“Star Wars” is obviously cult for its characters, its places, its fights, but also for its lightsabers. In addition to the unique aesthetics, it is also the sound of these which marked the spirits. Find out how Ben Burtt, George Lucas’ sound engineer, created the sound of those lightsabers.
Star Wars – A New Hope : the beginning of an empire
It is certainly one of the most emblematic weapons in the history of cinema. Whether it’s blue, green, red or any other color, the lightsaber has haunted cinema since the dawn of time. Finally, more precisely since 1977 and the release of Star Wars: A New Hope. Where it all began. Directed by George Lucas, the feature film is the cornerstone of the immense saga Star wars. A definitively cult film, awarded by six Oscars and over $ 775 million in box office revenue. The rest, we know it. But what we may not know this is how the sound of these lightsabers was imagined.
Indeed, it’s hard to forget the unique buzz of lightsabers. Impossible not to recognize this particular noise. A feat that we owe to another great genius of New hope : sound engineer Ben Burtt. If his name does not ring a bell, know that he is one of the pioneers of the universe Star wars. It is in particular he who created the roar of Chewbacca, the beeps of R2-D2 or the roar of TIE fighter engines.
Ben Burtt: The Sound Maker of Lightsabers
But among all these sounds, his favorite remains that of lightsabers. During the making-of from the original trilogy, this sound engineer looked back at how he imagined and created the sound of lightsabers. The artist is totally fascinated by the sketches of his colleague Ralph McQuarrie, including the one where Darth Vader and Luke confront each other armed with strange swords of light:
Somehow I could hear the sound of lightsabers in my head. Even though it was only a painting, I could almost hear their noise. I think somewhere in my subconscious I must have seen a lightsaber before.
But the imagination is not enough, Ben Burtt had to take the next step, and create a sound that would blend perfectly with the design of the sabers. The latter already had a perfectly oiled plan of attack for that:
In the booth where movies were being shown, the projectors hummed when they were on. They were idling, the engines were just sitting there, with that sort of mysterious, magical, almost musical hum. I figured that was probably what the sound of a lightsaber would sound like.
But this find is only the beginning of work for Ben Burtt. The sound engineer can’t just pick up sound from a projector. He had to mix it with another sound ingredient, which he discovered by pure accident:
I discovered this sound one day by accident. I was carrying a microphone across a room. 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.
The illusion of movement
By mixing the sound of the projectors with that of the microphone passing behind the television, Ben Burtt now had his sonic base for the lightsaber. But he still had one last step to overcome. Indeed, the artist could not be satisfied with a single monotonous sound, he had to give the illusion of movement when the lightsaber opens, or when it moves in the air or when it collides with another element. As a great noise and sound expert, Ben Burtt had a very simple solution:
I played the combination of these two buzzes over and over through a loudspeaker in a room. And then I took another microphone, and waved it in the air next to this speaker. I approached it, then pulled it away, whipped the air next to it. And by recording with a moving microphone, you get a variation in tone in the sound. And so we can produce a very realistic imitation of moving sound, give the lightsaber that sense of movement.
As often in the audio creation of a work, the sound engineer was based on everyday elements, on its environment, on very classic noises to create an unforgettable cinematographic sound. Without Ben Burtt, the saber …