Oscar Winners Ben Burtt and Craig Barron at Club TCM 2021
July 29, 2021
“TCM has allowed us to indulge in being hams.” – Ben Burtt (Yes, they have, and fans fully approve of this.)
I always keep my eyes out for special presentations at TCMFF. Year after year, those have gone down as some of my favorite fest memories – and that most certainly includes the highly entertaining visual and sound effects-focused events that Oscar winners Craig Barron (visual effects for 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Ben Burtt (sound effects/editing for 1977’s Star Wars, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) present, which I’ve attended since 2013.
Naturally, I was thrilled to hear that they’d be back this year in that same capacity, presenting a behind the scenes look at the making of Chain Lightning (1950) in mini-movie form. And that wasn’t all: The duo was also on board for a special Club TCM Zoom chat!
I had the opportunity to interview them before the fest kicked off about their TCMFF presentations (which you can check out HERE), and below are some highlights from their Club TCM conversation.
Ben Burtt and Craig Barron in their behind the scenes TCM presentation/short for Chain Lightning (1950).
On Beginnings – and Famous Names
George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, David Fincher – yes, all those names were dropped during this discussion. No big deal.
Sound and music started as a hobby for Burtt; he was actually interested in space. Lo and behold, Lucas was looking for a student to do sound for his space-opera The Star War (luckily that title changed slightly!) and gave Burtt, a USC student, his start. Within a few years, Burtt was also working for Spielberg on the Indiana Jones movies. He quipped about sharing a sense of telepathy with Spielberg, as they both experienced a similar upbringing.
As for Fincher, he actually operated as Barron’s camera assistant back in the day! Barron recalled their “nice relationship” that has since evolved from their early efforts together to Barron working for Fincher the director.
On the Wilhelm Scream
How many stock sound effects do fans know the name of? Not many! (Also, how many of them have names at all?!) Burtt talked a little bit about rediscovering the infamous Wilhelm scream. He noticed the sound in so many old movies, and years later, he traced it back to the 1951 Warner Brothers film Distant Drums. He initially used it in the first Star Wars movie as a joke, but then it became a thing; Burtt ended up adding the Wilhelm scream to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist (1982), and many more. Its use became so rampant that even George Lucas inquired about it, asking if they were utilizing the same sound over and over! (Burtt’s initial impulse was to lie to Lucas about it, but he admitted it, to which the director replied, “Okay.” Burtt wasn’t sure if that was his way of approving the effect or not!)
On New Technology – and What We Can Learn from Classics
Both Burtt and Barron have witnessed technology evolve significantly over the years, both in the industry as a whole and their work, as well. Barron pointed out that new technology is redefining cinema and the art of filmmaking. That said, he stressed that learning how to tell a story visually is still of the utmost importance. For any aspiring filmmakers in the audience, he suggested watching a lot of movies – especially silent ones – to study aesthetics from the best of the best.
TCM's Scott McGee moderated the Club TCM chat with Burtt and Barron, in which they clearly exhibited just how “TCM has allowed us to indulge in being hams.”
On Using Real, Rare Artifacts for Effects
One of the films Burtt worked on was Lincoln (2012), and he thought it would be fun to record the president’s actual watch ticking for a scene in the movie. Well, that was an adventure in itself! Burtt tracked down one of Lincoln’s timepieces at the Smithsonian, where it was nestled securely in a safe, but the staff there decided against loaning it out for use in the film. Fortunately, Burtt discovered a second watch, the one the president allegedly had in his pocket the night he was assassinated, which had been passed down by Lincoln's son Robert. Luckily, the person in possession of it currently is a Star Wars fan and gave Burtt permission to record it. After all that work, though, the scene in which the sound was initially used was cut! So goes the movie business. Burtt did confirm they were at least able to use the audio elsewhere in the film, which is good.
On Thinking Something Was Going to Fail – and It Didn’t
This was a revealing question, one that stressed just how positive the art of believing in yourself and your work is in the film industry.
Barron’s story came from Casino (1995), produced when traditional matte painting started going the digital route. Because the technology was so new, Barron soon realized it would take more time to complete a shot than expected – so much so, that he needed to call director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker to let them know. Luckily, they were supportive and trusted him to get the job done, but various computer crashes meant Barron and his team had to render a frame here and there, a painstakingly slow procedure. The resulting time crunch meant that Barron didn’t even have time to watch the picture when he picked it up from the lab, because he had to hop a red eye to New York to screen it for Scorsese and Schoonmaker! You can bet he was nervously sweating as they projected the film, not sure how it would turn out… but in the end, all was fine. (Whew!) It was better than fine, actually; Casino was accepted as a take one final, which Barron said is quite unusual.
As for Burtt, he recalled his early work on Alien (1979) when director Ridley Scott brought him on board to create several versions of a sound effect for the alien transmission – the assignment was something ghostly yet electronic-sounding. The 50 or so sounds he produced utilized a variety of elements, from short wave radio in between dials to dolphins, but everything he sent in was met with a resounding “no.” Eventually, Scott scrapped the idea, which was a disappointment for Burtt. That said, this story does have a happy ending. Just a year later, Burtt was tasked with creating an audible ghost illusion for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Luckily, he kept the tapes of all sounds he made for Alien, and one of them ended up fitting this job. The effect worked so well that Burtt even won an Oscar – for the same sound that someone else didn’t want! That experience taught him that people can hear a variety of different things within an effect – and to keep every sound he’s ever crafted!
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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.