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Ben Burtt on WALL•E

Published June 24, 2008 in Movie Interviews
By Fred Topel | Image property of Disney
Wall•E Poster WALL•E
Usually animated films just hire some big name movie star to voice their main character. The title character of WALL•E is a robot who does not speak English. Sound designer Ben Burtt had to create a voice and style of communicating for Wall-E, without just repeating R2D2.

Ben Burtt Gives WALL•E His Voice


"What [director Andrew Stanton] wanted was the illusion that these robot characters, really their speech, the sounds they made, were really coming from their functions as machines," said Burtt. "That there was either a chip onboard that decides the voice, or the squeak of their motor would sound cute and that would kind of give an indication of how they feel. So the problem does go back to, for me, to the sort of primal R2D2 idea which is how do have a character not speak words, or in the case of Wall-E just a very few words, but you understand what’s going on in their head, and they also seem to have a depth of character. The trick has always been to somehow balance the human input to the electronic input to it so that you have a human side of it."

That human input was Ben Burtt himself. "For Wall-E it ended up being my voice because I was always experimenting on myself sort of like the mad scientist in his lab. You inject yourself with the serum. After weeks and months of experimenting it was obviously easier to try it on myself as we worked it out. You start with a human voice input and record words or sounds, but then it’s taken into a computer. I worked out a unique program which allowed me to deconstruct the sound into its component parts. We all know how pictures are pixels now. You can rearrange pixels to change the picture. You kind of do the same thing with sound. I could reassemble the Wall-E vocals and perform it actually with a light pen on a tablet such that you could change pitch by moving the pen or the pressure of the pen would stain or stretch syllables or consonants. You could get an additional level of performance that way, kind of like playing a musical instrument."



Wall-E's love interest, Eve, had a similar and complementary voice. "Eve is a very high tech robot and so unlike the motors and squeaks and metallic sounds you’ve got with Wall-E, Eve is held together with some sort of force fields and magnetism. A great deal of her sound is purely synthesized musical type tones that I could make in a music synthesizer and treat it various ways, because her whole character was supposed to be graceful and ethereal, so she always has an electronic noise associated with her floating around. Sometimes she sounds angry, if it’s a scene where she needs to be aggressive. And sometimes she’s enchanting if it’s a more romantic moment."

One computer with a human voice is the onboard computer trying to keep humans from returning to earth. Sigourney Weaver provided that voice, in a twist on her battles with MOTHER in Alien. "Andrew and myself were all fans of science fiction movies including Alien and its sequels. I worked on the first Alien movie in fact, made sound for the MOTHER computer and that sort of thing, so I have a little connection there. Her voice was recorded straightforward in a studio but during the mix of the film it was put in a big echo chamber such that it comes from everywhere, so it’s this omnipotent voice. You actually never see the source of it, like a speaker. It’s the broadest range high fidelity voice in the movie, the idea of it being omnipotent and all powerful I suppose."

WALL•E opens to theaters on June 27th.

For the trailers, posters, stills and more movie info, go the WALL•E Movie Page.

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Fred Topel
Sources: Image property of Disney
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