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Sound Legend Ben Burtt on His Sci-Fi Installation Behold and Upcoming Event at Academy Museum Following Wall-E Screening on Earth Day

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is honoring one of cinema’s most celebrated makers of indelible sounds, four-time Oscar winner Ben Burtt. This coming Saturday morning, on April 22, the Academy Museum is hosting a screening of the modern classic Wall-E, for which Burtt did the title character’s distinct voice, and later in the day, Burtt will be on hand for a chat regarding his spectacular sci-fi installation, which is titled Behold.

Burtt’s sound resume begins at the dawn of the blockbuster era with several classics from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, such as the first three films in each of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, as well as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. His amazing career spans the ensuing decades and includes credits on films such as Pixar’s Up and Wall-E, plus J.J. AbramsStar Trek and Super 8, among many others. Burtt is also an accomplished Writer, Director, and Editor, having made several films for IMAX including Blue Planet, Destiny in Space, and the Oscar-nominated Special Effects: Anything Can Happen.

His new installation, Behold, was initially developed from a sound project commissioned by AMPAS that was intended to have famous dialogue looped around the corridors of the Academy Museum to enhance the auditory experience. Though the project was scrapped, a new one was fashioned in the form of an installation piece that Burtt refers to as a living mural.

28 Stories of Cinema
Stories of Cinema image via Joshua White/JW Pictures

Featured in the “Inventing Worlds and Characters: Encounters” gallery in the museum’s Stories of Cinema exhibition, Behold is housed in  an area that could be referred to as “the sci-fi room,” as it features some of the most famous robots and creatures in Hollywood history, such as R2-D2 and C-3P0 from Star Wars; the world’s biggest Reese’s Pieces fan — E.T.; and the Xenomorph head from Alien, to name just a few.

Just beyond the Aries Pod from 2001: A Space Odyssey, you can see in the distance a circular theater where you can immerse yourself in a non-linear history of science-fiction, with depictions of robots, spaceships, alien weapons, and time travel from the Silent Era all the way to today.

Below the Line recently had a chance to catch up with Ben Burtt, who explained his excitement about putting together this unforgettable exhibit. [Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Ben Burtt
Ben Burtt image courtesy of AMPAS

Below the Line: Where did the idea for Behold first originate, and how did you get it off the ground?

Ben Burtt: The idea existed when I came on the scene. There had even been a temporary video, an unfinished idea that was being looked at. Once I saw the possibilities of it — and I had an eagerness because of my love of Hollywood and outer space — I could immediately sense where I would take it. My thought was, “Let’s not make it a documentary with captions or narration and no obvious structure.” It’s a voyage through time and space.

BTL: What was your first big sci-fi film experience?

Burtt: When I was 5 or 6, my sister took me to a Saturday matinee in Syracuse, New York. We saw When World Collide and I was terrified, of course — it was the end of the world, things were being destroyed, and [the] sound was loud. The second sci-fi film that I saw that had a huge effect on me was Forbidden Planet — the sound in that film is extraordinary and unusual and I never forgot that experience. It’s a strong film.

BTL: How did your early experiences with sci-fi movies inform your work on Behold?

Burtt: I had an inventory in my head that I saw in the ’50s, ’60s, [and] ’70s up until Star Wars, and I was able to fish out those memories of how I saw those movies — how I felt [and] how I reacted as an audience member, not [as] a filmmaker, which is much more like a participant coming to the museum.

BTL: How many films are featured in Behold?

Burtt: About 100. There wasn’t a list to draw from — no one knew exactly what Behold was going to be. I decided that it would be a living mural with an additive effect of [various sci-fi] imagery presented simultaneously and held together with audio. My hope was [to] recapture the awe and mystery and suspense of time and space in the movies.

BTL: Was there anything you had to leave out?

Burtt: We had amazing cooperation from the studios; there wasn’t a lot of resistance. They didn’t want us to show stuff from the endings of movies, [which] made sense, or if there was a surprise or reveal in the film.

BTL: How did this event come about?

Burtt: The screening of Wall-E is tied into Earth Day, and I had an invite from the Academy to talk about Behold, so they decided to pair them on the same day. Behold was a tremendous opportunity to express myself, which I love to do. I love to build art out of the things I love [and the] things that inspire me.

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