Monday, October 15, 2012

My buddy Burtt

Ben Burtt is one of my heroes. Apart from popularizing the Wilhelm Scream, he did sound design for all of the Star Wars films. He gave us Artoo's voice, Vader's breathing, the footsteps of AT-ATs. By embedding Lucas's fantastic, alien visuals in an organic bed of sound, he made the Star Wars universe feel real in a way no other fantasy world ever had. R2-D2 didn't just beep and bloop; he spoke, and his fans whirred, and his servos whined when the sands of Tatooine got into them. Ben Burtt gave Artoo life.

I wanted, in my own fumbling way, to honor Burtt in my Empire Uncut clip, so I did all of my own sound recording — no downloaded clips, no computer-generated sounds (though I did edit them electronically). Kat looped her own dialogue for Admiral Piett, since her face is visible on-screen, but everything else was me:

  • Vader's voice was my voice, slowed incrementally and filtered a bit.
  • Threepio's voice was my voice speeded up slightly. (Threepio was one of the first impressions I ever tried to do, when I was wee. "Artoo Detoo, you found a cigarette!")
  • Boba Fett had my voice as well, processed to sound like it was coming through a speaker.
  • The Executor's bridge hum was the whirring of my iMac.
  • Vader's breathing was me breathing through a snorkel, trimmed and spliced to match the timing of Vader's actual breathing.
  • The Star Destroyer's blasters started life as water in a steel bowl, struck by a spoon, with a lot of layering and flanging and whatnot. (Probably my least successful SF/X. I had high hopes. Ah well.)
  • The explosions were layered "bssh" mouth noises.
  • In the shot between Dengar and IG-88, there's a mechanical clattering in the right channel that I took to be IG-88's mechanisms. I replicated them with mouth noises.
  • I added a couple of subtle bloops for IG-88's "voice", which were really reversed kazoo noises put through a flanger.
  • When the Falcon is hit, the crash you hear is a slowed-down sample of some art supplies and rolls of tape pushed onto the floor.

It took hours of nudging and tweaking to get things sounding more or less right, and I'm sure I could have spent hours more. My first mix was overwhelmingly noisy; I had to dial back all of the background noises to 12% or 20% to make the ambience feel more or less natural. To make Piett's off-screen voice come out of the left channel, I had to export the audio to GarageBand and tweak it there, because iMovie doesn't handle channels (what, really?!?). But I'm very proud of the end result; listening to my clip with headphones will enhance the experience, not detract from it.

I spent the night before sound editing editing the video tracks, which went pretty smoothly — except for the green screen compositing. For the other five shots, it became clear quickly which take I wanted to use, and iMovie's clip editor made it easy to fine-tune the start and end of each clip. I just measured the frame count of each shot in the original, and made sure my shots had the same number of frames (although I extended the circular wipe a smidge, because it looked too fast otherwise). I have a continuity mismatch or two around Vader's movements, but (don't tell anyone) one of them's there in the original, too.

The green screen cockpit, though, was a nightmare. I had "hot spots" of light on the screen, which were washing out the green, and enough green on my actors to create artifacting on their heads. If I adjusted the color balance in iMovie to correct the problems, my asteroid field began to wash out, and eventually vanished altogether. Even worse, the camera I was using didn't have an exposure lock, so when everyone leaned out of frame the exposure compensated, changing all the values. The desaturated, blurry, noisy cockpit scene I have in the final cut — it looks like the Falcon is driving slowly through a blizzard — was the best I could achieve after about three hours of tweaking.

But that is part of the fun, isn't it? Making the best of the shots you have, no matter how meager, and calling the result good. After three nights of editing, I was ready to upload.

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