Cheeta, R2D2 and WALL-E

April 14, 2009

Blam! Kapow! Zapp! On Friday the BFI hosted a talk, The Sound Behind the Image: An Evening Celebrating The Art of Sound in Action Adventure Films, lead by Academy Award Winning Sound designer Ben Burtt. These notes are based on my rapidly fading recollection of the evening, they may well contain errors.

The talk began with a clip of the Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894) the first film with live recorded sound. You can watch and listen to it below:

In this film the images were recorded simultaneously with the audio; the pictures were, Burtt argued, merely there to illustrate the sound. In modern action films foley is added after the film is shot, and in the public mind, sound (if you’ll excuse the pun) plays second fiddle to pictures. But sound is a vital, if undervalued, part of movie making.

Burtt is clearly a man fascinated by sound, and with considerable powers of discrimination: stock “sounds” beloved of rival studios were explored, the “Frankenstein” lightning which rumbled across numerous US films contrasted with British “Hammer Horror” lightning, slightly longer as befits a country blessed with an abundance of weather. On two occasions Burtt revealed bizarre incongruities between the origin of movie sounds and their eventual use: the photon torpedo sound from Star Trek was originally used for a scene in a Marlene Dietrich movie where she jumps on a bed (as I type that I wonder if I remember correctly) and the voice of a Star Wars alien Burtt called “mosquito man” was derived from highly distorted clips of John Wayne.

But sound design in film is more than just sound effects. Showing Cheeta the chimp “acting” in Tarzan and His Mate (1934), Burtt argued that the foley work which created the ape’s vocalisations, in effect created the character. Cheeta’s squeaks and whoops prefigured Burtt’s best known work,the “voices” of R2D2 and more recently WALL-E. Burtt is now the character voice designer at Pixar.

The BFI talk was a wonderful, if not validating, experience. Though movie foley is often an audio fiction, it shares with the “audio facts” of radio news a need to create mood, atmosphere and to evoke. It was nice to know there are other audio geeks out there, beyond the world of radio.

If you want to get a flavour of the talk, there’s an excellent interview with Ben Burtt on WNYC’s Studio 360 programme. I did see a camera at the BFI event so it is to be hoped that the talk will be availble on DVD or online at some point.