Sound Designer Ben Burtt, probably most famous for creating the sounds of the lightsabers from Star Wars, and the crack of Indiana Jones’ whip, moved from LucasFilm to Pixar a few years ago and headed up Sound Design on WALL•E. Have a read of this Q&A below with Burtt with thanks to the folks at Disney•Pixar.
am sure I approached the same, as I always would have because of my past experience. The idea always is to create the sense of a soul with the character with sound. You are given sounds or a few words and the aim is to create the feeling that these are talking machines. You could have imposed a human voice on to the robots and audiences would have accepted that. But with Wall-E it was important to give the sound an aspect of being a machine. So I went about that task, my assignment was to create voices for the characters and audition them to Andrew. He had about 10 minutes of the opening of the movie with sketches and storyboards and said it was a little peek of what he was trying to get. I was there from the beginning, which is the best thing. I am sure that when I started that they did not know that they were going to make his film – they were still having trials and one of the hurdles to jump was to get the voices.
When Andrew first showed me the maybe 10 minutes or so of the storyboards cut together, and the opening of the movie, it had some music and some sound effects in it. That was kind of a way of enticing me into understanding the project. It was that opening song, the vocal in that song that appealed to me in a way that I sort of connected that with the Wall-e character. There’s a feeling about that, so to some extent maybe the pitch of the voice started out that way, that kind of innocent feeling that was a thread that I picked up on in that. As I’ve said, we went through lots of experiments trying Wall-e as just motor sounds only, some that there were beeps
and whistles, a little bit more in the R2 realm. Although we extracted bits from all of those experiments, when it came down to some of the more expressive vocals it was a little bit in that tone, from that singing voice. I’m not sure why, there was obviously something very charming and appealing about that song. I couldn’t quite pin it down. I have always felt that the best way to get a robot voice is to have a human element and an electronic element and blend the two. So I worked out a circuit where I started with my voice and broke that down in the computer and then re-synthesized it. And the voice of EVE was done in a similar way. We used a woman at Pixar, who was named Elissa Knight. We started using her as a scratch track and once again, just like with me, once I ran it through the laborious computer process, we got results that we liked, and we felt we should keep it. For one sound I had heard a generator in a John Wayne movie called Island In The Sky. It was a generator they cranked and I thought I had to get one of those. I got one on E-bay that had not been unpacked since 1950. There are the sophisticated electronic things I do and like the generator there are things like the old days
of radio when you used props.
that are in films that are there for a legitimate reason come at a time when the film gets its attention, and it’s one of those fortuitous moments now, that element gives you a point of discussion and gives you that much more value, which to us as entertainers, that’s fantastic. It gives us an added dimension.
I’ve been on this film for three years, so the work was being embedded right from the beginning, sometimes we would do some sounds and then do an animation test to try those sounds out. Those kinds of opportunities are great. So of course I’m very proud of that, what film gives you a chance to do sound effects as well as key voices in the film. Maybe the only other big assignment would be to do a movie with no music and see where you could go……………I love the music of course. What you do as a sound designer is something like doing music you’re creating, sounds especially in a film like this, when you thinking what part of the story can those sounds play emotionally. Maybe they’re there to support credibility, to make these things seem real. That’s important, but it’s also great when you’re on an assignment and your director asks you for a motor that sounds cute, or wants more pathos in that servo. Those are not the questions you usually get when you’re rushing to get sound effects put in the movie.