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Sound design then & now

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By Sam Molineaux
As part of a 10-day tribute to Skywalker Sound and Industrial Light + Magic in Hollywood recently, the American Cinematheque presented an evening devoted to the work of veteran Sound Designer Ben Burtt. A four-time Academy Award-winner and long-term collaborator with Director George Lucas, Burtt entertained with fascinating and witty reminiscences from a career that began as the USC student plucked from obscurity to design the sound for the first Star Wars and progressed right through all of the Indiana Jones and subsequent Star Wars movies. In the late 90’s Burtt added picture editing to his Star Wars credits and lately has been working on an independent project directing and writing a series of historical films. But it’s as the guy who elevated the art of feature-film sound design that he will always be best known. With work well under way on Episode III, Burtt offers us his take on the changes and challenges faced by today’s movie sound crews.

Below the Line: It’s been said you invented the term “sound design.” Is that true?
Burtt: I’m not sure I invented the term. I might have been one of the first people to take on that title in a credit. I think Walter Murch when he worked with George Lucas on American Graffiti had a title that was something like sound montage and design. The term came up with me because I was sort of caught in-between the sound editor and the sound mixer, poking my nose into both areas. So we started talking about it being sound design. I think the first time I had that credit was on Empire Strikes Back in 1980.
BTL: On the two most recent Star Wars films you were picture editor as well as sound designer and sound editor. How was it balancing those roles?
Burtt: I was quite comfortable with it. Picture editing and sound editing are so closely aligned and I’ve done both those jobs for so many years that I didn’t find it a particular difficulty. During the year of so picture editing on the films, we also did temporary mixes where we had a chance to experiment. Some ideas would fail and other ideas would work. By the time we brought the whole sound editing crew on and eventually got to the final mix, many things were already in place and we’d already made many decisions, so the final mix became more of a performance of something that was rehearsed rather than the first encounter with all that material.
BTL: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges working on films today, compared to those of, say, 20 years ago?
Burtt: The schedules have become very abbreviated. Digital technology has allowed people to work faster, but this has led to a situation where sound people often have just a few weeks to do a whole feature film. It has necessitated having large crews, with many editors and assistants, so the job can get done round the clock in a very short time. I can understand why it’s happened, but I think the dangers are that sound and sound design always require some experimentation to discover what works best. Quite often now, all those decisions are made in haste, in the final mix at the last moment. It ends up being an additive process, where I think the best soundtracks are the result of a subtractive process, where you come prepared with lots of alternatives but you very carefully take things away and remove things until you’re left with the most articulate and concise material to be dramatic with sound. That takes time.
BTL: Has that affected you directly?
Burtt: I shy away from a lot of sound work when I see that the time allowed to do it is not satisfactory for the enjoyment of it. That’s not to say I think film postproduction is ever going to be stress-free, but I think there needs to be a better balance between speed and creativity. One needs a certain amount of time to try things, to absorb them, to go home and think about it, come back, look at it with a fresh eye and ear. I guess to be honest, I’m somewhat afraid of the schedules, and I’ve been choosy about what I do because I don’t want to get caught in a situation where we’re just throwing things in and there’s a large crew working and you can’t control all parts of it. On Attack of the Clones we worked with a very small team but over a long period of time. We had only two full-time sound effects editors, myself, and a third editor come in to finish some things up at the last moment. That’s a pretty small crew to do sound effects for a major job on a major special-effects movie.
BTL: What’s your take on the sound design of some of the recent fantasy films.
Burtt: The one film that didn’t get much attention and it should have, was Signs. I was really impressed with the sound in that film. I thought it was by far the most original and interesting film for sound effects that year, and I was surprised that it didn’t get into the nominations. Another real achievement in sound was the effects in The Pianist. They did some terrific work in creating depth and off-screen reality. I saw a lot of big films last year in which I thought the sound was just kind of perfunctory. It was there, it was busy, but it didn’t really entice the ear or articulate in a concise way the kind of drama that was going on. I sympathize with the difficulties. Some films are very ambitious visually and the sheer number of cuts means the work for the sound editor is enormous. The problem is a result of the process, getting to it very quickly under a great stress and not having a chance to reflect and carefully pick through the alternatives.
BTL: Do you think filmmakers aren’t placing enough emphasis on sound?
Burtt: On the contrary, there’s been a great increase in the importance of sound to producers over the years. The quality of sound playback in theaters has increased immeasurably as well as now the home market. So there’s lots of opportunity for people to play back and hear good soundtracks, and high quality. It’s not the highest priority on most producers minds, but there are other priorities in a movie. It is a visual medium first. I think it always comes back to sound being the secret weapon. It holds the movie together and dictates and controls the pace.
BTL: How far are you into the work on Episode III ?
Burtt: We’re doing storyboards and pre-visualization. I’m already putting in some sound effects to support rough drafts of sequences. Even at this point I’m able to begin thinking about the sound effects and sound design, as I’m seeing a sequence develop, places or vehicles or objects or certain characters that are going to need sounds.
BTL: Episode III – how does it end?
Burtt: What? I’m not going to tell you that!

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