Jun 22, 2008

The sound of silence

The sound-man on the new Pixar movie, WALL-E — about a robot janitor left behind on a junkyard earth — is Ben Burtt, who did the sound on Star Wars. If the imaginative triumph of Star Wars was to usher us into a wholly foreign universe that felt instantly familiar, even nostalgic, then Burtt deserves a large portion of the credit. He was still a graduate student at USC at the time, tinkering around with the old Simplex projectors one day, when he noticed "a wonderful humming sound. It would slowly change in pitch, and it would beat against another motor, there were two motors, and they would harmonize with each other."

It was very close to a sound he'd been hearing in his head ever since Lucas first gave him the script. While recording it, he accidentally walked his microphone around the back of a TV set, picking up a strange buzzing sound.
He ran the two tones together through a speaker, then got a second microphone and whipped it by fast, to get a Doppler effect and presto: he had the sound of a lightsabre, slicing through the air.

WALL-E the robot is, for the most past, silent.
“We all thought about Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton,” Burtt tells the NYT, “this energetic, sympathetic character who doesn’t say a whole lot." There are echoes of E.T.’s "throat-singing" to the minimal sounds he makes, and when Wall-E moves, the sound comes from a hand-cranked, World War II Army generator that Mr. Burtt saw in a John Wayne movie, then found on eBay. I'm not normally envious of other people's jobs but concocting sounds for imaginary future technology strikes me as an endlessly satisfying line of work.

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