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6 Unexpected Sources Of Iconic 'Star Wars' Sounds

Ben Burtt, the man who coined the term "sound design," used some unique source material to produce the most iconic sounds in 'Star Wars.'

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Ben Burtt, the man who coined the term 'sound design' has created some of the most iconic sound effects in modern cinematic history. From the buzz of a lightsaber in the original Star Wars films to Wall-E's robotic croon, he has become a master of building realistic sounds out of untraditional and unexpected objects.

Throughout the production of Star Wars, he had to make the sounds of an entire galaxy (far, far away), but was limited to the objects he could scavenge from his own home planet. Here are a few examples of the strange source material for some of the most well-known pop culture sounds in the whole film canon.


Emotional Bear Growls

Burtt and his crack team of sound designers gathered a whole library of growling and purring animal sounds to create Chewbacca's gutteral language. In an interview on the Star Wars YouTube channel, he described the brainstorming process, saying, "He's not gonna speak English, he's gonna speak some sort of alien, animal type of voice. It's supposed to be an intelligent language, but not English." The voice he wound up using was made up mostly of bear growls that he felt had some emotional weight, from anger to disappointment to sadness. We've got to respect a man willing to make a bear angry for the sake of his craft.

Baby Giggles

The early experiments for R2-D2's voice were very machine-like, which didn't make sense for a character that was supposed to be an endearing rebel (who couldn't speak a lick of English). Burtt came up with R2's iconic whistle by making random noises with his mouth that ended up sounding like the giggles and croons of an infant. He went with that feeling and created R2-D2's innocent, energetic tones with a synth, matching the tones he vocalized.

A Metal Shearing Machine And A Rusty Dumpster Door

The AT-ATs that ravaged Hoth were, in reality, only a couple feet tall. Good animation techniques made them look and act like the behemoths destroying rebel defenses in the films, but Burtt's sound design was necessary to make them actually feel like the size of a building. For the ominous stomping throughout the battle sequence, Burtt recorded a massive shearing machine used to cut sheets of metal. The sound of its massive-looking joints squeaking forward and back comes from the rusty door of a dumpster that happened to be dropped off on the street near Burtt's house.

A Scuba Rebreather

In the same interview series, Burtt discusses the creative process of designing Darth Vader's sound. Originally, he had planned for Vader to sound like a barely human walking mass of machinery. "You could hear his heart beating, he moved his head and you'd hear motors turning. He was almost like some sort of robot," Burtt said. Eventually the sound team realized that they had to cut back on the chaotic noises, just leaving the steady, rhythmic breathing that has since become an icon of intimidation. According to a Silicon Valley Radio interview, the breathing was captured by microphones hooked up to a less futuristic life support apparatus: a scuba rebreather.


An Old Movie Projector And A TV Picture Tube

The sound from a Jedi Knight's weapon of choice was created by a series of pure, happy accidents. Burtt worked as a projectionist before collaborating on Star Wars, where had frequently used an old Simplex projector. He'd often leave the machine running, and its background humming comprised one part of the now-iconic lightsaber woosh. The other component materialized when Burtt dragged a microphone past a TV that was powered on. The mic unleashed a crackling sound then he later broadcasted in a room, and re-recorded it with a microphone wand. When he waved the wand (as it recorded the other mic) it yielded the swinging sound that subsequently changed the imaginary play of eight-year-olds everywhere.


It makes sense that movie explosions would come from recordings of actual explosions, but the lengths Burtt went to record the the Star Wars explosions are objectively senseless. According to one interview, he sat in on all sorts of military weapons testing—from missiles to artillery—and put microphones as close to the blast point as possible. Once, he was even bombarded by Howitzers, including artillery that landed within 500 feet of his own location. Bears are one thing, but facing the U.S. military to make a movie sound more real? That's what separates the masters from the merely great.

You can find more of the interview with Ben Burtt on the Star Wars YouTube Channel.



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