Archival footage shows the Star Wars sound design master and his method for creating the sonic signature of the series most iconic weapon
You may not recognize the name Ben Burtt at first glance. You have, however, assuredly seen and heard his work. Burtt is the father of all sound design for the Star Wars saga, and indeed very likely the progenitor of all modern sound design in film. Like his musical counterpart – John Williams – Burtt’s contribution to the legendary legacy of Star Wars cannot be overstated.
In the following video from the archives, Burtt describes the process of inventing the historic hum of the Lightsaber. No self-professed super fan can consider themselves authorities until they’ve heard the sonic creation story of the most iconic weapon in all of science fiction:
(Note: This archival footage is very quiet. Adjust your volume accordingly.)
Burtt received a Master’s degree in film production from the University of Southern California. Around the summer of 1975 he began his collaboration with George Lucas on the science fiction film that would become Star Wars. The sound of the Lightsaber was, in fact, the first sound he developed for the original film. Burtt was moonlighting as a projectionist at a local theater, and he noted that the projectors in the theater had a unique and compelling hum. While idling the projector motors would shift in pitch and phase with each other, creating a rich tonality. He recorded the sound as an initial element – but something was still missing for the full aural frisson required.
Burtt had acquired half of what would become the Lightsaber hum, but knew he needed a sound with a harder edge. Like many successful and hardworking artists, the pursuit of his craft lead to a stroke of luck. While moving across a recording room with microphone in hand, Burtt passed by an old television that was on but had the sound muted. The microphone passed behind the cathode-ray tube and began to hum with a scintillating and bright quality. Burtt knew that this was the second portion of his sound.
Having attained the full aural asset, Burtt turned his attention to creating the impression of movement in the sound. The Lightsaber would be used in combat after all and the sound could not simply be a static hum. In order to effect this movement he turned to his knowledge of physics and reproduced the Doppler Effect for his hum.
Playing the layered sonic elements over a loudspeaker and recording in time to picture, Burtt waved and slashed a long microphone to and fro in front of said speaker. This created the Doppler Effect of rising and falling pitch dependent on location relative to the speaker. Burtt had his dynamic saber sound!
While the creation of this iconic sound is due in no small part to Burtt’s own creative genius, he didn’t create it in a vacuum. He had the collaboration of legendary concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, and the stunning artwork McQuarrie provided played a key element of visceral inspiration. Since its inception Star Wars has been unifying the best and brightest minds in the field.
The legacy of Ben Burtt and his collaborators can be seen, heard, and experienced even to this day. It should come as little surprise to know that Burtt has been honored with several Academy Awards and has worked on other fan favorite films including (but not limited to) the Indiana Jones series.
As fans we often find ourselves allowing strong opinions regarding our favorite story to overrule the appreciation for the talent and commitment that the creative teams employ to deliver us to new cinematic heights. The actors, artists, sound designers, set builders, composers, and yes, even directors are all people first and foremost. It’s important – and needed for a healthy continuance – that we appreciate the shared humanity of the craftspeople involved in Star Wars. Sharing the stories of technical brilliance and artistic integrity is just one way to show our appreciation, and ensure further stories in the galaxy far, far away.