If you're at all familiar with Benny Burtt's father's iconic sound work on the Star Wars films, you might say that he has big shoes to fill. But, in his own right, as his own man, Benny Burtt has already put his own sonic signature to a number of high-profile films.
Currently working at Skywalker Sound as the Assistant Sound FX editor, Benny took time out to chat with us about the projects he's been working on, the life of a sound recordist and editor, and how he approaches sound design.
It's fascinating read from someone who has already worked on films such as Ice Age, Indiana Jones and Kingdom of Crystal Skull, Up and Toy Story 3...
Tell us about how you got into Sound FX editing.
My Dad, Benjamin Burtt, does this and I grew up around it. I’ve always loved movies and I never thought I’d be involved in the sound-side per se, but I always wanted to be involved in movies. I loved watching my dad work and going to work with him. The atmosphere always excited me and I knew that was what I wanted to do! In High School my Dad was working on Star Wars episode 2 so our whole family went to Australia for the summer while they were shooting. To keep me busy my dad gave me his recorder and sent me on assignments around Sydney to record various sound effects, atmospheres, birds, etc. I spent a lot of time hanging out on the sound stage watching them film the movie, and I’d also collect any production sound effects I could from props or machinery. There’s all sorts of cool sounds you can find on a film set.
Were you using mono or stereo mics?
I was using a DAT recorder back then with a stereo microphone, Sanken CMS-7S. You’d want to use stereo for ambient noises because you get a sense of space. The sounds are bouncing off all the objects around you and coming in the left or right side. It basically provides width to the sound. We record both by using the M/S technique (Mid and Side). It records mono from a directional source and a side mic picks up any sounds coming in from the left or right.
I haven’t done a ton of M/S recording, and it’s important to remember it doesn’t give a true stereo image, but it does allow for some flexibility. Or example, if I record a car passing by and there’s an explosion off to the left I can quickly change over to the explosion.
Did any of the sounds you recorded make it into the film itself?
Yes, I couldn’t tell you specifics. But I gave the tapes over to my dad, and he logged them. I was only 16, so as soon as I was back in the States I left it to him! But this is how I got into recording at the time. I picked up my interested through this experience.
How does it feel to know millions of people have listened to sounds you’ve recorded?
It’s certainly a cool thing. I still get excited when I hear something on screen that I’ve recorded or made. The majority of people don’t know that. It’s something only I can pick out. No one would say ‘Oh, that’s Benny Burt’s recording!’ It’s more about personal pride for me.
The sound recordist’s job isn’t easy I imagine. What you do is so fundamental to creating an excellent film, tv program or game, yet most of the audience take it for granted.
It’s true! There is a big art involved in going out and collecting sounds: knowing what you need to record and if you’ll have control over how to record it. For example, if it’s a car will I be able to drive it back and forth and do multiple takes, versus a space shuttle launch where there’s just the one chance! Each recording trip is different, it’s a challenge each time and opens up cool opportunities for going places and seeing things which normally you might not be able to.
There’s other things you’ve got to pay attention to which can affect your recording. For example, ambient noise, like a gardner’s leaf blower. The goal is to always isolate your target as much as possible, unless you’re going for the ambient noise of course.
When did sound become your profession?
I initially wanted to go to film school. My dad said it’s a good thing and to study something else as a backup plan, as if I really wanted to do film I could come back to it later. I studied Exercise Science, as sports are the other big passion in my life. I worked as a Physiologist for a year but still wanted to get into film. I asked my dad if I could intern for him to get some exposure. They were starting work on Indiana Jones 4, and they’d never digitized the original Indiana Jones library, it was all on reel to reel or DAT, but there was never a digital library created so they search it and use it down the road. He hired me to create a digital library of the Indiana Jones sound effects. It took me 2 months and once they started post-production sound work he offered me an apprentice ship in the movie. That was my first big exposure and was a lot of fun. I consider myself totally blessed to do it.
A few months later, I decided I wanted to do film and came back to Skywalker and got another internship on the film, Up. Recording was what I had the best handle on.
After Up I had a dry spell of no work and was a little discouraged. Because my dad has had such an impact on the field I didn’t know whether I really wanted to continue doing this... There’s a lot of expectations especially as I share the same name with my Dad. So there’s expectations to be the greatest sound person ever. That was difficult for me. I knew I was fine enough, but it was difficult managing other people’s expectations: ‘Oh you’re Ben Burtt’s son. You must be a sound genius too!’
"There’s a lot of expectations especially as I share the same name with my Dad." But Benny is still smiling :)
I went back to the Physio clinic and as soon as I walked in there I knew I wanted to go back to do film. So, I kept in touch with my supervisor from Up and he offered me a job pretty quickly at Skywalker. It was like night and day in terms of mental well-being. I’m so happy here. I’m excited to come to work every day and we have a small team and I’m totally spoiled and blessed to be here!
What is the process for deciding on how a film will sound?
At the beginning of any project the sound designers and supervisors sit down with the director and have a spotting session and talk about how they want the film to sound, and what elements to highlight. Then the designer goes through and decides what needs to be recorded. At Skywalker we have a giant library of effects, but that gets picked and pulled from all the tim. So for each new film you ideally want to get new material to use. For example, in Up there’s a Zeppelin. It turns out in the Bay area there’s a company that fly people around in Zeppelins! Quite convenient and we used that recording as a layer in the movie.
So, the designer gives you a list of effects that need to be recorded, and your job was to go out and track them down?
We always start off with storyboards to get an idea of the context of the sound is. If it’s something like a spaceship then it’s up to us to imagine what the object will sound like.
What gear and equipment do you tend to use in your everyday work?
As a sound effects editor I do editing and organization, in terms of keeping all the material organized for other editors. I make sure everyone has what they need. That involves a lot of assets. We use Pro Tools daily as our main editor and all the media lives on servers, so we can store media and access it easily. On a typical project like Ice Age we break the sound into dialogue, foley, music, etc and each of those have a lot of storage... Probably several terabytes of material.
What about field recorders?
There’s couple of different ones I use. Here at Lucasfilm we have some Sound Devices which we use all the time. I bought an Edirol R4 when I was in college, it’s half the price of the Sound Devices and it’s a good 4-channel recorder. I also like the Zoom H2n. It’s so portable and as it’s relatively cheap I can risk putting it in places I might not want to put a $2,000 recorder in! It captures pretty well, handles loud sounds very well and doesn’t distort so easily. Used it on a machine gun recording project and it did very well!
I use a Sanken CMS-7S a lot and my Dad’s Sennheiser's MKH 816. I trust the sound of both of these. In the past I’ve taken new mics on new adventures... But there’s nothing worse that getting back and realising you don’t like the sound you’ve captured. Once you know a mic well enough you understand how to correct the sound in post, etc. Oh, I also use the Sennheiser MKH 416, also a directional mic, but a little shorter than the 816.
A look inside Benny Burtt's field recording bag of tricks.
In post production, what plug-ins do you use?
Well, I’ve never been a giant plug-in guy. I love iZotope RX for cleaning up background noise. I like the Pitch n Time, Altiverb. I use a lot of Pro Tools’ built-in EQ and dynamics plug-ins. Since I’m not doing a ton of cutting or designing I don’t need to use lots of plug-ins just yet.
Are there any signature sounds you’ve been involved in you’re particularly proud of?
Well, in Cars 2 the main character has mini-guns that pop out of his headlights. So, I ultimately went down to Arizona who make mini-guns and spent two days in the desert firing these things. The ultimate guy thing! It was a cool experience, but these guns were so quick the sound was more of a drone than individual articulations. It was great getting bullet impacts and ricochets. That made it into the scene where the main character shoots up a casino.
There’s a couple more which have almost changed me as a person. With the Space program ending I set a goal to see one and hopefully recording one. By a series of miraculous events I became friends with a guy from NASA. I was invited to come down and see one of the three last launches, and was cleared to bring recording equipment. I got to walk around the Space Shuttles, record it. And then they invited me to come out for the last launch! I was able to put microphones as close as 1,200 ft from the launchpad. It was an amazing experience and I got some amazing recordings!
Recording Space shuttles from afar...
Have you used any of these recordings?
My friend at NASA made a video of the launch and I cut the sound for it using a lot of the sounds I recorded. As a video on YouTube it got 2 million views and opened up a lot of doors for me with associated companies and the Military/Air force to record rocket launches and more.
Even closer to the action...
What is the strangest place you’ve made recordings?
Recently we went to tunnels under the Bay bridge where they’re building a new span. It’s like a giant echo chamber. We took a starter pistol and walked down numerous flights of stairs about 30 ft under water... Very strange. We went there to record impulse responses for the Altiverb plug-in.
Your father was responsible for some very iconic sounds, from Darth Vader’s breathing to Tie-fighters. Did these have a big impact on you when you were growing up?
To be honest, it was never that big of a deal. I never thought much of it until I was older and people talked about him and Star Wars, or I saw him mentioned in a book. My Dad is a hero of mine and love reading about his work and working with him, but at the same time I’m aware I need to create my own path.
What tips do you have for capturing interesting sounds, like explosions?
Firstly, record at high sample rates. Try slowing it down in post as real explosions tend to be pretty quick pops or cracks! Hmmm. Obviously be in a safe environment with people who know what they’re doing! If you’re on a budget, then you can always put dry ice in a bottle or some sort of enclosed space, seal it and as the dry ice evaporates the gas pressure builds up and the can will explode. But wear safety goggles, outside preferably and be patient!
Do you have any tips for those wanting to break into doing film audio recording?
Well, I come from a unique situation. But, I’d suggest working hard and having a good attitude, and be willing to learn new stuff! If people like working with you they’ll want to hire you again. In terms of recording, just go out and do it. That’s the best way to learn. When I’m not working, I think about things and places I’d like to record. So, I go on the net, send emails out, call people and then see if I can go out and record.
You never know when you’re going to come across a really cool sound. So, having a portable recorder can be great fun. I just went to the Middle East in the summer, and it was great not having to travel with a big case of equipment. I just took my Zoom recorder, which is convenient and inconspicuous.
Check out Benny Burtt's credits on IMDB here: