Ben Burtt and Dennis Muren on Indiana Jones
Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures isn't your normal Blu-ray release. If anything, it's one of the most anticipated releases in the medium. So Paramount didn't screw around with the publicity, sending me and my film critic peers all the way to Skywalker Ranch in Northern California to hear Dennis Muren and Ben Burtt speak about the production and allow us to tour the Indiana Jones archives, and get a good, close look at all the props and artifacts from the blockbuster film series. I'll be peppering the following press conference with Muren and Burtt with exclusive photographs of the archives, but pay attention to the dialogue. Dennis Muren is the only visual effects artist with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he and groundbreaking sound effects artist Ben Burtt helped change the very way movies are made with their work on Indiana Jones and Star Wars. They have a lot of great stories about the production, and handy advice for young filmmakers to boot.
“Indiana Jones” has been synonymous with huge action blockbusters. How do you think the imagery of then, and what we’re seeing now, holds up to today’s standards?
Dennis Muren: I don’t know if you want to compare the images of then and now, because I think the old ones hold up very well. Having been there and sort of lived through it, there’s something of a reality of it that usurps any technical problems we might have had in those days, and it gives it a very “hand-feel” look to it. So I really think the movies hold up extremely well. Not that the newer ones aren’t good also, but the smell, the feel, all the material fit with the rest of the movie. It helped. If these movies were all made in studios it would be one thing, but with those real locations and the reality of everything, I think it really helps the effects that it’s all real.
The visual effects were as much a character in the film as Harrison. Can you speak a little to that?
Dennis Muren: Yeah, I guess so, but Harrison is the movie. We were supplementary to all that. But they’re important because what George and Steven always wanted was to be able to experience a hyper-adventure that this guy is wild and crazy enough to get into. So the effects were there to supplement that, and to go beyond whatever was going on, probably, in the James Bond movies, that were pretty much rooted in reality. There are times when you can get out of reality if you have a real thrill ride adventure, and that’s what they were going for in this film, and that’s where the effects needed to come in, to do things that just couldn’t be done for real.
Along those lines […] the one thing that wasn’t out there so much was that kind of mix with what is historically accurate or should be historically accurate; what you’d feel would be there in the place, with the supernatural and also with something that’s a little more mystical. Can you comment a little bit about what it was like to embark on the journey of Indy properties?
Ben Burtt: The Indiana Jones movies… I started off in my career with Star Wars, and of course [in] Star Wars the sound was being attached to give credibility to a highly imaginative universe of characters, places and things. And then along came Indy, and course the action-adventure genre was my favorite. The films that this series pays homage to are the films I loved growing up: the westerns and the adventure movies, the Tarzan movies, Gunga Din, this sort of thing. So I was so excited to work on it, and I knew the sound effects in those classics movies, as they are today, almost all the sounds are added after the fact. They’re not the sounds that you recorded during the film, because you want control of the sounds later. Mostly, of course, there is no appropriate sound on the set anyways, that is right for the final movie.
So my job, and the team I work with, is to create all of that and add it in. We could have gone to a library at any studio, and gotten face punches, fire, explosions, trucks. These things had been in movies many times before, and they were good recordings, but what I wanted to do was not do that, but to build our own, new, customized Indiana Jones library, which would have its own signature. But conceptually it would be based on my favorite sounds from the classic movies of the past. I would study the gunshots in all the movies that I loved, and I’d say “How did they do it? How can I make something that is better, but is a legacy, owes its origins to what has been movie language up to that point? Because so many things about the Indiana Jones series were new visions of things that had existed in movies before, but now put together under the adventures of one character.
So we set out to record everything over again. New fire! New explosions! New body falls! New truck skids! New snakes! Whatever it might be. Then, on top of that level of reality, there was always the mystical and supernatural elements of these films, the crystal skull, the sankara stone, the ark of the covenant, and in order to the portray the sounds for those objects… these were the supernatural things. Maybe a little bit more like Star Wars in the sense that they related to things that were unfamiliar, alien things that were new, and we wanted to give those objects an expressive voice as well. So that was also my department, to try to come up with sounds for all that. So there was both the science fiction element, I would call it, the fantasy element of the sounds as well as the reality-based element.
There’s always the question about going back and seeing how the sausage is made. I would imagine that going back and looking at some of these films evokes certain memories, probably very different from the memories that we all may have from the first time we saw them. Dennis, are there some favorite moments that you want to share with us about, say, The Last Crusade?
Dennis Muren: Well, Temple of Doom is got one, really, really memorable, we had the big mine chase sequence in that. Which was very difficult. The shots go and on, they go through this tunnel, and of course they couldn’t do it for real. They had this nice tunnel they could get some shots with, but not the distances or the length of travel that we needed to really carry the dramatic effect, and in order to build these longs sets, miniature sets, the size was really dependent on the size of the camera, of all things, because the camera had to go through the tunnels. I came up with this idea of just using a Nikon still camera, instead of shooting it with one of the bigger movie cameras, to see if we could use a still camera that shoots still frame after frame after frame, and these shots that only ran like four, five seconds anyway, we could get that on one load in a Nikon camera. That meant that all the sets could be smaller, they only needed to be 100 feet long instead of 300 feet long; we didn’t have room in San Rafael to build anything very long anyway. And they just saved a heck of a lot of money, which everybody was happy about, because these films, no matter how they appear, were always done on very, very tight budgets and we always had to really work within that. And then the work came out really great in that sequence, too. The cave walls are aluminum foil, heavy aluminum foil, painted, and they’re all done with stop-motion or go-motion, one frame at a time motions of motors. It was really pretty neat.
And the other thing that was neat in my experience was I got to act in one sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is when Harrison goes on the airplane and there’s this spy who’s in front, reading this “Life” magazine, and that’s me in there. And I tell you, that is the weirdest experience, going from behind the scenes and all to being in front of the camera with Spielberg looking. “You’re here! Harrison’s over there!” I’m like, “What the heck am I doing here?” And we shot it over in Richmond, here, where the plane was. And the plane actually couldn’t fly, but fortunately it was nearby and we went over there and shot all those scenes in one morning. That was a pretty darned neat experience. I thought it would lead to bigger parts, but obviously it didn’t. […] You should have seen what they cut out.
Are there any particular memories that you have of any moment in the film?
Ben Burtt: Well, since we go out on expeditions to gather the sound, or we invent special props, there’s always a story with every sound. Dennis mentions the mine cart chase. We wanted the sound of these cars clattering down the tracks and squealing around corners, and we thought, perhaps, is there anywhere we could go where we could record something full-size like that. We ended up making our way to Disneyland at night, when the park was closed, and ride all of the roller coasters and record them. So we would go into Space Mountain, turn all the lights on, and turn the music off, and ride in the cars or stand alongside the track and get the squealing around the corners. Gary Summers and I, we were working together on that, gathering all these. Had a wonderful all-night Disneyland experience, Big Thunder, Space Mountain, the Matterhorn, all of them completely out of context, with the lights on so you can see all the behind the scenes stuff. That was fun.
Right here on the ranch, it’s interesting… at the time of Raiders of the Lost Ark this building did not exist. In fact there were no buildings on the ranch. This was just an empty property, and Gary and I used to come out here every afternoon where it was quiet, and there weren’t the birds and frogs to interfere with recordings, and we would stage sound effect events at the ranch that we needed for Raiders. When you walk out the front door, you’ll notice on the hill here a big rock outcropping. We spent a day laboriously carrying rocks and gravel and everything we could find to the top of that rock outcropping, and then we shoved it down the rock face and recorded all the tumbling rocks and dust and grit. And we have used or derived from that recording just about every rock effect that you hear in these movies, when things are collapsing, the temple falls apart you slow the sound down.
Right here where this theater is now today, just take it away, we had a shooting range. There was a gully here, right about where you’re sitting, and there were some old cars down in it. We brought out some of the explosive guys from ILM and we blew things up here for a while to get a lot of explosions. We found that this canyon right here, where this tech building is today, was wonderful acoustics because the sound would slap back and forth. We did all the gunshots here for Indy’s gun with much higher-powered rifles; of course everything in Indiana Jones is exaggerated, so his pistol’s not a .38 caliber pop it’s… we would have used a Howitzer if we could have brought one in here. But we did some gunshot recordings here and slowed them down, beefed them up a lot to get these sounds. We did all the ricochets here, and there’s a lot of stories about trying to bounce bullets around.
In fact we got in trouble here because we had some machine guns and we didn’t tell anyone what we were doing, and we got a little carried away just shooting things, shooting the ground and other targets with the live ammunition. We had some people from L.A. come up, Stenbridge Gun Rentals, so we had a permit but we didn’t tell anyone and so finally a bunch of headlights come down the road here. We were doing this in the evening, and people wanted to know if we were terrorists or something, and they didn’t understand. The neighbors were complaining I guess. In any event, this was our recording studio, this whole outdoor area here, and so much of Raiders’ material was done right here.
We brought a truck up here and I would run and throw myself up against the hood of the truck for Indy banging onto the hood, and Gary Summers did the whip cracks on the road right next to where this building is today, and we could get the echo and the trees and all of that. So this is many pleasant memories about deriving sounds. And there were hundreds of things we had to gather like that, and it was just a matter of getting the right technical recording. It’s all about finding the right performance and the right acoustic location. We would tend to do things outside because there would be enough echo, especially in trees, that when you put that sound in the movie it would really fit into the context of the location, the jungle, something of that sort.
What was groundbreaking with the Indiana Jones movies?
Dennis Muren: It was having to cut in… hopefully perfectly, no sign of an effect in there, totally real, to not break the reality of it. That gets harder and harder and harder and harder to do that with every film we did. So I would say the artistic side, the attention to the detail, the reality, the feel of a Steven Spielberg-directed scene, even though he didn’t direct the effects scenes. He certainly approved everything. But that, and probably some of the motion stuff we did with the mine chase cars moving, so they didn’t look like they were stop-motion, or very much like a miniature hopefully. I wouldn’t say it was like we invented a lot of new gear for it, it was more being able to use it in a way that was more pristine and more in the style of Steven actually out there, directing the stuff for real. And that’s really hard to do, or else the shots could just pop, and look like they were done by a second unit or something like that.
Where did the iconic punch sound effects come from, and what was your initial design for them?
Ben Burtt: As big as possible. […] Well, there’s one part I’m not going to tell you, because I have to protect a few things so I have future work. There’s always punches to be needed in the movies. Of course there’s body punches and there’s face punches, and they’re not so simple to do, because an actual face punch, if you’ve ever had one or delivered one, is not very loud. It’s usually the person going “Ugh!” or “Ouch!” or whatever.
But movies have a tradition of something enormous, going all the way back to the first punches in movies in the early 1930s. They started out using clapboards and things to make a slapping sound, a punching sound. What we did was right here on the road here, was set up with a lot of baseball gloves, like catcher’s mitts, and leather jackets and some football equipment, and what we would do is, for instance, if you took a baseball bat and threw a catcher’s mitt in the air and hit it with the baseball bat as hard as you could, you would get a good “whack.” We took pumpkins, and if you took a – one of my favorites – if you took a croquet ball and you put it in a sock, so you had a nunchuck sort of a weapon, and you beat the pumpkin to death, every so often one of this hits, out of the five or so, is really good. Meaty, kind of choppy sound. So a library was built up of those kinds of things, and used for a body blow or a kick, and that sort of thing. We reserved that particular set of effects just for the Indy films, because we wanted it to be associated with Indiana Jones every time he swings his fist.
How do you feel about George Lucas putting a building over your old recording studio?
Ben Burtt: Well, you know, it’s true. Just for fun a few years ago I brought one of the guns back and I fired it right here, next to the building, and recorded it to see whether it sounded the same here and it didn’t because of the presence of the building. I was let down, thinking we had lost… Initially when we were doing those gunshots, we were all around the ranch. We probably went to 30 or 40 different spots, because the whole key to recording gunshots is the location where you do it, the acoustics. A good gunshot is multiple syllables, kind of a slap, repeats. But you also want to have some trees around so it gives a slow decay to it. Give it character. The best gunshots always have two syllables, I think. That’s one of the big mistakes people make today. They use one syllable gunshots. That’s my opinion.
Dennis Muren: I just wanted to mention one thing about what Ben’s talking about here, is… Sound effects, even though I don’t do them at all, it’s something like what I do in a different way, but sound effects, it’s not like you go to Garage Band and just grab “bullet shot.” Some people would think, you’ve got your bullet shot. You’ve got your punch. They’d put it in the movie, they wouldn’t understand why it didn’t have the effect. All the time that Ben is going, take after take, thirty times going around the ranch, is that he’s hearing… First of all, he’s got an idea. And he’s hearing the result and saying, “Yeah, that’s good” or “No, that’s not good enough.” You’re making a judgment all the time. And that’s really missing in a lot of the stuff going on today, I think. It is like the sort of Garage Band thing: solution! Boom. Put it in. It’ll work. But, not at all.
Ben Burt: Thank you, Dennis! That was good. I’m going to hire you for my next interview.