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Wall-E - Ben Burtt interview

Ben Burtt and Wall-E

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BEN Burtt, sound and character voice designer for Wall-E and creator of the voices and sounds for the aliens and droids of Star Wars and the voice of ET (as well as a two-time Oscar winner) talks about some of the challenges and joys of working on Pixar’s latest animated marvel.

Q. Legend has it that you use everything that comes into your life as part of the sounds you create, even your wife’s pregnancy, is this true?
Ben Burtt: [Laughs] I’ve always found that when you’re trying to create illusions with sound, especially in a science fiction or fantasy movie, that pulling sounds from the world around us is a great way to cement that illusion because you can go out and record an elevator in George Lucas’s house or something, and it will have that motor sound. It will be an elevator and you might associate it with that, but if you use it in a movie people will believe it’s a force field, or maybe it’s the sound of a spaceship door opening.

Q. And the story about your wife?
Ben Burtt: That was on Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, a long time ago. We went to listen to a sonogram of the child, my daughter Alice, who’s now grown up and has her own child. It was this great, throbbing sound, and at that time I was looking for the sound of an alien pod germinating and it sounded exactly like the alien pod germinating, so I thought why not? But it did work, because it was a heartbeat and it was something from the womb and it was about these alien characters coming alive and being born, so there was probably some connection there that worked emotionally since we all were in the womb at one time. But it’s forging those connections between familiar sound and illusionary sound that I think is the basis of the success for a lot of the sounds that sound designers have put in these movies.

Q. How did you come up with WALL·E’s voice?
Ben Burtt: Well honestly I’m guided by Andrew, being the director. I would audition things for him, sets of sounds that might have initially just been motors and beeps and tones. Something I’ve never told him in fact, and now it relates to musical theatre, when he first showed me maybe 10 minutes or so of the storyboards cut together, and the opening of the movie, it had some music and some sound effects in it. That was kind of a way of enticing me into understanding the project. It was that opening song, the vocal in that song that appealed to me in a way that I sort of connected that with the WALL·E character.

There’s a feeling about that, so to some extent maybe the pitch of the voice started out that way, that kind of innocent feeling, that was a thread that I picked up on in that. As you know we went through lots of experiments trying WALL·E as just motor sounds only, some that were beeps and whistles, a little bit more in the R2D2 realm. Although We extracted bits from all of those experiments, when it came down to some of the more expressive vocals it was a little bit in that tone, from that singing voice. I’m not sure why, there was obviously something very charming and appealing about that song. I couldn’t quite pin it down.

Q. Were you conscious of the larger issues surrounding the film, when you were working on it?
Ben Burtt: I’m afraid to say no, not really, only the way the story was expressed. Those came out as the film grew and took on its details. I accepted from the start the premise of the story, and like Andrew was saying science fiction rarely starts with a happy village, that you start out with this lonely robot in a toxic wasteland. So, I suppose my first concerns were what does a toxic wasteland sound like? You can’t smell it, it’s not Smell-O-Vision, so we can’t do it that way. I did try and accomplish sounds that would bring a very lonely, isolating kind of tone that reflected WALL·E’s isolation. But that agenda was not really in the forefront, I accepted it as the setting of the story.

Obviously, as we see this reaction to the film coming at this time, you see it as an echo, a coincidence of good timing. Often issues that are in films that are there for a legitimate reason come at a time when the film gets its attention, and it’s one of those fortuitous moments now, that element gives you a point of discussion and gives you that much more value, which to us as entertainers, that’s fantastic. It gives us an added dimension.

Q. How does your level of satisfaction with WALL·E compare to other characters you’ve worked on?
Ben Burtt: Well, when people come and say it’s a masterpiece it’s hard… at the moment you’re distorted about it, thinking about those reactions. I’m very proud of it all. I see it as a great opportunity. Most sound people don’t get the assignment to create worlds of sound and get freedom to try a lot of things and then get the scrutiny and support of the team over a long period of time. Most sound work in films is done very quickly, and at the end of the schedule where it’s just jammed together and you always wish that you had more sympathy. I’ve been on this film for three years, so the work was being embedded right from the beginning. Sometimes we would do some sounds and then do an animation test to try those sounds out. Those kinds of opportunities are great.

Q. What’s your favourite moment from the film?
Ben Burtt: What’s the biggest explosion in the film? I really love the scene where they’re out in space together with the fire extinguisher, I think it’s the lyrical nature of that, the calm in the middle of the storm. That moment, there’s something about putting those two characters out there dancing in space that really takes me back to Peter Pan when I was a kid. I love that film, I think I was five years old when I saw it. I made my mother take me two or three times in one week which was unheard of in those days. It’s that wonderful ability to be transported to a wonderful place where you feel warm and completely secure. Where it occurs in the movie it feels that way to me, it’s great.

Read our review of Wall-E

Read our interview with writer-director Andrew Stanton