After putting together a career in which he pushed the limits of filmmaking as much as anyone ever has as a sound designer on films ranging from “Star Wars” to “Super 8,” Ben Burtt isn’t done blowing the doors off places, with no further evidence necessary than his current visit to Los Angeles where he started the week off at TCM Fest for a screening of “When Worlds Collide” where he and his partner-in-crime Craig Barron employed modern technology to achieve the effect of Sensosurround that producer George Pal had always hoped for.
“Things are going full blast,” says Burtt, who either be referencing his busy schedule or the 14 18-inch-wide subwoofers he and his partner-in-crime Craig Barron placed inside the American Legion Theater in Hollywood for the, quite literally, groundbreaking screening. “We can say that with ‘When Worlds Collide,’ because the pressure in the theater created by our low frequency enhancement, which we call Bend Surround, actually pushed the doors open on either side of the theater and afterwards we had to sweep up dust that came off the walls that was on the carpet.”
Wisely, the Academy Museum, where Burtt will be holding court this weekend for a series of special events, decided against even having doors on the entrance to “Behold,” a state-of-the-art circular cinema installation that’s bound to become a cherished attraction in the years to come. As much as Burtt has shaped the public’s imagination of space as a pioneering member of the team at Skywalker Sound, he was a student of it, coming of age in the heat of the space race where between the real rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to get a man on the moon and the steady stream of science fiction that made it to movie palaces that fantasized what they might be met with in such films as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Forbidden Planet.”
That bone-deep knowledge and the spark of wonder it continues to inspire can be seen throughout the 26-minute loop of both film and physical space where one can be immersed in the sights and sounds of a century’s worth of cinematic rendering of what’s beyond the earth, not only illustrating how notions of aliens and alternate galaxies have run through various cycles of perception from fear to curiosity, but also proving to be an insightful look at the history of movies when filmmakers from Fritz Lang in “Metropolis” to James Cameron in “Avatar” use the available technology of the time to express what they see as the future and in the panoramic montage Burtt creates, these visions can be experienced side-by-side to fascinating effect.
Tucked away in the third floor corner since the Museum’s opening, “Behold” is taking center stage this Saturday, April 22nd with a celebration of the legendary filmmaker starting in the morning with a special screening of “Wall-E,” for which he provided the plucky robot’s voice, and a career-spanning conversation in the evening, moderated by “Making Waves” director Midge Costin, tying together all his influences for his work on the exhibit. Graciously, he spared a few words for us in advance, discussing how “Behold” grew from an audio-only endeavor to a full-fledged film, the connections he made in juxtaposing scenes from over a century of cinema and how the project has led him back to being the experimental filmmaker he always wanted to be.
How did this installation at the Academy Museum come about?
“Behold” came up early on as exhibits were being developed for the museum. They had asked me [if I] could I create some audio montages of Hollywood history, basically a flow of dialogue [with] some music and sound effects extracted from classic films to play in the corridors or underneath the [Geffen] theater, like when you’re in Disneyland, [where] it’s audio that provides a backdrop. I made a number of different programs, each running 20 or 30 minutes to audition for that purpose, and it didn’t eventually become part of their plan, but they liked the audio, so one day for fun as an editor, I decided, “Well, I’ve created this audio montage, but what if I put the picture back attached to the sound?” Because it was a very interesting montage of movies and the audio was flowing nicely. I just shared it with themn, and that’s when they said, “We have an idea for a circular gallery on the third floor that is going to display the story of Hollywood and outer space.” They asked me if I would like to first consult on it, and as I fed them ideas, then eventually I was just given the project to handle completely.
I had knowledge of all the space films that I saw growing up, and it wasn’t just space. I also included time travel, because space and time are connected and I just started building on my recollections of the films. They were responsible for engineering that theater with the nearly circular screen that didn’t exist anywhere [else before], so there was no way to know at that point what it was going to look or sound like and there wasn’t a budget to really build a prototype with projectors and try to do it. So I basically just did guesswork, but I cut it using a display in front of me that was probably five feet wide and curved, like a screen that you can buy for gamers and as I would sit, I had some sense of the width and the peripheral vision, not a wraparound completely.
I worked that way for a long time, and when COVID brought a change in everybody’s habits, I just brought the project to my home studio and it was actually one advantage of being stuck like we all were that I could really just focus on the making of this film. It took a lot of concentration and I would just close the door, go into my studio and escape into this world of outer space and it gave me time to really experiment with combinations of imagery and come up with a structure. It’s not narrated or chronological, but a flow of imagery and sound held together with sound that visits different subjects within that time and space medium, so you have sections on weapons or aliens or spaceships or treks across unusual planets. The idea is really to build a living mural that you can stand or sit and look at it and hear it and you can stay for a minute or for 20 minutes and absorb it to the degree you want to. It was great because I wanted it to recreate all the feelings I had, especially as a child, growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, [where] space travel was this dream ahead of us and the space program was just starting.
It seemed to double as a history of Hollywood and the relationship between the film industry and the technology available at the time. Was that interesting to witness or juxtapose?
The juxtaposition of different images together is not random. I found very interesting emotional effects just by experimenting with what two or three or five images said all at once. You can look from one to the other because because you might be seeing an older kind of way a robot was conceived and then maybe a more modern, imaginative concept and it gave meaning to them beyond what they were as just individual clips. I loved it when you saw three ships all landing at once [from different films], with the flames coming out of the back or they’re hovering the mothership or a 1950s rocket and if you take it all in, you kind of get a total feeling for where filmmakers’ imaginations were at that time. They were always projecting forward or backwards in time as to what might be, and [it shows] our relationship to the technology and the thrill and magic of discovery of new worlds because I think that’s been part of mankind’s endeavor since they sailed across the oceans and went to unknown lands. There’s something within us that is curious and wants to go places unlike our home. What’s out there in the stars has always been a desire in fiction, and we’re inching our way there in reality.
There’s a great sequence of dialogue that’s echoed in a number of different films from the 1950s where the alien invaders all say some variation on, “We’ve been monitoring your activity for some time.” Were there things that were fun to pick up on?
Of course that was fun. There’s a section of the film which is alien threats that happened in many movies where a booming voice was broadcast to the earth saying, “You puny, meaningless creatures, we’re going to come and crush you.” There’s always that fear that there’s a superior civilization out there that would think we’re just bugs to be crushed. And I enjoyed a section on ray guns, where we just saw all these different beams and rays that would paralyze or disintegrate [what’s in front of them] and we envisioned these weapons different ways. There’s also a section of the film which is merely space voyages, [illustrating] the isolation of being far from earth, drifting toward a planet or drifting through the stars. It’s an eerie, dreamlike state, and I suppose in the audience’s mind, you’re always thinking there’s a fear that we’re far from home, but there’s an anticipation of discovery, which is out there somehow and that’s an appeal which is universal.
The sound is what really ties this together, and I know that’s where this started, but after putting the images together, what was it like to come back to?
Having a foundation in sound, I naturally always see it as a binding element. It’s like glue. That’s the very nature of sound creativity is connecting imagery and enhancing, giving the audience part of the story that the images may not give you. You’re completing the illusion. So as I developed “Behold,” I worked with at individual small scenes at first, not knowing in what order they were going to go and I would often lay down a sound that I had made on a synthesizer as a form of ambient music or I might start with a piece of classical music, which I felt had the right elegance and a timelessness and [would add] coloration emotionally, or sound effects, and I would build imagery often on top. Once you’ve got a synergy between some sounds and music and picture, you go back and forth and keep experimenting, going back to the beginning of a scene and close your eyes, wait a moment, press play, and then just try to feel where you’re going with it. That was done with each individual section of the movie, and then you start putting them together and rearranging things to have a flow and going from quiet to loud and from fast to something slow because you always want to have transitions in pace and thickness of sound and image to make it interesting all the time. It wasn’t a movie trailer [where] nowadays [there’s a] beating of a fist on a table, really with images impacting you in a small space of time. This was not that kind of montage. It’s actually a little more difficult to do something like “Behold” because you’re not relying on sudden impact all the time. It’s more like a symphony.
It was really transporting. And it seems like with the recent TCM Fest experience and this, you’re finding new projects where you can still experiment. Is it fun getting to do a variety of things like this now with all the experience you’ve had?
Well, I’ve done this all my life. I’m known for my sound work primarily, but I was always making films for my own enjoyment, which is how I started out as a teenager. I’m always making montages to music. I’m always fooling around with imagery. Most of these things just get shown at home, and I love doing it. Whether one can make a living doing it constantly, I’m not sure, but I am focusing on that now in this part of my career. I think I’ve said what I wanted to say in feature film work. and I’m returning to my desire to be a filmmaker and a director. I did numerous IMAX films over the years — one was nominated for an Academy Award called “Anything Can Happen,” and “Behold” was a great opportunity because it was something I could do alone as a creator. Obviously, there was help from the museum to clear all the permissions for clips and a lot of people work behind the scenes to make it possible to have these images and [conduct] the technological development to put that theater in and make the projection [work] – “Behold” has six projectors, and the sound system, which many people worked on, including Jim Austin here at Skywalker Sound, so I didn’t do it alone. But the filmmaking part of it, that is putting the images and sound together, was a solo experience.