The student-run news site of Le Moyne College.

The Dolphin

The student-run news site of Le Moyne College.

The Dolphin

The student-run news site of Le Moyne College.

The Dolphin

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“Art of Sound in Film”: Ben Burtt makes himself heard

On Thursday, Nov. 17, sound designer Ben Burtt will be presenting “Art of Sound in Film” in the W. Carroll Coyne Center for the Performing Arts. The appearance is part of the “Film Talks Series,” a collaboration between the Le Moyne College Film Program and the Syracuse International Film Festival.

“Art of Sound in Film” is essentially an outline of Burtt’s experiences in film, theories of sound design, and the history of sound effects, all of which is illustrated with clips and photographs from his career.

Burtt is best known for his Oscar-winning work in the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” series, as well as “WALL-E,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Star Trek” and “Super 8,” among others. He has also served as a writer and director on episodes of “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” and the IMAX films “Blue Planet” and “Special Effects: Anything Can Happen.”

Film, however, was initially a mere hobby of Burtt’s.

“I grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and went to … Allegheny College in Pennsylvania [for] a degree in physics,” Burtt said. “At that time, I thought I’d either be a science teacher or an astronaut. But I had also had several hobbies, one of [which] was moviemaking. [My high school friends and I] made movies together in super 8 … and then later 16 mm films.”

Burtt eventually wound up attending film school at USC, the same school from which George Lucas had just graduated a few years earlier. By that time, Lucas had already become a household name thanks to the film “American Graffiti.”

“He was talked about a lot on campus, but I never met him until I started working on ‘Star Wars,’ so I didn’t have any relationship with him,” Burtt said. “While I was a student, I was able to look for jobs on the outside [and found some] in sound editing on low-budget films in Hollywood. I also started making sound for people that were cutting trailers. At that time, there really were no young people going into that profession … so I got a reputation as … a young person interested in sound and that in itself was rare.”

It wasn’t long before Burtt got his first big break working with Lucas himself.

“So when George Lucas was planning the first ‘Star Wars’ movie,” explained Burtt, “he sent word down to USC: ‘Do you have a student who’s really interested in sound that could come on board to work on this science fiction movie I’m going to do?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got this guy named Ben. Meet him.’ And so I did.”

“[Lucas said he was] looking for someone to record some sounds and make the voice for a Wookiee,” said Burtt. “They gave me a tape recorder and that was it. Nobody knew it was going to be this famous movie. It was just a science fiction movie at the time.”

Burtt would go on to create many of the iconic sounds and voices heard in the “Star Wars” saga, including those of the lightsaber, R2-D2, Chewbacca and Darth Vader’s signature heavy breathing. From then on, each and every film he worked on was nothing less than a thrill-ride.

“All of them were adventures of one sort or another,” Burtt said. “I particularly enjoyed ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ It was a film I was truly inspired and thrilled to be a part of. Also, I recently worked on the restoration of the sound for the very first [Academy Award winner for] Best Picture, ‘Wings.’ That was a real pleasure to be a part of.”

One of Burtt’s greatest opportunities came with the 2008 Pixar film “WALL-E.” Burtt provided the sound design and voices for several characters, including WALL-E himself.

“’WALL-E’ was perhaps the perfect challenge for a sound designer,” Burtt said. “The main characters, supporting cast, and much of the characterizations all depended upon sound effects rather than dialogue. I was hired by Pixar in 2005 to develop these sounds and was given plenty of time and rigorous support to work it all out. It was a sound designer’s dream.”

When it comes to an interest in pursuing film, Burtt recommends studying something unrelated to film before diving in immediately.

“I always think to be the best in the business, you first study something like English, biology, electrical engineering, et cetera,” Burtt said. “Become some kind of expert in something else. Then when you become a filmmaker, you have a viewpoint. You have some expertise about something that allows you to have a unique perspective on something that nobody else would.”

“You also have something to fall back on,” said Burtt. “I’ve forgotten most of [the physics I learned], but I learned how to solve problems, how to approach a difficult task scientifically, how to have a theory, how to plan out my hours and my time, and how to budget my resources. I can apply that … to filmmaking.”

“Art of Sound in Film” will take place tonight (Thursday, Nov. 17) at 7 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center. The program is free for students.

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