Alumni Profile

Aural Surgery

Filmmaking was just a hobby
for physics major Ben Burtt MA ’75 when he left Allegheny, Pa., in 1970 to do graduate work at USC’s School of Cinema-Television. It became a consuming passion for the Oscar-winning sound designer who gave voice to a menagerie of characters in the 1977 blockbuster, Star Wars.
Burtt learned his craft alongside such Hollywood trailblazers as Robert Zemeckis ’73. But it was an earlier USC alumnus who gave Burtt his first film job. In 1975, director George Lucas ’66 was looking for a USC student willing to work for peanuts on his next film, a Western set in space. Lucas didn’t want to rely on the studio’s library of recycled sound effects, so he hired Burtt to record and build a library of new sounds. Nearly a year away from the start of filming, Burtt’s first task was to create the voice for a Wookie. Before Lucas could cast the actor and design the mask, it would be crucial to determine the Wookie’s voice. The director suggested Burtt experiment with large animals, so he first tried the zoo. Dissatisfied with those recordings, Burtt tried an animal farm in Tehachapi. From one session with a cinnamon bear named Pooh, Burtt recorded the base for the Wookie’s speech; he sweetened that with the barks, growls and whimpers of dogs, walruses and lions – and Chewbacca’s voice was born.
Among the 800-plus sound projects he created for Star Wars, Burtt also breathed life into chirpy R2D2 and gasping Darth Vader (by placing a microphone in an aqualung regulator, Burtt helped create one of cinema’s most indelible villains).

For his work, Burtt received a Special Achievement Award at the 1978 Academy Awards.
Sound artist Ben Burtt and friend R2D2: cleaning up at Oscar time.
“Winning that Oscar on my first film was a wonderful professional moment,” he says, “but I also paid for it in the next few years.” Puffed up from this extraordinary start, his ego, he says, took some time to get back in check. After Star Wars, he was at a loss: how could he top his début performance? “It took me a while to figure out I never could,” he says.
Nonetheless, Burtt has built a remarkable career – including work on all five Star Wars films, all three Indiana Jones films and E.T. (creating E.T.’s voice by mixing 18 different human and animal sound elements). In all, Burtt has won four Academy Awards, and eight of the films he worked on are among the top 50 box office champions of all time. And at 53, he’s hardly finished: look for his newest sound designs in next year’s Star Wars: Episode II, which Burtt also edited.
Any guidance for current film students? “Your success as an artist, to say something new, ultimately depends on the breadth of your education,” he offers. “My recommendation would be to major in an area other than film, develop a point of view, and then apply that knowledge to film. Because if film is all you know, you cannot help but make derivative work. I found that what I had learned about sound, history, biology, English, physics all goes into the mix.” Sound advice, indeed.

– David Wally

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Alumni Profiles

Ben Burtt '75

Frank Ferrante '85

Martha Masters '00

In Memoriam

John Ferraro