Unpacking Classic Sights and Sounds: A Conversation with Oscar Winners Ben Burtt and Craig Barron
May 8, 2021
Whenever I see Ben Burtt and Craig Barron’s names on a TCM Classic Film Festival schedule, the program turns into an immediate must-see. This year, that happens to be their presentation “Jet Jockeys in Love: The Making of Chain Lightning.”
Burtt and Barron’s work in the fields of sound and visual effects, respectively, is legendary. Credited with crafting the voice of R2D2, WALL·E, and many more iconic cinematic sounds, Burtt has won four Oscars throughout his career: two Special Achievement awards for Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and two Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing statuettes for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Barron, who has helped construct visual effects for over 100 movies, won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and an Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects for By Dawn’s Early Light (1990).
My first experience with the duo’s TCMFF productions was a 2013 program they presented on Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939). For someone who knows nothing about special effects, I appreciated how their personable conversation informatively and humorously conveyed the complexities of classic film technology. I had never thought about the origins of something so iconic such as the Tarzan yell, let alone question how it came to be.
Ben Burtt (left) and Craig Barron (right) discuss the origin of the Tarzan yell at TCMFF 2013. (Photo by Kim Luperi)
I recently had a chance to chat with Burtt and Barron about their TCM events, luckily a subject they love talking about, ahead of the 2021 virtual festival. Be sure to catch their special on Chain Lightning (1950) on HBO Max, along with the recently restored movie itself, and their Club TCM conversation “Sight and Sound Makers” on Saturday, May 8 at 6pm EST.
As a longtime fan of Burtt and Barron’s programs, I was curious as to how their relationship with the festival began. Early on, “we just wanted to see these movies on the big screen,” Barron admitted. “We selfishly said, ‘Gee, what would we like to see? The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)? That would be great, let’s do something around that.” Burtt explained that the network reaches out when planning an event, which starts the ball rolling. Conversations about theme commence, but sometimes the duo pitches “this other project that has nothing to do with the theme but we’d like to do it!” Burtt laughed. In the end, they usually present TCM with a few titles they’d like to cover, and they go from there. It delights them that their productions have become something TCM asks for every year. Not only do they get to research film history, a passion for both men, but it also gives them an opportunity to work together.
Die-hard fans of classic films often come to screenings with heads packed with background info on the headliners: stars, writers, directors. But the learning experience at Burtt and Barron’s events is different, often highlighting those in the trenches on the technical side who generally don’t get the spotlight. “We call ourselves film archeologists, because we’re always trying to find something that’s new to share with the public,” Barron explained. “We kind of look for the stories that are a little bit more passed over or not as well-known as a way to appreciate film history from a slightly different angle.” Burtt added: “The hallmark has always been that we want to find something that we believe hasn’t been put in front of the audience before.” Their excavations don’t necessarily start and end with sound and visual effects; sometimes they unearth fascinating info on stunts or other aspects of production that surprise them – and they hope it will wow the viewer, too.
Burtt and Barron presenting It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) at TCMFF 2017 in the Cinerama Dome. (Photo by Kim Luperi)
Digging as deep into film history as they do for each program requires a certain level of access to studio and archival materials. Luckily, they possess a strong network of archivists, collectors and others in the special effects community they can tap for resources. (Burtt also noted that they both maintain their own collections.) “It’s an honor to have that kind of direct contact with studios,” Barron remarked. “They’ve been very gracious to us, and that’s allowed us to find things that maybe others wouldn’t think of as interesting,” which Burtt and Barron in turn recognize and can put into context for audiences. Their programs are so successful that they now get outside requests! For instance, Paramount archivist Andrea Kalas approached them to present a new 4K restoration of War of the Worlds (1953) at the 2016 festival.
This year’s program for Chain Lightning is unusual in a few ways. For starters, it’s one of the least known movies they’ve presented, Humphrey Bogart’s final picture for Warner Brothers, developed to capitalize on Chuck Yeager’s recent feat of breaking the sound barrier. The other big difference, of course, is the virtual aspect. If you’re expecting a Zoom presentation from Burtt and Barron, think again. The duo leveled up: They crafted a 20-minute mini-movie – with a script, costumes, original special effects, bomber planes and all. “It’s a combination of us having an adventure, and within that, it’s a documentary made in the style of Warner Brothers 1950, like a Vitaphone short, about Chain Lightning, the movie… We always like to make movies, being filmmakers, so it gave us the chance to run loose,” Burtt remarked. “And some of our family members assure us it’s not as embarrassing as we think it is, so that’s good,” Barron chimed in, laughing. For fans like me who always look forward to Burtt and Barron’s hat selection at their programs, rest assured we’re in for a treat: “There’s more than just hats in this one!” Burtt divulged. That includes Road Runner cartoons – you’ll see why when you watch the presentation.
Eleanor Parker and Humphrey Bogart in Chain Lightning. (Photo courtesy TCM)
As fans will observe in their Chain Lightning short, Burtt and Barron go well beyond their specialization in sound and visual effects to survey production techniques from the past as well. “What was it like to work at a studio when all the films you made were made in Culver City, but they took place all over the world?” Barron questioned. “How did they do that?” The exploration isn’t easy, but that’s part of the fun. “The thing is, these were kind of trade secrets back in the day,” Barron admitted. “Studios felt that if they revealed an illusion then maybe the public would feel that they were cheated somehow.” Behind-the-scenes featurettes weren’t common like they are now, and if any publicity surrounded special effects, it was generally more of a marketing stunt to add to the hype.
Because most effects don’t come with a ‘how-to’ manual, some have proved challenging to expose. In particular, Burtt spent a lot of time investigating the iconic Tarzan yell. He had nothing specific to go on, save for a few clues here and there, so it was a learning process. “Some of these things you can’t find out how they were done, so the best detective work you can do is to come up with a best guess and then experiment and see if you can come up with the same result,” he said. Their programs are famous for taking fans through that process, utilizing sound, video and animation to reverse engineer how a certain trick was likely achieved. “Having a visual tool to help us explain sometimes complex ideas makes it all very simple and easy to understand,” Barron affirmed.
Burtt and Barron employing an animation to recreate a visual effect in Tarzan Finds a Son! at TCMFF 2013. (Photo by Kim Luperi)
With such phenomenal creations under their belts, both in their own professional work and in bringing past illusions to life in their programs, I asked Burtt and Barron if there was a holy grail effect they’d love to dive into and decipher. “One that comes to mind is They Died with Their Boots On (1941),” Barron told me. They believe the big cavalry scenes were fashioned with a giant miniature of tiny horses on rods but on a grand scale; they’ve seen drawings to that effect in Warner Brothers’ art department files, but they haven’t found photographic confirmation. “If you look at it really closely, you can kind of see that the horses have a mechanical look to them, and we can’t quite figure it out, so that’s kind of an area of interest,” Barron said.
To younger audiences especially, who have access to apps and other digital tools to effortlessly craft illusions, “when we reveal a process – mechanical, physical or optical – it’s a surprise, and it almost seems foreign to them. I feel like an antiques roadshow appraiser sometimes explaining how a piece of furniture was made in the 18th century,” Burtt quipped. “So these aren’t secrets that damage the process. They’re secrets that show how clever and how skillful they were.” As modern technology has drastically changed film production, Burtt and Barron believe showcasing classic Hollywood methods helps fans appreciate the way these films were produced and the artistry special effects innovators possessed. “The tools have changed,” Barron confirmed, “but the concepts behind them and the storytelling and what makes for a compelling experience is still the same.”
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