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How Ben Burtt Designed The Sounds Of Star Wars

In this eminently watchable series of interviews, the Oscar winner explains how he created the sounds of R2-D2, lightsabers, and Chewbacca.

Star Wars is lauded for its visual effects, but the films’ sound design is just as good if not better. What would a light saber be without its ominous hum in the air? How scary would Darth Vader really be without his strange, mechanical breath?

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These sounds were created, not from stock libraries, but by sound designer Ben Burtt, who has worked on all of the Star Wars films since the original, along with the Indiana Jones series, Wall-E, and the Star Trek reboot.

A day after the release of the trailer for The Force Awakens, I discovered a vintage interview with Burtt hosted by the Star Wars channel on YouTube. I was shocked that it didn’t have millions of views, as it’s a must-watch to even the most casual of Star Wars fan. Through the course of a few short clips, Burtt talks about audio design at the highest level–how he had to source, blend, and synthesize characters and sounds that didn’t exist.

Chewbacca
For Chewbacca’s voice, Burtt chased around animals–mostly bears–for a year before building the right source library of growls, grunts, and even audible pain.

R2-D2
Burtt gathered his own vocalizations, fed through a synth, to create his most challenging character. But before that, he produced an entire, true robot voice for R2-D2. That voice must live on audio reels somewhere…

Darth Vader
Originally, Burtt imagined Darth Vader with far more mechanical sounds. But his mechanical body overwhelmed the rest of the mix.

Imperial Walkers
These walkers were made using small, stop motion animation models, so it was up to Burtt to add an audible mass to the vehicles. To create the sound of a stomp, Burtt turned to a metal stamping/shearing machine. And for the squeaky joints, he sourced sounds from the door of a dumpster that had been dropped at his house.

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Lightsabers
One of the most iconic Hollywood sounds was created largely by serendipity. Burtt was just walking by an old cathode ray TV with his microphone on when he heard a distinct, powerful buzz, and the rest is cinematic history. Also notable: Burtt swings a microphone as well as a Jedi swings a sword.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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