Wars: a new sound
by Robert Cashill
Ben Burtt returns to the Jedi to blast the trilogy's audio into hyperspace for 90s audiences
When Ben Burtt picked up his undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Southern California, he dreamed of joining the space program. In 1975, he did. But not NASA's.
"George Lucas, the writer/director, asked Gary Kurtz, the producer, to find a student somewhere who didn't cost very much to go out and collect sound for the film they were developing," says Burtt, who cobbled movies together as a hobby and received a scholarship to study at USC Film School when one of them won an award. "Gary called USC and said, `Do you have any prospective Walter Murches there?' And they recommended me, because I did have a great interest in sound. Most students wanted to be writers and directors, not sound people."
Burtt had no idea that the film Lucas and Kurtz were a year away from shooting, Star Wars, would catapult all associated with it into the front ranks of the Hollywood stratosphere. But, as he finished up his master's degree, he had an inkling that his first brush with Tinseltown would be a memorable one. "Gary said, We have a character called a Wookiee, and we'd like to create a voice for it--can you work on it?" And I said, `Okay.' I didn't know what that was, but at my next meeting with them, they showed me a wall of Ralph McQuarrie's conceptual art for the film, and I was completely knocked out. I said, `All my life I've wanted to see, let alone work on, a film like this.' I loved Flash Gordon and other serials, and westerns. I immediately saw the potential of what they wanted to do."
With a 1/4" mono Nagra tape recorder and a microphone supplied by his new bosses, Burtt went into the field to round up sounds for a melange of creatures and mechanical effects called for in the script. "They went off and shot the movie, and I traveled around to zoos doing animals, and factories and airports doing various kinds of airplanes and jets, and out to army bases to record machine gun fire," he recalls. "One time I went to Marineland down in Long Beach, CA, to record a walrus for a possible Wookiee effect. Its pool had been drained for cleaning--the walrus was stranded at the bottom, moaning--and that was the sound! Finds like this made me realize that there would be a lot of adventures to be had in sound and sound collecting."
There would be indeed. At the age of 27, Burtt collected his first Academy Award, a special achievement honor for the alien, creature and robot voices in Star Wars, the movie that blasted the film medium into hyperspace. Seen today, its credits read like a who's who of top industry personnel, including Don MacDougall, Ray West, Bob Minkler and Derek Ball, who collected their own Oscars for the sound design of the movie.
If you've been anywhere near the orbit of North America this year, chances are you revisited Star Wars and its companions, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and seen those credits writ large once again on the big screen. International engagements are also reintroducing the Star Wars trilogy, freshened with newly-created CGI effects and soundtracks, to audiences eagerly awaiting the next batch of films, which are scheduled to lift off in 1999. The re-release of the movies gave Burtt, who supervised the sonic redesigns, a chance to revisit his youth, and fix it, too.
In the 20 years since Star Wars, Burtt has added three more Oscars to his shelf (for sound effects editing on Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and a total of seven nominations. By the time this issue goes to press, he may have copped another win, for his direction of the Imax film Special Effects in 1996. Burtt worked full-time for Lucasfilm until 1990, and has since freelanced, with Imax (on films like Blue Planet and The Dream is Alive) but also for his old Jedi master, for whom he directed episodes of TV's Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
When The Force came calling again two years back, Burtt and a staff of 10 hunkered down for months of 12-hour days at the Skywalker Ranch in Northern California, to reinvigorate the sound of Star Wars for contemporary movie theatre technologies. The film was the first ever recorded for Dolby stereo, but the introduction of digital formats like DTS and SDDS left Star Wars, and its sequels, sounding comparatively tin-eared in the 1990s.
With his varied, and bustling career, Burtt doesn't go on many sonic expeditions these days. But his first order of business on the revised Special Edition trilogy was to create new "Huttese" dialogue for the surprise appearance of Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars, create a squishy sound for his movements (a garbage can stuffed with wet towels did the trick), then piece the scene together with the animators. 'We've never given credit to the performer who does that voice, whose pitch is lowered with a harmonizer," he laughs. "I like Jabba just to be Jabba. But I can tell you that my 12-year-old son, Ben, is in a Jawa costume for the new scene at Mos Eisley. All three of my kids have adjusted to what Dad does for a living; they're used to me dragging them out to work and recording them when they had colds or flus if I needed a beastly sound."
The restoration of the Star Wars films was a family affair for Lucasfilm personnel, many of whom had worked on the films originally. The movies had been upgraded to THX home theatre standards for video-cassette and laserdisc earlier in the decade, "but we had to take those restorations much further for movie theatres."
A priority goal was to bring out from the original mix other "beastly sounds," as well as music cues, dialogue, and effects, that Lucas wanted to highlight this time around in the trilogy. "There were three different mixes of Star Wars that were on exhibition in its original release that we had done at different times," Burtt explains. "One was a Dolby Stereo, for the 40 US theatres equipped for it at that time, one was a six-track 70mm version, and another was a conventional mono. Because you had to perform the mix over again for each one, you would do things differently, just by chance, and also by design. George would have a new idea, and we'd change a lot of dialogue, or we'd add something. There were actually a few places where special effects shots were added to the negative after we finished the mix; there are laser bolts that we'd never cut sound for, and a few spaceships, because those shots came in so late they didn't get any sound put to them. There are some minor flaws like that, nothing that really affected the story--Star Wars was the first major film I had ever worked on doing the sound, so I was thrilled by almost anything that came out of the mix--but they nagged me."
Lucas and Burtt and his team prepared lists of changes and, "using our 20-year-old notes, and our memories of what we wanted in the first place," went about amending the soundtrack. "We created the surrounds all over again, so that we could take advantage of the split surrounds that we now have. We were able to extend the high- and low-frequency material, as it can be played back in theatres now, so we could add more subwoofer to the rumbling spaceships or explosions, and attain a higher fidelity in the music and so on."
As is his usual practice, Lucas gave Burtt a free hand to make his enhancements, with input as the restorations progressed. The one requirement was to add to, but not alter, the much loved adventures. "A lot of sounds in movies nowadays are just a lot of noise, with nothing standing out with any sort of real character," he says. "In looking at Star Wars, we were amazed at how articulate the final space battle was, years later. We didn't do a lot to change that, except adding subwoofer material to the explosions. Where we had spaceships flying past the camera, we added the sound of them continuing into the surround speakers; we brought the sound off the screen and into the room more than the original movie. There was an attempt to spatially envelop the audience, but there is a limit to what you can hear and what will work."
Propelling Star Wars into the 1990s meant relocating original sound elements from the 1970s--not an easy task. "Star Wars required a tremendous amount of work, because the quality of a lot of the recordings was marginal, and some of them had not withstood the test of time, and we just managed to get them to sort of work," Burtt says. "Archivally, the film was not well-organized. Everything had been kept in a Skywalker Ranch warehouse, but some of it was thrown into piles and we had to do a bit of digging. There was a great number of people, including myself, getting dirty as they crawled around the archives, up on shelves and under boxes, reading old faded labels. We did manage to find everything, but it was a trial."
The other two films required less spadework, reflecting in part the vastly improved fortunes of the Lucas empire post-Star Wars. "Not only had we learned a lot from doing the first film, but when we went around to do Empire, we were more prepared to handle the duplication and mixing processes. By the time we did Jedi we had our own facility in Northern California, so we had more control over the quality of the sound than we ever had. Both were much better inventoried on digital storage mediums--you could practically send strangers into the vaults to find things--and, technically, each one of the tracks got to be a higher-fidelity recording and ultimately, a better mix," Burtt says. "On Star Wars, everything--music, dialogue, effects--was combined into one master recording. You had to undo it and make changes with surgical precision. But on Jedi, we had separated stems: Music was separately recorded from dialogue and from effects, so if we wanted to change something independency of one of the other elements, we could do it."
The renewed films were edited with Pro Tools [R] digital audio workstations (DAWs) from Digidesign. "We took our original sound elements and digitized them, then put them into the Pro Tools to do any editing we wanted to do. Because all the tracks for Star Wars were on magnetic film from the old days, we had to do a lot of cutting and splicing of film, not the editing and manipulation of today. Some elements we didn't put into the computer; some we just used as film elements." The original 35mm music transfers, for example, were recut on a Moviola, "because we wanted to go back to the original recordings where we could to save generations and preserve the original feeling of John Williams' scores."
A master mix, in the 5.1 format ("which has all the different channels you could have") was generated for each film. Consultants from SDDS, DTS, and Dolby Digital then helped monitor and adjust the mix for each specific format. Eventually, it's showtime, preferably in a theatre that meets Lucasfilm's rigid THX standards for sound delivery, as more and more do. "In the studio, in 1977, it sounded great, but chances were 1-in-50 that it would sound that good in a theatre at that time. It was exciting for all of us to re-release the films to theatres now, as we knew we could have a much greater chance of the sound playing a larger role in the presentation of the film."
Burtt is pleased that part of the Star Wars legacy was to revolutionize film sound. "I hadn't worked in stereo; I hadn't worked in DolLy," he says of his own tribulations as a rookie Luke Skywalker in cinema audio. "We were working with experienced mixers and sound editors in Hollywood, and they had very little stereo experience and no Dolby noise reduction experience, either, so we were all learning. But what we ultimately achieved shook things up tremendously. Suddenly people saw a whole new area of creativity that had been laying fallow, and now Hollywood could have a fresh new playground to be creative in."
Much has changed, but some things have stayed the same, as Burtt prepares for preproduction of the new Star Wars films, and develops an Imax film about the mystery and excitement of sound. Y still have my Nagra," he laughs. "It's a completely reliable piece of equipment that refuses to break down. I'll continue to use it until someone arrests me."
Skip Lievsay, partner in C5 Inc., a New York sound production company for motion pictures, eschews the currently trendy title "sound designer." Sometimes directors ask him to take it because, as he says, "I think there's a certain perception that if you have a sound designer, the sound is something special." But he feels that it is important to understand and respect the heritage of the term. "People like Walter Murch on The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, and Ben Burtt on Star Wars, had a really huge input and impact on the movies," says Lievsay. "Next time I work on Star Wars, I'll consider taking the credit, but until that day I'm happy with supervising sound editor."
Yet that is no small thing--as supervising sound editor, Lievsay is responsible for more or less all of a movie's post production audio track, including sound effects, dialogue editing, Foley recording, and final mix. Only the music is left in other hands. What the sound editor is typically given is a picture with periodically inaudible dialogue, inadequate audio accompaniment to everything from footfalls to gunshots, and zero atmosphere. "The majority of the work is fairly subtle, mostly atmospheric stuff like footsteps and traffic sounds," says Lievsay. "It's just providing an overall sense of realism."
Then there are the more elaborate projects, movies that require "non-literal" sounds. Such a project is Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black, the film Lievsay is working on this spring, and which Columbia Pictures will release in July. The futuristic story is of two government agents, played by Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, who track and contain illegal aliens--in this case, the unearthly kind. As Lievsay and other C5 employees work on the soundtrack using the latest in digital editing technology, Industrial Light & Magic is completing the $90-million movie's digital imagery. "We have aliens and saucers and spaceships and these huge beasts in the end," said the sound editor in February. "We've been making sound effects, two of us full-time, for four months, and we have another three months to go. It's our biggest project ever--when we started working, there were 75 or 100 things we had to create that were totally non-literal."
Not that the company wasn't ready. Since starting C5 in 1989, Lievsay and his co-founders Ron Bochar, Philip Stockton, and Bruce Pross have aggressively overseen the transition from linear to digital technology. In its two-floor midtown Manhattan headquarters, the company has integrated the capabilities of Synclavier RAM-based samplers, which make digital recordings by converting analog audio into data representing frequency and volume, and Avid platforms, which use a Mac interface to store the data in a file folder and reproduce the sounds along with picture.
With this technology, the sound editor says, "You can change the speed data is played back, you can play back several pitches at the same time, or you can bring back two samples at a very, very close pitch. The beauty of it is that you can have several samples, and you can edit them together." At any of 30 workstations, ranging from small monitors to big-screen editing suites, the data can be called up by name--"jet takeoff' or "elephant roar," for example-and combined, sequenced, and matched to picture, with the assistance of Avid Audio Vision or Sonic Solutions software.
"It's a workstation kind of world," says Lievsay of his company. "This is a major advancement--picture and track together on one machine. In New York, a couple of years ago, many people were still working on magnetic film, and in one year, we completely changed to workstations." Ironically, though most of the major sound editing work for Hollywood features is done in California, Lievsay says the changeover there has been far slower. "People on the West Coast have invested in magnetic gear and they don't want to switch," he says. "Most of them still work on Moviolas."
Lievsay remembers well what that was like. When he was cutting the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona, for example, "I took recordings on 1/4" tape, locked the door at Sound One for three weeks, and produced all the sound effects. I would take the mags and mix them together on a two-line recorder, transferring all the sound and building piles scene by scene. I gave the piles to the editors, and they built them into reels. In New York at the time, there were few sound houses the way there are in California. I would get a job, hire my crew, and rent spaces. I saw that it would be much more efficient to have my own gear, so I bought some dubbers and tape machines and stuff like that, and would lug it to whatever room I was editing in. The reason we made this company was to have this gear in the hands of the editors, so we could compile our stuff ourselves."
Sound editing was not a craft Lievsay came to directly. Aspirations to being an architect fell by the wayside in recession-afflicted 1970s New York, but a friend got him a job as an assistant on a low-budget feature. "I worked on the movie from the very beginning to the very end, every part of it," he recalls. "I also worked on the editing, and got a very good overall feel of what that was all about. We edited at a rental house that no longer exists, and I worked there for a while doing TV versions of United Artists films and Saturday Night Live commercial parodies. And I made a rather shrewd assessment of the possibilities--there was far more work for sound editors than there was for picture editors. Picture editors tend to be a force of one over a long period; sound editors tend to be a force of a dozen over a short period."
In the early 80s, Lievsay had the great fortune to hook up with the tyro filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen on their first feature, Blood Simple. That low-budget thriller went on to play at the New York Film Festival, enjoy a healthy commercial run, and attract the attention of Martin Scorsese, who hired Lievsay to supervise sound editing on his movie After Hours. Both Scorsese and the Coens became regular clients, helping the sound editor to compile credits like GoodFellas, The Age of Innocence, and Casino for the former, and Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, and Fargo for the latter. "Those two contacts just kind of legitimized everything," he says. Lievsay has also supervised most of Spike Lee's movies, and worked repeatedly with such directors as John Sayles, Jonathan Demme, and Sonnenfeld, who started out as cinematographer on the Coen Brothers' films. Other recent credits have included Al Pacino's Looking for Richard and Danny De Vito's Matilda.
Lievsay's partners have their own consistent clients. Bochar has worked regularly on Alan J. Pakula films, including this spring's The Devil's Own, Sidney Lumet films, such as the upcoming Night Falls on Manhattan, and Barbet Schroeder projects, like the upcoming Desperate Measures. Stockton has basically taken over the John Sayles account, supervising sound editing on The Secret of Roan Inish and Lone Star, upcoming projects include Ang Lee's The Ice Storm. As for Pross, he acts as Foley supervisor and mixer on all of C5's assignments.
"On a lot of the movies we've done since we moved down here," says Lievsay, "I actually don't edit that much anymore." What he has done is concentrate on his specialty--"hand-made" sounds. He defines this as "finding sounds, compiling them, manipulating them, using a lot of sounds to combine together to make textures." The non-literal realm is where he finds his greatest stimulation. 'Whether it's a pitch or a texture or a certain perception, like a rumble, I find that by manipulating the sound and mixing it with other sounds, you can create something out of nothing. The challenge is to make that association--you've got to look somewhere in a dark corner."
A case in point is Barton Fink, which epitomizes what Lievsay calls the "immersed in a fishtank" quality of the Coen Brothers' movies. In one scene, the title character, a serious New York writer adrift in 1940s Hollywood, is watching a wrestling picture to gain pointers for a script assignment. "The camera is intercutting between tracking shots pushing in on John Turturro. and pushing in on the black-and-white dailies of two men in a ring, throwing each other on the mat," says the sound editor. "We started off with just the whirring, clicking sound of the projector, and then we started to add sound effects. We found an ore-crushing machine which has this grumbling, churning sound--I was thinking of his stomach, actually. As we got closer, I started to add things for the mat--at first, ordinary things, then crashes, and as we got to the climax, I added a recording of a chainsaw at a low frequency, so it sort of grew out of the ore-crushing sound. We also heightened the actors, so that when it gets to their close-ups, they're just roaring.
"At the end of the scene, it cuts to a pullback on the typewriter back at Barton's hotel," Lievsay continues. "I took a European steam train whistle, which is very high-pitched, and at the last blast of this shriek, everything sort of dies away to the typewriter and the music." When Barton later blacks out, the combination of the train whistle and chainsaw become an audio motif.
Where do these sounds come from? Commercial CD libraries are a major source, along with C5's ever-growing library of sounds and material that is passed around through a network of sound editors and recordists. "I'm working on a scene now for Men in Black in which a huge spaceship crashes into the Unisphere in Flushing Park, crashes to earth, and skids to a stop in front of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith," says Lievsay. "It's a huge sequence we produced a tremendous amount of material for. I pulled a lot of crashing stuff out of the commercial libraries, and one of my editor friends in San Francisco had done some other pictures that had big metal smashing sounds, so he pulled some stuff from those."
Compilation is key. For the main spaceship in Men in Black, says Lievsay, "I took a bunch of recordings of servo sounds--a jet takeoff, big motors from various recordings, some from libraries, some I recorded, some I got from a friend who loaned me his whole library. All those together make a nice combination of motor sounds. We wanted to de-emphasize the airplane sound and go more with an almost 50s sci-fi sound; it's a matter of just finding all the elements and combining them, finding the right size and texture." And then, aided by the digital equipment, manipulating them properly. The Synclavier can create an explosion, for example, out of two cannon sounds slightly varied in duration. "You start them at the same point, and they gradually get a little bit out of sync," says Lievsay. "The longer the wave, the lower the frequency, the more it has to be out of sync to have that effect."
Such creative experimentation is necessary, because scheduling an explosion to record is rarely practical. More mundane elements--cars, shootouts, city sounds--are easier to obtain as needed, though New York is not the ideal spot to do so. "Most films we work on are urban films, but a lot of it is done in California, because recording around here is very difficult," says Lievsay. "There are few places you could go where you wouldn't be in somebody's flight path. But each movie we record new city atmosphere material for, and we just go out and stand on the street."
For the more creative non-literal sounds in Men in Black, different avenues have been explored. The monster at the end, for example, is a work in progress, with recordings of lion and elephant roars, other animal sounds, and human vocalizations being compiled, mixed, and manipulated to achieve the "organic" effect desired by Sonnenfeld. Even more challenging is alien dialogue, which was shot on-set with actors speaking English, but is being redubbed and subtitled in the final mix. "There are people in LA who specialize in making vocalizations, creating lexicon and lingo," says Lievsay. "I assume they do it just for the movies; I can't imagine what other purpose there would be. We ship them out material, they carefully calculate the way the mouths move, and come up with a new sort of phrasing--another language, basically."
This is essentially a more complicated version of an audio post requirement on any movie, automated dialogue replacement (ADR). Another standard task, whether for movies about screenwriters, gumshoes, or aliens, is Foley editing, which fills in the aural blanks left by live recording of footsteps, doors opening and closing, prop handling, and so on. "I give the Foley artists notes that describe what we want them to record, and they use their own judgment based on years of experience to decide what the sound should be," says Lievsay. "Footsteps are usually obvious, once you figure out what the surface is and what kind of shoe it is."
C5's Foley stage is a cluttered affair, stocked with everything from shoes and varied surfaces to rocking horses and bedsprings. Foley editor Pross says it all came from "nearby flea markets, cleaning out our closets, raiding dumpsters. We've been picking up garbage for seven years. And usually when a new prop comes in, whether the movie calls for it or not, within a day or two, we manage to use it.'
After all of the elements are compiled, the picture is edited, and the sound effects are coordinated with the composer's contributions. The last stage of the process is the final mix, which Lievsay usually supervises at a facility like Sound One, or occasionally in California. With the addition of C5's newest mixing suite, which integrates a 16-track Avid Audio Vision with a fully automated 112-input Otari console, even that stage can sometimes be accomplished onsite.
"We're at a happy point now where we can produce quality work quickly, and where we don't really have any technological drawbacks," concludes Lievsay. Nevertheless, he is always looking toward the next innovation. "This is our fourth generation of editing platform," he says of the Avid. "I think the next generation will be much cheaper, much faster, and able to do a lot more. I'm looking forward to taking all these workstations and throwing them away when the new thing comes around, whatever it is."