Sunday, May 27, 2007

Star Wars 30th Anniversary Special - part 28

The aspect of "Star Wars" that resonated with me most thirty years ago, and still does to this day is that the movie really looks like it was shot on actual locations in a galaxy far, far away. It didn't have that false feeling of other science fiction movies filmed prior where everything looked brand new and you wondered where people threw away there trash, or if there even was trash, or where the planets all looked like the same bronson canyon location that could also be seen in countless movies of other genres, or on sound stages that had that same barren, plaster and papier-mache landscape punctuated by tufts of dried grass and a pink sky that was clearly a backdrop just a few feet behind the actors.

In "Star Wars" everything looked like it had a purpose, everything looked like it had a history and that it was all interconnected in some way. From the moisture vaporators that appeared all over Tatooine, to Luke's banged up landspeeder with the missing plate over one of the engines, to the restraining bolts, blue milk, sandpeople costumes, and Harrison Ford's bravura performance in making it look like he actually knew what all of those switches and dials on the "Millennium Falcon" did, but also which ones needed to be fiddled with because they were on the fritz. It all seemed real.

One of the biggest contributing factors to the reality presented in the movie, was the movie's organic sound effects, created by Ben Burtt, who quickly became my first behind the scenes hero after watching "The Making of Star Wars." It was also one of those jobs, that to a kid in particular, sounded like it was a lot of fun.

Everything in "Star Wars" needed to have a sound that it made. On top of that, the sound had to be convincing, every starship engine, creature, piece of machinery, bit of energy, robot joint movement, everything. Burtt collected sounds from everywhere, combining them into some sound effects, and creating others pretty much out of thin air.

Not only did Burtt create numerous distinctive, and iconic sound effects such as the sound of a lightsaber being activated, the sound of a TIE Fighter screaming past, or even R2_D2's voice (which was mostly Ben Burtt's own vocalizations altered electronically and combined with other sounds, such as water pipes, and dry ice being rubbed against metal), but Burtt created a tradition in movie sound of using a scream originally used for a character being eaten by an alligator in the 1951 movie "Distant Drums" (which Burtt named "the Wilhelm" after the character who utters the scream in the 1953 western "Charge at Feather River") and using it numerous times over the course of several movies, beginning with a stormtrooper who is shot off a balcony just before Luke and Leia swing across the chasm. This distinctive scream has been picked up by other sound designers and used in countless movies since, such as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), "Resevoir Dogs" (1992), "Toy Story" (1995) , "The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers" (2002) etc. Burtt's theaory on who's voice originally performed the scream? After some research, he's come to believe it was performed by Sheb Wooley, best known for his song "The Purple People Eater."

Some of Ben Burtt's sound effects formulas for "Star Wars":

Chewbacca's voice was a combination of bear, walrus, and other animal sounds.

TIE Fighters were the sound of an elephant howling slowed down and stretched out electronically.

The laser blasts were created by tapping various radio tower guy wires with a hammer (see image of Burtt doing so) combined with bazooka sounds.

The doors on the spaceships were created from the sound of air doors on the Philadephia subway.

The Jawa language was created by having ILM employees speaking words from various African dialects and then altering them electronically.

The lightsaber hum was created by combining the sound of an old movie proector with the hum of the picture tube in Ben Burtt's television set.

Luke's landspeeder was the sound of Los Angeles freeway traffic recorded through a vacuum cleaner tube.

The Star Destroyers utilized the slowed down sound of the Goodyear blimp, as part of their sound.

Darth Vader's breathing was created by placing a microphone inside the regulator of a scuba mask, and breathing into it.

Burtt's wonderful work earned him a much deserved Academy Award.

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