Ben Burtt on Jumping From 'Star Wars' to ‘Star Trek': 'My Universes Probably Are a Little Bit Blurred'
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Legendary sound editor and sound designer Ben Burtt, who reteamed with J.J. Abrams to lend his considerable talent to Star Trek Into Darkness, humbly admits after nearly four decades working in science fiction: "I'm afraid my universes probably are a little bit blurred at this point."
Burtt has created some of the most iconic sounds in motion picture history, from voices of characters such as R2D2 and WALL-E, to the recognizable swish of a light sabre. He earned Special Achievement Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his work on Star Wars and Raiders of the Los Ark, and Oscars for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Coincidentally, Star Trek was an early influence for Burtt. "When I worked on the very first Star Wars I was in some sense inspired by Star Trek the television series, along with earlier science fiction like Forbidden Planet and War of the Worlds," he told The Hollywood Reporter.
In the end, Burtt gave an "organic" feel to George Lucas’s Star Wars galaxy. "To make things sound real as if they used actual technology, the sounds would be derived from motors and aircrafts and machinery. We would record it in a factory or aircraft hangar and bring it back [to the studio] and process it a bit so you wouldn’t quite recognize it, therefore giving Star Wars a credibility."
To keep his worlds separate, he gave his Star Trek universe its own set of rules. "I have always said Star Trek should be musical,” Burtt explained. "If someone presses a button and the elevator door opens on the Enterprise, it should play a little melody. That is something signature to the original TV series. Most of the sound effects for that show were done by musicians in the music sessions while they recorded the score. Gene Roddenberry was instrumental in pushing for each room [in the Enterprise] to sound distinctive and have a personality."
Burtt also placed emphasis on giving each of the key space ships — the Enterprise, and the enemy ship, Vengeance — their own contrasting characters.
“The Enterprise is always treated musically as being positive — the engine to the button pushes are pleasantly musical," Burtt said, explaining that for the enemy ship “everything would be deliberately minor key and off key so it had a sense of being nasty and uncomfortable."
The weapons were a creative challenge in that he had to avoid his own influence. "They were being critiqued a bit by J.J. for if they sounded like Star Wars," he admitted. “I had to take a new approach. We tried lots of new things [including] dropping heavy objects on sheets of metal."
Burtt is always on the lookout for sounds, and some of those used for Star Trek might be familiar though surprising. “At the Burbank airport there is a squeaky door in baggage. One time I just walked through it with my microphone and recorded it. That has been used for numerous altered versions of spacecrafts in the film."
"I’m always searching for sounds and we still go out and record real things,” Burtt related. "Sound effects are still generally derived from the world around us, rather than something complete synthesized in the computer. We are still inspired by what we hear."