Every bit as essential to the Star Wars experience as the special effects, the music, the design and the performances is the soundscape and that was pioneered by a team headed up by Ben Burtt. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, Burtt chats with StarWars.com and reminisces about the creation of the sounds that brought life to the galaxy.
Raised in a family of scientists, Burtt’s approach to sound design in the late 1970s had a decidedly academic undertone. “I was thinking I was going to be a science teacher,” he says. “I was brought up in a family of scientists…notes and notes and lab coats. And I was a physics major in college, so I was just trained to keep a record of what I was doing professionally. I don’t think I was thinking I’d be doing interviews 40 years later.”
But more than a scientific log, Burtt’s notes are a window into his creative process, his passionate energy for capturing sounds and preserving the history of sound in filmmaking. “I was always very interested in the history of sound effects in Hollywood in general, everything that led up to my career, and yet I found there was no information saved,” he says. “There’s very little behind-the-scenes material going back into the 1940s or 1930s about sound effects, and it’s extremely rare that any information comes to the surface because no one at the time left a record. They obviously didn’t do behind-the-scenes documentaries or interviews. Sound was not important enough to get documented, and the studios liked to keep their process a trade secret.”
And yet, when George Lucas first brought moviegoers along on a journey into a galaxy far, far away, he knew an authentic audio track, created from real-world sounds artistically manipulated and layered, could help define and create all-new worlds and make them feel entirely lived in and believable. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back this year, Burtt digs into his personal archives to share some of his favorite stories behind the sounds that defined the film.