Interviewed by John Papageorge
Four-time Academy Award-winner Ben Burtt broke into the movie business at age 10, when he started making "little dramas" with the family's home-movie camera.
Burtt has gone pretty far since "The Window Washer" -- his first short made 38 years ago -- in which a toy soldier plunges off a high rise.
You may not know his name, but Burtt's creations are full-fledged cultural icons. He invented that humming, crackling sound we hear when Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader unsheath their light sabers and prepare to do battle in the Star Wars trilogy.
He also created the whistles, pops, and other more indescribable sounds emanating from that noisy contraption known as R2D2.
And the creepy breathing that comes from under Darth Vader's mask? While the voice was from actor James Earl Jones, the raspy breathing came from Burtt's own lungs -- fed through a microphone placed in a scuba-tank regulator.
Burtt has two specialties -- sound and special effects. Besides his work on the Star Wars films, his skills have been on display in movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and E.T.
Most recently, his technical expertise and knowledge of film history have been put to use in Special Effects, his third movie using mind-grabbing IMAX technology. Special Effects, which Burtt directed, encompasses 100 years of cinematic history, and is a study of how the masters worked their celluloid magic. "I was always attracted to the idea that you could create impossible events on film," he says.
Going behind the scenes in the current remake of the Star Wars films, Burtt revisited some familiar territory in Special Effects; this "techumentary" also swings onto the set of Independence Day, a Fox movie about aliens taking over the world, and visits Jumanji on location, where computer-generated animals were created with such attention to detail that audiences believed they were the real thing.
When Burtt creates something on film, he first simulates it in his mind. And there's an intellectual basis for that: his parents both taught college-level science, and he majored in physics.
Burtt sees some irony in his career path. "I ended up in a world of complete make-believe, which continually violates the laws of physics in the films that I work on."
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