Interview with Ben Burtt on film music and sound design
by Stephan Eicke
Ben Burtt is responsible for the sound effects and -design on such classics as Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek and Super 8. We sat down with him for a chat about his sound design and how he worked with John Williams over the course of the years.
Stephan Eicke: Ben, here is an icebreaker: You are not working on the new Star Wars films. Why?
Ben Burtt: It’s hard to explain all of it. I don’t really know all the answers myself. Disney wanted to do it themselves. They are hiring other people, giving opportunities to younger sound designers and people who are upcoming. That’s what I am told. They are not consulting the old-timers like me. They are not interested in us. They bought the library of sounds. While they were mixing Episode VIII, John Williams‘ music editor, Ramiro Belgardt, stopped by and said to me: ‚I love all your stuff,‘ because 90 percent of the sounds in the film is still from the libraries I had made. They are not doing a whole lot that’s new. The hardware is pretty much the same as it was 20 years ago. I am sad about that. I don’t know whether it’s ageism or some politics in there. My crew is here. I see them every day. They are working on it. It’s odd. I’m on a ship. I used to be the captain and now I’m just the cabin boy. It’s the way careers go.
Before you worked on Star Wars, George Lucas had enjoyed a fruitful working-relationship with Walter Murch. How did you get the job on A New Hope?
George wanted to get away from Hollywood. He probably considered himself a maverick filmmaker. He didn’t want to be bound by traditions. Walter Murch had been a roommate of George’s at film school and worked closely with him on two films – THX 1138 and American Graffiti. When Star Wars came along Walter was working with Francis Ford Coppola. This was before Apocalypse Now.
In 1975 George was in pre-production on Star Wars. I was just finishing my degree in film school at USC. I didn’t know George Lucas. I certainly knew his reputation. They called up the sound department on the campus and asked whether they could have another Walter Murch. George was looking for somebody to come onboard and start recording sounds. This was a year before they were filming the movie. For some reason Walter was not available. The professor of sound at USC said, ‚We don’t have another Water Murch. The closest thing we have is Ben Burtt.‘ I had a reputation among the department as a student who was very interested in sound. I was suggested as a possible candidate to be the next Walter Murch. I met George. They showed me the concept paintings for Star Wars on the wall. They said that they wanted to develop a voice for Chewbacca. They wanted some guidance what the sound might be like. They wanted to develop this voice. They interviewed me and I got the job. A couple of days later I received a letter in the mail with a tax form to fill out. This meant I was hired.
They gave me a script and a tape recorder and I started working on the voice for the wookiee, collecting – as George had suggested – several animal sounds. Once I got the script and broke it down I said, ‚There is all kinds of things in this movie. Aliens, robots etc. Do you want me to work on all of that?‘ ‚Yeah.‘ I worked out of my apartment in Los Angeles. I started building a library and was pretty much alone for a year. They got busy making the movie. This idea that you would develop a sound early on in production was the departure from what Hollywood normally did. George didn’t want a normal Hollywood sound crew because they would have ideas how to do it and they would tell him how to do it. He wanted some young student like myself who was malleable. I wasn’t going to protest. I was going to learn the methods that they wanted. I benefited greatly from that because I had a lot of time to discover and customize sounds for the movie. That tradition of having the sound designer on early in the process probably started with Walter Murch. Walter had been on board working on sounds for THX 1138 and American Graffiti. I was continuing in that vision that Lucas had.
How closely did you work with Lucas?
I was always part of the editing crew. I was able to observe how the film was built and contribute ideas once in a while. I was included in looking at the scenes. It was only a small group of people, including three editors. We worked in a house that George owned in San Anselmo. It served as his post production office with offices upstairs, a cutting room and a theater. It was great because we were all together The editors would piece together a two-minute scene and hand me the color work print. I could take it to my room and add temporary sounds. I had the ability to mix three tracks together down to one. I could work entirely on film, on magnetic stock. I would experiment with putting sounds into the scenes. George would stop by and listen to it and give me his feedback. We worked like that for months. It was great because as sound effects were developed they could see the benefit of what those sounds would give the film. It would affect the cut of the movie.
At that time the tradition in Hollywood was that the sound people didn’t get involved until the very end of the process – after the film had been shot and cut. Suddenly there was this rush to get the sounds in and get the music recorded. That all happened at the end of the process and you weren’t going to benefit from the process of discovery that you would get when you allow the sound design to take place over a long period of time.
We were all putting in music at that time, too – temporary music to experiment with it. George knew it was going to be scored. He wanted a traditional symphonic score in the tradition of Max Steiner or Eric Wolfgang Korngold. We would take music cues from records like Holst’s The Planets. I did a lot of that myself. George had picked a few music cues that he had listened to while he was writing the film. It gave him an inspiration for what he wanted to see and hear. He had a few suggestions. Then we were trying different music cues as we went along. We decided where there is music and what kind of music there is. The whole idea of doing a temp track was important because if you have music in the early version of the film it communicates a lot to the composer. It’s easier to put in a cue and say, ‚This is the direction I want to go,‘ than it is to explain it with just words. It isn’t good enough. Temp music was rare at the time but George always wanted to have it as part of the process. It’s very common nowadays because it’s so much easier to do. It’s unfortunate because it’s so simple to drop in cues now that anybody can do it. Consequently you get a lot of temp music that’s very misleading or inappropriate. It steers the movie in the wrong direction early on. It has become a big problem. You have to be very careful doing that. Back at the time of the first Star Wars films it was hard to do technically. It was a slow process to transfer music to mag and then cut the music to it. You did it carefully and talked about the concepts ahead of time. You only put in a music piece when you got very serious about it. Even in the later films which I was the picture editor of – the last prequels – we would always be disciplined about it. We would not put temp music in for quite a long time. We would cut the movie and look at the first assembly without sound effects or music because as a film maker you have to use your imagination. We always wanted to see how the story was told visually and with the dialogue. Where is it strong, where is it weak, what can we do to edit it better? We could just sit there and say, ‚We know this can be faster but this is not the time to jump the gun and do it too soon.‘ A lot of film makers do it to soon. And then they think they finished their movie. ‚Ah, it’s a chase scene and it’s exciting because the music is exciting!‘ But you haven’t taken the time to stop and really think about it and give it a chance before you short-circuit it with music. We were cautious about it.
Some directors are now afraid of watching the dailies without temp music. It makes them very anxious.
It’s funny. It’s part of our culture now. You are right about the anxiety. For film makers of an earlier generation it was a lot of work – and very expensive – to put music into a mix. You just had to wait until the time was right before you spent that money and time. You were forced to have your film naked for a much longer period of time. It’s important that you delay that until it’s appropriate. I learned that lesson. It’s a visual medium first. You need the evaluate the success, the strength and the weaknesses of what you have in imagery and in dialogue. Sometimes we put some ambiances in to have get the feeling that the space ships were flying and not just standing in a studio. That was adding a bit of reality, an illusion. A lot of film makers jump the gun and are nervous about it. They have to show it to the studio or their friends and they are afraid to show it raw.
Also, we are constantly surrounded by music nowadays.
Yes, that’s probably true. We are only one button push away from having music all the time. I do it myself. I go home, sit at my desk and the first thing I do is put on a CD. Then I sit down and work. That’s true. I love film music, though. I have a huge collection. I always had a lot of fun experimenting with music and working with the temp music over the years. I was responsible for the sound design and I knew that whatever sounds I was going to have had to be orchestrated with the music. I wanted to work out those issues as early on as I could. Certainly I wanted to have a say where we have music and where it’s best not to have music. I did have a lot of freedom to prepare a temp music track. I would then play it for George to see what he thinks. We could work it out before he talked to the real composer. Johnny Williams did not seem to ever object to having a temp track. He was polite about it. He would sit through it and be open to the discussion. Then he would go off and surprise us with something fantastic. Sometimes you could hear the roots of his pieces but obviously he would gar far beyond the temp score and come up with something wonderful.
I remember we did a whole temp track for Raiders of the Lost Ark. The temp track helped the suspense and the action but we never thought about having an Indiana Jones theme. When the music would come back from the scoring session and I would get copies of it, I would not look at the titles of it. I would play a cue and see if I can guess where it would be in the movie. I would play a little game with myself and my assistant. We would have a lot of fun. Sometimes we could say exactly what it was. ‚Oh this is reel 3, they go to Nepal!‘ Johnny was so good at creating the right feeling. You could feel the transition. Sometimes it would reflect the temp and that would be a giveaway. Then there would be cues which completely surprised me. When I heard that Indiana Jones March I said, ‚What is this? Where the heck does it go? Is it for the end credits?‘ But it was the theme! It was something he came up with that was never discussed. The other theme that was like that was the Imperial March in The Empire Strikes Back. It was a very, very strong cue, absolutely marvelous. We had nothing like that in the temp. It was nothing that ever occurred to me and I could have never found a piece of music like that. The Empire Strikes Back allowed places for entire musical statements to be made in its entirety. You don’t see that nowadays. They don’t do it in the current Star Wars films. When they first introduced Vader in The Empire Strikes Back and you play the entire march all the way through it’s a really powerful and strong musical moment. There is no dialogue. There are some sound effects but it’s just a little concert. One thing I love about it was the way the earlier films in particular were cut to allow certain themes to be introduced clearly without conflict. That’s something we have forgotten about in our more hyperactive movie making of these days. They never stop and let something just play. Certainly not in the Star Wars films.
Also, the scenes are cut much faster. The pace is entirely different.
Yes. One of the byproducts of the digital age is that it’s so much easier to assemble and cut a movie with many, many edits in it because you can do that with a touch of just a few buttons. Filmmakers see the movie much more frequently, over and over and over again. They come in every day and get bored with it because they have seen this one scene so many times. They say, ‚Let’s make it faster. Let’s take this out. Faster, faster, faster!‘ In some ways they are refreshing it for themselves and consequently the editorial structure, the amount of cuts per minute, is much greater and you are leaving less time for music and sound effects to have their own place in the story. They don’t want to stop having constant dialogue.
One of the biggest differences I hear – and I am talking about the big action pictures now – is that so many times the orchestra and the brass are doing some fanfares and some busy notes, all pulled down under the dialogue. You are not getting the value of the music. It was probably written when the scene was different but they are just not paying attention to the orchestration. If you listen to the best of the traditional movie music you will notice that it’s written around the dialogue You are not going to have a trumpet melody while somebody is talking. You can add your notes and make your statement when the dialogue is over. It was done very carefully. No one is doing that anymore.
I think part of the reason is that composers now have to orchestrate the music themselves because they have to send carefully designed mock ups to the directors and producers who then get used to that piece of music and its sound.
I see. I do not hear good orchestration. I don’t know the reason for it. I hear a piece of music which, played by itself, would be very good but it is held at arm’s length and being pushed down because there hasn’t been an editorial structure that allows it to blossom at moments you would like to have it do so. It must be frustrating for a lot of composers. A lot of music cues you could just move around and no one would notice the difference. I hate saying that. I would fail with my guessing games now completely. The music is not really written for the scene I hear it in. It’s just there. I am all cynical about it. Film makers think that just having the music is good enough. Usually they have too much music. I won’t mention any film maker’s names but there have been spotting sessions for the music when they said: ‚Score the whole movie and we will figure it out later.‘ That’s a dangerous comment to make.
It’s also dangerous for you as the sound designer…
Absolutely. When we did our ten mixes the whole point of doing it was to make those decisions. ‚Music starts here and ends here.‘ In designing my sounds I am going to be sharing it with the music track. Let’s be honest: music is always considered sacred and it’s the product of a highly talented composer. It’s not going to be criticized in any way. Sound designers are just low on the food chain. It’s our job to adjust to the music. I might do a nice temp mix and indicate where there should be music and I can demonstrate my sound effects, but when the music comes in and it’s different then I have to adjust. It’s my job. My job is never done until I have made all the adjustments for the music and overcome all the objections of the composer. I would always try and have discussions. Initially with Johnny Williams I wasn’t going to have a conversation with him because the sound effects would never dare dictate any terms to the composer. On The Empire Strikes Back I started to have a few discussions with Johnny Williams and he politely listened. By the time we did Return of the Jedi we met a few times specifically to talk about music and sound effects but it took years until I felt I could level with him and have a frank discussion about what we wanted to do. Still, it was understood that the music was the more powerful force and more important. I accept that because I love music. My concerns were always, ‚Do you need music here?‘ Music can be much more powerful when it’s used at the right time instead of being there all the time like in many films today. They would benefit from sections with no music so when music comes in it has a freshness.
I went through some films a few years ago. I had an assistant compute the percentage of music in the Star Wars films to find out how much of the running time of the movie was music. I was curious. We also computed the number of picture cuts per minute. I wanted to see what the trend was. It was interesting that of this six original Star Wars movies it was The Empire Strikes Back that had the least amount of music in it. It totally surprised me. It’s only 74 percent music. Most people remember the music in The Empire Strikes Back as being big. There were obviously some great melodies and themes and cues in it. It’s the one with the least amount of music and it’s a great example of a combination of sounds and music which work very well together. You first introduced a cue and hear the full melody through. Then there were transitions from one scene to another where we would go from big music to quiet sound effects or the other way around. One of the later films which I was the editor on, Attack of the Clones, was 95 percent music. 95! When I was cutting that film I kept trying to structure it like The Empire Strikes Back. When we would introduce a new location we would give it time to see it in wide shots, move in on it. There were also cases where scenes ended on a dramatic moment on someone’s face and the camera might have done a little push-in. As we went along there were concerns about the film not moving fast enough, so those kinds of things kept getting shorter and shorter until most of them were dropped. You didn’t have those nice opportunities for those transitions and musical moments that we had had earlier. To be honest, there were dramatic problems with the film. It didn’t seem strong enough, so we needed music to amplify what we felt was missing. You ended up with much more music than in The Empire Strikes Back because there was a struggle to make the story feel right. What tools do you have? Music is very powerful. If you want to indicate what’s on someone’s heart or mind I can’t do that very well with sound effects. It’s much more of a musical tool to be used. More emphasis was placed on music. I went back to an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score called The Adventures of Robin Hood. It has all these wonderful themes in it and it’s romantic and full of action. What percentage of the movie was music? It’s around 45 percent. I was surprised that there was less music in the films that were the Star Wars films of their day.
How much of Raiders of the Lost Ark is music?
I don’t think I computed Raiders. What we are saying is it’s not the amount of music that counts. It’s how it’s used. The only movies that were a 100 percent music were the old movie serials, the chapter plays that played every week. I watched a couple of those and they were 100 percent music. They are also lousy dramatically. The stories are not compelling and they put music in because it was weak otherwise. It’s like many movies today. They are not using music correctly.
Did John Williams know the sound effects before he started composing the music for Star Wars?
Absolutely. From the point of Star Wars, the first one, we always gave him a track of the sound effects from the temp. I don’t know whether he listened to it but he was always provided with it. He always walked away with a version of the track that he could refer to as he wrote the music. It was a fairly good guide because the major things were there. My hope was that he was listening to it every day.
Making sure that the composer is aware of the sound effects must be beneficial to you in the final mix.
We had a very happy accident on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Due to an accident in the schedule – I call it an accident – the music was recorded, mixed and sent to us before we premixed the movie. No one really planned it that way. We put the music in so we premixed with the music there. That made a tremendous difference because I could immediately see where there were conflicts or places where music and sound effects complimented each other. I could adjust the sounds as we went along. It resulted in a funny surprise. After we had premixed the film we went to Los Angeles to do the final mix. We went to a studio and everybody got together to mix the movie. Everybody is nervous on the first day because you are bringing all these elements together. The first reel was a very busy sequence with Indiana Jones going into the cave. We had expected to spend a couple of days on it because it was so complicated. It was so well premixed with the music that we mixed that before lunch time. No one knew what to do because weren’t ready for reel two. Everybody was happy. We had to scramble to get reel two after lunch. Raiders was a very smooth mix. It went very quickly. We were efficient because we had the music ahead of time. That never happened on any other film. Usually we never heard the final music until the day of the final mix. You walk in and, despite whatever planning you have done, suddenly you have got music that you never heard. You have to do a whole lot of adjustments. That’s part of the mixing process. I call it a collision. It tales a lot of energy to solve all these issues. Having that music ahead of time was great. It was the easiest mix we ever had.
Back in those days you also had to trust the composer because mock-ups didn’t exist.
Yes, you only got one chance to record that orchestra and then you had to commit to using that piece of music because no one was going to allow you to go back and re-score. There are cases nowadays where that happens and filmmakers spend a lot of money on it. We worked on Star Trek movie a couple of years ago. Michael Giacchino was the composer. J.J. Abrams would just change his mind and they would have to go back and write a whole new cue. It cost a fortune. It cost millions of dollars because they recorded some cues three or four times. Somebody paid for that. It wasn’t pleasant for the composer at all.
Was there actually ever any debate of who to hire for Star Wars? Were other composers ever considered before John Williams was hired?
I never heard any discussion about anybody else. I wasn’t there when decisions were made, though. I remember when I first came on, Gary Kurtz was a powerful force behind the movie as the producer. He explained to me, ‚We are going to do a big symphonic score like Lawrence of Arabia and we have that new composer Johnny Williams.‘ He was already signed up to do it. I never heard talk of anybody else. Oddly enough, Johnny Williams had done Jaws and The Towering Inferno. When I was a film student I was in a sound class and we would get assigned to go sit in on some activity in Hollywood as an observer. On one of my days I was sent to Fox studios to the scoring session for The Towering Inferno. Johnny Williams was the composer. He was conducting the orchestra and it was the first time I ever saw something like that. I never imagined that a few years later I’d be working with him. I never met him, I was just told to keep my mouth shut and sit in a corner in the dark, watching him conducting the music for the movie. His reputation was building.