The Sound of Wall-E at the Rafael

First, let me apologize for getting this out to you so late. It describes an event that happened a month ago tomorrow, and I wrote it that day. I held back on posting it because I was hoping to have it posted elsewhere.

Andrew Stanton and the folks at Pixar created an amazing although compromised piece of work when they made Wall-E (read my review). Sound designer Ben Burtt, who more than three decades ago invented the squeaks and beeps that made us fall in love with R2D2, deserves a large part of the credit for what makes WALL-E work. He created the title character’s voice twice, both as an actor speaking the few words the little robot says in the movie, and in distorting and altering those words in ProTools to make them sound less human. Burtt estimates that he created over 25,000 sounds, not all vocal, for this one movie.

Sunday afternoon after a screening of WALL-E at the Rafael, Ben Burtt took the stage to tell us about and demonstrate how he created WALL-E’s the bits and pieces of WALL-E’s audio environment. He brought props large and small, and several members of his crew.

Burtt admitted that he was originally reluctant to take on the assignment. He had just come off of Revenge of the Sith and “was kind of burnt out on robots.” But Stanton intrigued him with the idea of a robot love story that would be, if not a silent movie, than at least a “non-verbal” one.

“Not everything is done on a digital computer,” explained Burtt, after playing a wind effect created by filtering a recording of Niagara Falls. In fact, in answer to a reader’s question, Burtt guessed that only about 80% of WALL-E’s sounds were synthesized. People have an easier time believing in a science fiction or fantasy setting, he argues, if the sounds come from the real world.

Proving his point, Burtt showed off a number of earthly gadgets he uses to create WALL-E’s out-of-this-world audio landscape. These include a World War II-era hand-cranked generator, and a old airplane’s inertia starter–essentially a bigger and heavier crank than the generator. He bought both on E-bay.

Listening to him, one gets the feeling that Burtt finds inspirations in everyday sounds most of us don’t notice. He showed us a large punching bag he originally bought for Indiana Jones effects, and explained how, when dragging it across the floor to put it away, he discovered yet another wind effect.

Photograph by Doug Currens

Burtt wasn’t the only master of prop sounds at the Rafael. He introduced his Foley artist, Dennie Thorpe, hwho had her own connection of noisy devices, including a broken toy wagon she bought at a thrift shop for $20. One gadget of no discernable purpose (her husband had made it) produced the sound of WALL-E removing and reinserting his eye. She demonstrated how she could change the tone, suggesting an empty cavity in the robot’s head, by putting the device on top of an empty cylinder. Thorpe also demonstrated an old suitcase that made a great squeak when she opened it.

In addition to Thorpe, Burtt also introduced the film’s various sound editors, who “took these notes I created and created themes,” and mixer Tom Myers. He discussed how Myers and other mixers have to reconcile the often-conflicting desires of the music and sound effects people. Myers explained how, on a busy soundtrack like WALL-E‘s, the mix helps guide the audience’s focus.

Burtt clearly enjoyed being on stage. A cell phone went off in the audience during the question and answer session. “I made that ringtone!” he cried out.