Exclusive: Ben Burtt's WALL-E Sound Masterclass

The world's most renowned Sound Designer teaches RT

by Ben Burtt | Friday, Jul. 18 2008

WALL-EBen Burtt needs very little introduction. The multi Award-winning Sound Designer, Director and Editor has been working in his field since 1975 and has created some of the most iconic movie sounds of all time. From Darth Vader's breathing, to the crack of Indiana Jones' whip, chances are if you heard it in a movie theatre when you were a kid it came from Ben Burtt's sound desk.

WALL-E presents a new challenge for Burtt, as his sound designs are put front and centre, most noticeably as the voice of the titular robot himself. Exclusively for RT readers, Burtt explains the challenge of creating another personality-rich bot or two.


WALL-EThe fun of being a sound designer is always to create a world of sound and, especially if it's a science-fiction movie, you get the challenge of really creating a whole world because most of the sounds you hear in the movie - from the ambiences, to the motors of the robots, to, in this film, the characters themselves - have to be created. You get to invent something that hasn't been heard before. Of course, to some extent, it seems original, yet it has to be familiar enough that people know what it means. There's almost that contradiction in the challenge for sound.

And that holds true especially for the voices, because Andrew Stanton, in the very beginning, wanted to convince the audience that the characters of EVE and WALL-E were machines, so they had to sound like machines. It's not so difficult to create a talking machine, but usually they're lifeless - there's no soul to it. It's a matter of coming up with a way of doing voices and collecting an array of sounds - of motors and other things - such that you give a character a sense of being alive; a soul, so to speak.

It goes back to R2D2, for me - problems I faced a long time ago - of trying to work out how to get the human element into it without making it too human and how to get the machine element into it without being too cold and impersonal. It's a sort-of 50/50 blend.


A lot of the effects I produce are achieved either by going out into the field and collecting things - which is the majority of sounds of motors, jet planes and such which we can borrow, as it were, and twist around and use in the movie. And then other things, like props in the studio, can be controlled. This is particularly important in animation when you're building up all these different elements, because you often want things you can control the timing of sound so that you can tailor it to the action of the movie.

We went to a number of different junk places - the movie needed so many crashes and impacts that we just threw things around all day. We'd pick up things like broken television sets and just toss them around and we'd get all different kinds of impact sounds.