the blaster guns, and the heavy-breathing sound of Darth Vader. Burtt was also the sound editor for ‘WALL-E’ and performed the vocalizations of the titular character as well as other robots in the film.

Burtt has won four Academy Awards, two of which are Special Achievement Academy Awards. He has also directed numerous documentary films and was the editor of the ‘Star Wars’ prequel trilogy.

Burtt made films during his time in college, and in 1970 won a National Student Film Festival for his war film entitled ‘Yankee Squadron,’ reputedly after following exposure to classic aviation dramas. He had previously made an amateur film at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, a living aviation museum in Red Hook, New York, under guidance from its founder, Cole Palen. For his work on the special-effects film ‘Genesis,’ Burtt won a scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he earned a master’s degree in film production.

Burtt pioneered many aspects of modern sound design, especially in the science-fiction and fantasy-film genres. Before his work in the first ‘Star Wars’ in 1977, science-fiction films tended to use electronic-sounding effects for futuristic devices. Burtt sought a more natural sound, blending in ‘found sounds’ to create the effects. The lightsaber hum, for instance, was derived from a film projector idling combined with feedback from a broken television set, and the blaster effect started with the sound acquired from hitting a guy-wire on a radio tower with a hammer.

In the ‘Star Wars’ series, part of R2-D2’s beeps and whistles are Burtt’s vocalizations, also made using an ARP 2600 synthesizer, as are some of the squawks made by the tiny holographic monsters on the Millennium Falcon spacecraft. The heavy breathing of Darth Vader was created by recording Burtt’s own breathing in an old Dacor scuba regulator.

Burtt used the voice of an elderly lady that he had met in a photography shop for the voice of ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.’ The woman’s low pitch was the result of very heavy smoking, specifically Kool cigarettes. Burtt created the ‘voice’ of the title character and many other robots in Pixar’s film ‘WALL-E’ (2008), about a lonely garbage-compacting robot. Additionally, Burtt is responsible for the sound effects in ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ (2008).

Burtt has a reputation for including a sound effect dubbed the ‘Wilhelm scream’ in many of the movies he has worked on. Taken from a character named ‘Wilhelm’ in the film ‘The Charge at Feather River,’ the sound can be heard in a large number of films, including in ‘Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope’ when a stormtrooper falls into a chasm and in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ when a Nazi soldier falls off the back of a moving car.

One of Burtt’s more subtle sound effects is the ‘audio black hole.’ In ‘Attack of the Clones,’ Burtt’s use of the audio black hole involved the insertion of a short interval of absolute silence in the audio track, just prior to the detonation of ‘seismic charges’ fired at the escaping Jedi spaceship. The effect of this short (less than one second) of silence is to accentuate the resulting explosion in the mind of the listener. Burtt has recalled the source of this idea as follows: ‘I think back to where that idea might have come to me…I remember in film school a talk I had with an old retired sound editor who said they used to leave a few frames of silence in the track just before a big explosion. In those days they would ‘paint’ out the optical sound with ink. Then I thought of the airlock entry sequence in 2001. I guess the seeds were there for me to nourish when it came to the seismic charges.’

Burtt makes a cameo appearance in two of the ‘Star Wars’ films as an extra. In ‘Return of the Jedi,’ he appeared as Colonel Dyer, the Imperial officer who yells ‘Freeze!’ before Han Solo knocks him off a balcony. The scream as Burtt falls is his own imitation of the Wilhelm that he popularized. In ‘Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace’ Burtt appears as Ebenn Q3 Baobab in the background near the end when Padmé Amidala congratulates Palpatine.

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