A legendary figure in the history of motion picture sound effects, Ben Burtt virtually invented the job of sound designer by his innovative creations for such films as "Star Wars" (1977) and its five sequels, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1982), "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982) and "WALL-E" (2008). Though Burtt worked frequently in fantasy and adventure genres for directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, his creations were largely borne from organic sources - animal cries, found objects ranging from power lines to shopping carts, and even his own voice - which added startling levels of reality to the films' array of fantastical creatures and technology. His work was richly rewarded by the motion picture industry, and his talent placed him at the highest level of respect by a legion of fans and fellow moviemakers alike.
Born July 12, 1948 in Jamesville, NY, Benjamin Burtt, Jr. was the son of a chemistry professor at Syracuse University, which may have informed his initial career choice - physics, which he studied at Allegheny College. But Burtt was also a film buff with a particular fascination for sound - he frequently made audio recordings of his favorite films - and dabbled in direction in the early 1970s. One of these efforts - an air warfare drama called "Yankee Squadron" - landed him top honors at the National Student Film Festival in 1970. A subsequent film earned him a scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he earned a master's degree in 1975. While there, he further developed his interest in sound effects and editing through a student job in the Columbia sound library, which had been donated to the school.
In 1975, producer Gary Kurtz returned to his alma mater at USC in the hopes of finding crew members for a science fiction epic he was developing with director George Lucas. On the recommendation of several professors, he located Burtt and introduced him to Lucas, who discussed his interest in creating organic sounds for the alien worlds and technology of his film rather than artificial or electronically generated effects. Burtt then spent a year collecting and manipulating sounds for what would eventually become "Star Wars" (1977). The hum of Luke Skywalker's light saber was created by combining the sound of an idling film project with feedback from a malfunctioning television set, while the sonic rush of the landspeeder was the sound of traffic on a Los Angeles freeway as heard through a vacuum cleaner hose. For the film's menagerie of creatures and robots, Burtt constructed roars, gasps and bleeps by stitching together the sounds of real animals and even his own voice, which provided some of R2-D2's iconic vocalizations and the ominous rasp of Darth Vader's breathing apparatus. Several stock sounds, culled from Burtt's vast knowledge of vintage effects, were also utilized, including the legendary "Wilhelm scream," a recording taken from the 1951 film "Distant Drums." Burtt revived the effect in "Star Wars" and would go on to use it in numerous subsequent projects, which in turn made it a favorite among sound designers and aficionados alike.
Burtt's landmark work on "Star Wars" was honored with a Special Achievement Award by the Motion Picture Academy in 1978, and established him as one of the most sought-after sound editors and sound designers in the industry. It also launched a 15-year career with Lucas - after a brief stint as a independent on the low-budget spoof "The Milpitas Monster" (1976) and uncredited work on the Roger Corman-produced cult classic "Death Race 2000" (1975) - which would eventually encompass all five "Star Wars" sequels, from "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) to "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" (2005). His work on "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981) for Lucas and Steven Spielberg led to further projects with the acclaimed director, including "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), whose voice was created in part by the sound of Burtt's wife's breathing while suffering from a cold. In addition to these films and others for Lucas and Spielberg, Burtt also contributed sound design to Lawrence Kasdan's 1978 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1978) and Jim Henson's "The Dark Crystal" (1982). For his early career efforts, Burtt won three Academy Awards - for "Raiders," "E.T." and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989) - and eight additional nominations.
In 1990, Burtt left his post at Lucasfilm to pursue a career as a director. He would go on to direct several documentaries in the IMAX format, starting in 1990 with "Blue Planet." In 1993, he returned to the Lucasfilm fold to serve as second unit director and editor on several episodes of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" (ABC/USA, 1992-96) before helming the feature-length "Young Indiana Jones and the Attack of the Hawkmen" (ABC, 1995). At the conclusion of his tenure with the series, he was tapped to work on the soundtrack for the special edition VHS and DVD releases for the original "Star Wars" trilogy.
After writing and directing the IMAX feature "Special Effects: Anything Can Happen" (1996), Burtt returned once again to Lucasfilm to begin work on the highly anticipated "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace" (1999), Lucas' long-awaited fourth film in the series, and the beginning of a second trilogy that brought viewers from the earliest history of the film's character up to the events of the 1977 film. In addition to sound design, Burtt was hired to work on pre-visualization; he produced so much material on the film's key action sequences that he was eventually hired to edit them alongside Martin Smith. Burtt later became the sole editor for the sequels, "Star Wars: Episode 2 - Attack of the Clones" (2002) and "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" (2005). Meanwhile, Burtt's groundbreaking work on the original trilogy was being discovered by a new generation of fans through theatrical reissues, DVD releases, and through countless video games based on the series.
The new millennium found Burtt busy as ever with Lucas- and Spielberg-related projects, including "Munich" (2005) and the third "Raiders" sequel, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (2008). That same year, Burtt wowed audiences by providing many of the voices and sound effects for the Pixar animated feature "WALL-E" (2008). He was hired by producer Jim Morris shortly after completing "Revenge of the Sith," and despite his vow to never work on another film with robot characters, he was intrigued by the ideas put forth by director Andrew Stanton, who had cited R2-D2 as the watermark for realism in screen robots. Burtt began work on the film in 2005 and experimented with various ways of filtering and manipulating his voice, which would later serve as the primary vocalization for the film's eponymous robot hero, as well as that of M-O, a fellow maintenance robot. Burtt worked closely with the animation team to develop the 2,500 recorded sounds used in the film - a career record for him - and tapped such eclectic devices as a hand-cranked electrical generator, a car starter, and a Slinky struck by a timpani stick for effects. Others were created by recording the sound of Niagara Falls, a radio-controlled jet plane and a shopping cart, which he and his daughter tossed down a hill for a scene in which WALL-E evaded a rain of falling carts.
Burtt's work on the film attracted a considerable amount of attention, not only for his standard level of wizardry in creating the effects, but by the degree of empathy and even humanity that that brought to the characters. The year 2009 brought a landslide of award nominations for Burtt, including two Oscar nods for Best Achievement in Sound and Sound Editing, as well as nominations from the BAFTA Awards and Annie Awards for Best Sound and Best Voice Acting in an Animated Feature. That same year, he returned to the science fiction genre by providing the sound design for director J.J. Abrams' re-imagination of the "Star Trek" (2009) franchise.
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First film credit, provided additional sound effects for "The Milpitas Monster"
Received a special achievement Academy Award for creating the memorable sounds for "Star Wars"
Received his first sound design credit for Lucas' "The Empire Strikes Back"
First collaboration with director Steven Spielberg as sound designer for Lucas' "Raiders of the Lost Ark"; earned second special achievement Academy Award
Received third Academy Award for designing the voice of the title character in Spielberg's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial"
First TV credit as a writer on the short-lived animated children's series "The Great Heep" (ABC)
Won fourth Oscar for his sound effects work on "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"
Directorial debut, the IMAX documentary "Blue Planet"
First TV series credit as an editor and second unit director for ABC's "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles"
Co-directed the Oscar-nominated short documentary "Special Effects"
Garnered tenth Academy Award nomination for his sound effects editing on "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace"
Re-teamed with Lucas for "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones"
Provided sound effects for "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith"; also voiced captain Lushros Dofine
Re-teamed with Spielberg for "Munich"
Once again teamed with Lucas and Spielberg for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"
Created the voice of the title character in Pixar's animated film "WALL-E"; also worked as the sound editor and mixer; earned Academy Award nominations for Achievement in sound mixing and Achievement in sound editing