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July 11, 2007

WALL• E & Ben Burtt

wall_e.jpg I finally got out to see Ratatouille the other night, and found my spirits soaring from the first frame onward; it's one of the best pictures I've seen in a long time, studio or otherwise. Brad Bird is an exceptional filmmaker, any way you cut it; like Don Hertzfeldt and a handful of others currently working in animation, he makes films that entirely transcend the particulars of their form.

Preceeding the feature, however, was a teaser for next year's Pixar release, a film by Andrew Stanton entitled WALL• E. The titular character is an adorable little robot (resembling Johnny 5 crossed with a puppy) who, from the tiny glimpse we get here, appears to be working in the service of a plot that will send him out on a traditional Campbellian journey of self discovery. But classical motifs be damned - I'm completely enchanted by this trailer, and I can't wait to see the finished film. Part of the reason is that I love robots. The other is that, as evidenced so wonderfully in the trailer (the character's annunciation of his own name at the conclusion of the trailer is just about the best thing ever), the robots are being "voiced" by Ben Burtt.

Burtt is most famous as a sound designer. His first big movie was Star Wars, and he won a Special Achievement Oscar for it; but after the initial heyday of Lucasfilm in the 80s, he largely disappeared from the big screen, working on Lucasfilm TV and videogame projects while other Ranch audio alumni like Gary Rydstrom (whose directorial debut Lifted plays before Ratatouille) went on to gain more public acclaim and renown throughout the industry. Reading J.W. Rinzler's outstanding volume The Making Of Star Wars last month, I was reminded of just how much Burtt contributed to the trilogy; every sound that has become so ingrained in pop culture was his creation (many of them, including R2-D2, actually were him), the product of months of field recording, experimenting, cataloguing and editing; he even ushered the Wilhelm Scream into the level of prominence it now enjoys.

His name returned to the big screen in 1999. Growing up with an intimate knowledge of everyone who helped bring the Star Wars saga to the big screen, it was somewhat thrilling for me to see that Burtt had graduated to picture editor on The Phantom Menace. He would go on to cut the subsequent prequels, an experience which seems to have been a turning point. There's a moment in the Episode 1 making-of documentary where he explains how Lucas would pick out the elements he liked in every take and combine them into a single shot; he sounded very wary of the implications of such freedom on the craft of filmmaking. Maybe Lucas went too far for his tastes, because after Episode III Burtt left Lucasfilm for the pastures off its progeny, Pixar. I'm anxious to see what he does there. And according to IMDB, he has a directorial effort entitled Chassis in the works.

A great film is fifty percent great sound, and as I've grown ever more aware of the role that audio has on cinema, it's become increasingly clear that Ben Burtt is one of the unsung heroes in the development of motion pictures as we know them today. Regardless of what he does next, I'm looking forward to hearing and/or seeing it.

Posted by David Lowery at July 11, 2007 7:20 PM