How did Ben Burtt – the brilliant engineer who shaped the sound environment of the Star Wars saga – give rise to the singular buzz of lightsabers? Back on the making of this mythical sound of cinema.
A halo of blue or red light appearing in the dark. A futuristic weapon to perpetuate ancestral clashes. An object that has literally turned the history of cinema upside down.
If Star Wars lightsabers have left such an imprint in the imagination of fans for over 40 years, it is of course thanks to their design and their legendary aura, but also (and perhaps even above all) thanks to their design and their legendary aura. to their sound. A unique and recognizable hum, modeled from scratch by one of the great geniuses of the saga: the sound engineer Ben Burtt.
As he himself confides in the making of the original trilogy, this sonorous blacksmith – who also made Chewbacca roar, sing R2-D2, and roar the TIE hunters – considers the sound of the lightsaber to be one of his favorites. Maybe because he gave birth to her first.
In the early 1970s, when George Lucas entrusted him with the heavy task of shaping the sound environment of Star Wars, Ben Burtt found himself totally fascinated by discovering the preparatory sketches signed by artist Ralph McQuarrie. One of these concept arts – of Luke and Vader face to face, wielding swords of light – particularly appeals to him.
“Somehow I could hear the sound of lightsabers in my head”, he recalls. “Even though it was only a painting, I almost heard their sound. I think somewhere in my subconscious, I must have seen a lightsaber before.”
But to give birth to one of the most legendary sounds of cinema, a intuition is not enough. After having heard it echoing in his mind, it remains for Ben Burtt to reproduce this purring in reality. To do this, he knows exactly where to start:
“In the booth where we were showing movies, the projectors hummed when they were on”, he says in a second making of. “They were idling, the engines were just sitting there, with that sort of mysterious, magical, almost musical hum. I thought that was probably what the sound of a lightsaber would sound like.”
This sound which, for decades, was about to make dark rooms around the world vibrate, therefore logically saw the light of day in a projectionist booth. But this providential find is only the beginning of the path for Ben burtt. In order to complete his work, he must mix his initial buzz with a new sound ingredient, with a second element:
“I discovered this sound one day by accident”, he continues. “I was carrying a microphone across a room [ndlr : dans son appartement]. At one point, the microphone passed right by a television set on the floor, which was on but was not emitting sound. When the microphone passed behind the CRT, it produced an unusual hum. He picked up the television transmission and the signal caused that sound. (…) It was a great buzz. ”
By mixing the murmur of the spotlight and that of the microphone passing behind a television, Ben Burtt now has the sound basis of his lightsaber. But he still has one last step to take to achieve the final result: to breathe an impression of movement into this famous purring, in order to simulate a frenzied duel between the characters.
“I played the combination of those two buzzes over and over through a speaker, in a room. And then I took another microphone, and waved it in the air next to that speaker. . I would approach it, then I would pull it away, I would whip the air next to it. And by recording with a moving mic, you get a variation in tone in the sound. And so you can produce a very realistic imitation of the sound. in motion, give the lightsaber that sense of motion. “
It is therefore by taking everyday sounds, by combining them, by modeling them and by harmonizing them that Ben Burtt was able to shape one of the most memorable elements of the saga. Star wars.
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