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The world of Star Wars extends far beyond amazing visuals. Sound plays just as much of a role in the development of a cinematic fantasy world. From the sounds of blasters, to the guttural chant of a Wookie, each tone and effect creates a new, intriguing element of the entire Star Wars universe that has become endlessly iconic in the forty years since A New Hope hit theaters. None of these sounds occur naturally; they require the talent of people like Ben Burtt to make them happen.
A new report from Popular Mechanics documents how six of the most iconic sounds from the Star Wars universe came into being. The first sound addressed by the article is one of the best documented: the blaster. Ben Burtt describes being on vacation and hearing the sounds of rocks hitting the support cables of a nearby radio tower. The noise rang out in such a way that he instantly knew that was what an “imaginary laser gun” would sound like.
The next sound addressed is the iconic, guttural noises produced by everyone’s favorite Wookie, Chewbacca. For inspiration, Ben Burtt looked to another large mammal, the walrus. Going to an aquarium in Long Beach, California, Burtt recorded the sounds of a walrus moaning at the bottom of a drained pool. Just like that, the voice of Chewie was born.
Darth Vader’s iconic voice was a little more obvious for Ben Burtt to figure out compared to a support cable or a lonely walrus. All he had to do was put a microphone beside a SCUBA regulator, and he got that perfect, menacing breath sound we have come to know and love.
Creating the noises for TIE fighters and iconic droid R2-D2 required a blending of mechanical and organic sounds. For the TIE fighters, Burtt blended the sound of an elephant with the sound of a car driving on wet pavement. The intention was to create an intentionally menacing sound – inspired by the German dive-bombers of WWII. For R2-D2 he similarly blended the sounds of an electric synthesizer with the sounds of people doing “baby talk” in order to give his noises a bit more character than just an average machine.
Finally, we have one of the most iconic items from the entire Star Wars mythos: the lightsaber. As rudimentary as it may seem, all he had to do was record the buzz of a TV picture tube and combine it with the sound of a projector motor.
It’s the ingenuity of men like Ben Burtt that created sounds that have become synonymous with the galaxy far, far away. Without his work, the world of Star Wars would have seemed decidedly blander, and far less immersive than want we take for granted today. With the saga set to continue with Star Wars: Episode VIII we will just have to wait and see what sort of innovations the filmmakers have in store for us.