Sound designer Ben Burtt began his career in 1975, and his innovations were quickly recognized by the Academy who gave him Special Achievement Awards for Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Burtt went on to win competitive Oscars for his work on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In addition to his long-standing collaborations with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Burtt also received two Oscar nominations for his work on WALL*E at Pixar, and now counts J.J Abrams as a regular collaborator. Burtt’s most recent work to hit theaters is Lincoln, for which he masterfully researched, recorded, and mixed a cornucopia of period sounds to help delicately recreate the ambiance of the White House and America in the 1860s. In celebration of the success of Lincoln, I recently enjoyed a conversation with Burtt, who spoke to me from Skywalker Sound while he was taking a break from working on next summer’s Star Trek Into Darkness. Here’s what Burtt shared with me about recording a pocketwatch owned by Abraham Lincoln, finding the sound of the 1860s House of Representatives, and crafting Lincoln.
Jackson Truax: At what point are you usually brought onto a film? And what are your first steps in finding the sound design?
Ben Burtt: If I’m sound designing a film, I like to be brought on before filming takes place, to read the script. To look over any artwork or designs visually that…might exist at that point, storyboards or artwork. To talk with the director about what his vision might be for the sounds in the film. What special things he’s expecting. Or special dramatic problems, challenges that he wants to explore, [and] thinks that sound will be an important tool for that… And then you want to read the script and break it down so you have a list of all the things you might need in the movie. So then you can go off and find them or create them. So that’s the ideal case… it varies, depending on what the producers of the film really want or what they can afford. Sometimes you’re brought in after the film is all cut together. And it’s been edited. And now it’s just being passed along for sound editorial. And you have much less time to design what is needed. You still try to talk to the director and see as many things as you can to get inspired… I’m usually inspired by what I see. If I see imagery, or I see artwork, and I can get a feeling for what the film is expressing visually, then I feel like I can complement that with something from an audio standpoint.
JT:Looking at the breath of your work with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and Pixar, does the work you do on a film vary based on the filmmaker you’re working with? Or is the artistry and the process the same regardless?
Burtt: I have my opinions. My own artistic sensitivity, my own goals. But you always are doing your work in the service of who is creatively in charge. And that’s usually the director… With people you work with repetitively, you obviously pick up a sense of what kinds of sounds appeal to them. And what their approach is. And you build a relationship. I think that, always in my case, my own style forces its way through at some point. But you’re always doing your work under the supervision of those directors you’re talking about. So you adapt. There are compromises. And then there’s just a partnership with them. Which can be very stimulating. You need someone to be accountable to. Someone who can react and say they love or hate something. Or suggests the next direction to go. There are obviously many, many cases where I’m on the trail of something, or developing something and George Lucas or Steven Spielberg will come in and listen and give me a whole new idea where to go with it. That will [yield] the best results.
JT:When making a film like Lincoln, someone like a costume designer or production designer would have to do a lot of research. Did you have to do a lot of research on Lincoln?
Burtt: I do research on every film, whether it’s a science-fiction film or a historical film. Obviously, there are differences when you’re working in a realm of complete fantasy, like Star Wars… You have a lot of freedom to invent a world of sound. When it becomes something like Lincoln, you look at the approach that the filmmakers are taking, which was to do their homework historically, to minute details. There was a goal in Lincoln to recreate the past and to honor it, respect it in the process. I didn’t have the freedom to invent what the ambiance in the executive mansion would be or what it sounded like on the streets of Washington City in 1865. I needed to know more about what might actually have existed at that time. So I did a lot of research. I’m very interested in history anyway. I’ve always been interested in Abraham Lincoln and his life. I’ve read many books. Many Civil War history books. And worked on many movies that took place in that period. So I had a background in the world of the Civil War period. So I was able to bring that to bear. I did a lot of additional work after I read the script for Lincoln. I was able to determine what the important settings were for the film. What the important action was and where it took place and what objects were being used. I was able to focus my attention on specifics. I did go to the White House. I went to museums to record artifacts that Lincoln actually heard in his life. I located things and did my best to build a texture in the film. An audio texture out of authentic threads… That evolved from months of research on my part.
JT:At any point before, during, or after production, do you coordinate with the folks who are on-set recording sound? What is that discussion like?
Burtt: We discussed, in casual terms, the project for a few years… I was invited to read the script the week they started filming. So I wasn’t involved in the official pre-production phase. But I was brought on at the time that they were filming… I went and read the script and was able to break it down. Then, based on that, I was able to have some discussion with Spielberg through e-mails and notes…because they were busy shooting, if I had any questions about things he wanted. I also talked with Ron Judkins who was the sound recordist on the set. His job is to, principally, record the dialogue. But also to record any necessary appropriate sound effects that might occur during shooting. And in this case, there were a few important things. Most notably, the crowds. Especially in the House of Representatives. A lot of the film takes place in Congress with a lot of Representatives arguing and pounding their desks and protesting… Judkins did an excellent job…to record, specifically, the actors that make up the crowd scenes in the film. So that you can get the appropriate groups of dialogue reactions, clean and separate from the actual moment they’re acting out the scenes… So you have actors speaking in the foreground…while you’re having a lot of reaction in the background. You can’t record both of them at the same time all that successfully. You concentrate on getting the foreground, principle character dialogue. But you want to have those crowd reactions and group reactions separate. So they staged those separately. Those also become pretty important when you do the foreign versions of the film, so you have an isolated, what’s called loop group. Or group tracks. They did a great job of preparing it that way. So that our dialogue team in post-production, headed up by Jonathan Null, was able to have good raw material to work with. Because they had a pretty formidable task of preserving as much of the shooting track as possible. In my case, I went to a place that was very much like the House of Representatives. I went to the Daughters of the American Revolution, their Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., which is an old chamber somewhat the size of the House of Representatives… I brought in some people. We set up chairs and benches and desks. We were able to do all of the footsteps and thumping on the tabletops and walking in and sitting down. And getting groups of people creaking in their chairs. So we weren’t doing vocals. But we were doing the other sounds that all those people would make. We were staging it and recording it in an appropriate acoustic space. So it sounded like an old space… It wasn’t done in a studio somewhere… We tried to stage it in a real place.
JT:There are a lot of really great, really meticulous sounds in Lincoln. One of the notable ones is Lincoln’s pocketwatch. How did you research and record the sound for that?
Burtt: In the script, it mentioned a few scenes where his watch was going to be present… So I immediately thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to try and see if one of his watches was still functional?” To my not great surprise, when I contacted a few of the museums that have Lincoln watches, no one had ever attempted to wind them up to see if they were still functional and if they would tick… That’s what I wanted to do. Initially, I talked to the Smithsonian, which has one of his watches. They, ultimately, after a few months of discussion, bowed out. They were just a little fearful about handling his watch. Fortunately, there was another Lincoln watch in the Kentucky Historical Society in Lexington, Kentucky. In fact, it was a better watch. Because the provenance makes it a good possibility that it was his watch. That he had at the Ford’s Theater when he died. But no one can prove that. It’s just a likelihood. But it was a watch passed down to his son, Robert Todd Lincoln. It basically found its way to the Kentucky Historical Society. They were really interested there in seeing if it would work. They brought in a watchsmith and did so. And it worked. So we went and recorded it. We brought a little soundproof box along and put it inside carefully. And isolated it from external noises. And got a good recording of it. That was a thrill, to hear that ticking again. In fact, I was listening to it yesterday. Just for fun. And we went to the White House to [record] the portico clock, which was in Lincoln’s office during those war years. And it’s still there today. And the White House caretakers were cooperative in letting us come and do that, as well as doors and door knocking and door hardware from those mahogany doors in the White House.
JT:Lincoln has already surpassed all expectations at the box office and has become an awards magnet. If you received Oscar nominations or won for Sound Editing or Sound Mixing, what would that mean to you at this point in your career?
Burtt: I’ve learned that the reward on these films is the daily reward when you’re working on it. To see it come to life with sound. Obviously awards that might be given out by the Academy or otherwise to me or any of the team…it’d be a great honor. But at this point in my life and career, I’ve learned that the reward comes in the daily work. It has to be derived from the process rather than the endpoint… And, of course, I’m thrilled that the film’s doing so well. Historical drama is not what Hollywood normally does. They’re very rare. And they’re usually not money-makers. They’re usually labors of love done by one or two filmmakers. To be honest, you just can’t get a historical film made in this era of fantasy films being the predominant investment. So it’s great to see that happen. I’ve had so many people come to me with compliments about the movie. That they really were drawn in by the characters, and also the visualization of history.