Photos: Deborah Coleman/Pixar
George Lucas may have conjured up R2-D2 in the film Star Wars, but Ben Burtt gave him a personality. Without the chirps and beeps that made up his voice, the famous droid sidekick would have merely been a silent hunk of metal.
Burtt, an Academy Award-winning sound designer, has created some of the most iconic sounds in film history, including the light saber's hum and crackle, and Darth Vader's asthmatic murmur. Burtt recently moved to Pixar where he found that the quickest way to achieve warp speed was through animation. His latest challenge is giving a voice to yet another endearing robot. This time it's WALL•E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), a curious trash compactor whose life's mission is to clean up Earth.
How was your approach to WALL•E different from R2-D2?
R2 was very innovative back in its day because there had never really been a talking robot character that didn't speak plain and simple English. With R2, we had to come up with sounds that people understood as communication from a charming character that had something on his mind. And it was done with electronic sounds, mostly beeps and whistles.
Some of the sounds were made on a synthesizer. Others were little mechanical and motor sounds which were used to allow him to express himself. The whole idea being that the sounds had a sense of communication to them. You understood that he was angry or sad or being rude to 3PO.
Now we come along years later to WALL•E and the requirements were kind of similar in that WALL•E doesn't speak in clear sentences using words in English like we would normally have. He does have a few limited single words. He can say his name, he learns to say the name of a few principle characters that he encounters, and he's able to vocalize in terms of making grunts and moans. He doesn't beep or whistle or chirp in the same way that R2 did. He has a few electronic sounds in there once in awhile but the emphasis is really on words and their electronic sounds—a voice making a vocal expression. We can understand the meaning of vocal sounds even if they're not words because we have a lot of precedence in our own language. We can say "uh huh" or "oh!" Non-word types of sounds formed the basis for WALL•E's vocalization so you can understand the emotional state he's in [and] what he's thinking by the mere intonation of these sounds.
How do you give a robot language without dialogue?
The key to being able to understand WALL•E''s sounds is the animation of the character itself. It''s kind of like a silent movie in a sense that you have to really watch and see what is going on. The typical animated film has a lot of dialogue. Characters are talking fast, they're setting up punch lines and jokes, and everybody is speaking constantly. But this film is taking a different approach and you won't be able to follow the story quite as clearly unless you're watching carefully too.
What are the differences between live action and animation?
Everything in animation is accelerated. Characters move faster. They jump from one place to another. It's like watching a live action movie sped up. These films are so dense and full of moving objects too. There is a lot of sound and you have to be cautious how you orchestrate the sounds so that you don't overload the audience.
Do people ever look at you like you're crazy when you're recording?
That happens all the time. If you're in regular record mode you've got headphones on. You're usually carrying a microphone that's got a big windscreen on it so it looks like a Muppet of some kind. People have asked me if it was my pet. Some people come up and go, "Hey are you recording?" I have lot's of recordings of that. [Laughs.]
We had a scene in WALL•E in which he's involved with a beat up shopping cart. I took my recorder to the store and pretended to shop. I went with my daughter, who is 10 years old, around the store and parking lot banging into poles and running into other shopping carts.
Has digital recording made your job easier?
The big advantage of the digital age is that the recorders are compact. They're smaller than the microphones now. And with digital you get high-quality recordings without that old analog hum. Plus what use to require going into a studio in order to edit or mix, can be done with off-the-shelf software and a laptop. You can work almost any place, but of course that means you work all the time.
I imagine archiving has gotten easier too.
When you record a thousand things for a movie, you need to have a database so that you can find everything. With great browsing capabilities, sound can be at your fingertips. I can find that electrical buzz I recorded ten years ago. And I can cut and paste sounds without any loss in quality. There were huge limitations in the analog-era, especially the degradation of sound when you went from one copy to another.
What is our fascination with robots?
We've always wanted to have machines do things for us. I think the reason we love them is because they have souls. We want to be able to relate to them and talk to them.
So, who wins in a robot death match?
[Laughs.] WALL•E is faster than R2. But we know from R2's experience—he's been blown into space, drowned, electrocuted, and shot up by Darth Vader—that he''s resilient. It would be a tough battle of the titans. Neither one has any real weapons. They'd have to use their wits.
R2 does have a lot of tools so he might be able to get a grip on WALL•E and hold him down. But R2 has a hard time with stairs and WALL•E has the means of going up and down them. So maybe he could escape that way. As much as we love R2, he might lose the agility competition.