The voice of “Wall-E,” the lightsaber sounds from “Star Wars” and Darth Vader’s breathing are just a fraction of what sound mixer, designer and editor Ben Burtt has contributed to the world of cinema. This weekend, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will celebrate his body of work with a special conversation and installation titled “Behold.”
Though the two-time Oscar winner has over 122 credits to his name, this will be the first time he’s going to be on stage alone. “Every time I’ve been on stage, it’s been to present something or I’ve been part of a team,” Burtt tells Variety over Zoom ahead of the conversation.
1977’s “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” was one of the first films he worked on. It was Burtt who created the lightsaber’s famous hum, which he says came from a broken TV set and a film projector.
“Most of the sounds that I’ve created have been derived from real-world objects, animals or technology,” he says. “You go out and you’re documenting sounds; other times, you’re staging something such as a car skidding around a corner.”
The goal, he says, is always to “find sounds that also will communicate something to the audience.”
When Burtt was first finding sounds for “Star Wars,” “E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial” or even “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” everything was an analog recording. “That meant you were recording on magnetic tape and you had big reel to reel tape recorders,” he says. “Everything was heavy duty.”
As technology advanced and the world moved to digital, Burtt says “you could work faster and you could manipulate things. The sound didn’t degrade from copy to copy. With analog, the more duplicates you made, the worse it got.”
Burtt admits that as he became renowned for being the brains behind “Wall-E” and Darth Vader’s breathing, which he made by breathing into a scuba regulator, there was pressure to raise the bar.
“That first Star Wars film was done in innocence to satisfy me and George Lucas. We weren’t thinking about the impact. But once they had that impact, you’re labeled a genius,” he says. “When ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ came out the bar was so high.”
Despite the breadth of sounds he’s created, his proudest one is rarely talked about. “It’s the Death Star when Obi-Wan Kenobi is trying to turn off the tractor beam,” he says referring to the projected force field that manipulates gravitational forces to push or pull objects. “I made it by combining a couple of motor sounds and a bit of a synthesizer. That sound didn’t stand out to anybody, but I loved listening to it. I would put it on in my room and just would run for hours.”
“Behold: Ben Burtt” is current in the Inventing Worlds and Characters exhibit at the Academy Museum this weekend, and Behold: A Conversation with Ben Burtt” will take place at the museum on Saturday at 6 p.m.