Ben Burtt Interview, Wall-E
interview by: Sheila Roberts
MoviesOnline sat down with Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt at the Los Angeles press day for his new film, “WALL-E.”
“WALL-E’s” expressive range of robotic voices was created by Burtt, whose memorable work includes creating the “voices” of other legendary robots, such as R2-D2 from the “Star Wars” films. Drawing on 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 spacecraft, as well as all environments.
Burtt is an accomplished filmmaker who has served as film editor on a vast array of projects. He began his work with director George Lucas in 1977 as sound designer of the original “Star Wars,” earning his first Academy Award.
Ben Burtt is a fabulous guy and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about his latest movie:
Q: Clearly one of the challenges in voicing a character like Wall-E is not to do R2-D2, but there was a little R2-D2 in there, wasn’t there?
BEN BURTT: Well, the challenge of doing robot voices – Andrew (Stanton), if he’d wanted to, I suppose could have hired actors and had them stand in front of a mike and recorded their voices and dubbed that in over character action, but that would have of course not taken the whole idea of the illusion very far. What he wanted was the illusion that these robot characters, the speech and sounds they made were really coming from their functions as machines, that there was either a chip on board that synthesized the voice or the squeak of their motor would sound cute, and that would give an indication how they feel. The problem does go back, for me, to the sort of primal R2-D2 idea, which is how do you have a character not speak words or, in the case of Wall-E, just a very few words, but you understand what is going on in their head and they also seem to have a depth of character.
The trick has always been to somehow balance the human input to the electronic input so you have the human side of it. In this case, for Wall-E, it ended up being my voice because I was always experimenting on myself sort of like the mad scientist in his lab, you inject yourself with the serum. After weeks and months of experimenting it was easier to try it on myself as we worked it out. You start with the human voice input and record words or sounds and then it is taken into a computer and I worked out a unique program which allowed me to deconstruct the sound into its component parts. We all know how pictures are pixels now and you can rearrange pixels to change the picture. You kind of do the same thing with sound.
I could reassemble the Wall-E vocals and perform it with a light pen on a tablet. You could change pitch by moving the pen or the pressure of the pen would sustain or stretch syllables or consonants and you could get an additional level of performance that way, kind of like playing a musical instrument. But that process had artifacts in it, things that made it unlike human speech, glitches you might say, things you might throw away if you were trying to convince someone it was a human voice. That’s what we liked, that electronic alias thing that went along with it, because that helped make the illusion that the sound was coming from a voice box or some kind of circuit depending on the character.
So it is a matter of that relationship, how much electronic, how much human, and you sway back and forth to create the different sounds. A great deal of the sounds, for him as well as the other characters, are also sound effects which are chosen to go with the robot’s character. Wall-E has lots of little motors and squeaks and little clicks of his hands and those are all mechanical sounds that come from many, many different sources. The idea is to orchestrate all those little bits of sound to also be a part of his character so he can cock his head and look at something and you can hear a little funny squeak and in a way it’s an expressive sound effect. So that is important too. It was really that array of sounds that were used to define each character.