4:23pm

Sat November 10, 2012
Movies

Hearing History In The Sounds Of 'Lincoln'

Originally published on Sat November 10, 2012 8:23 pm

In the new movie Lincoln, actor Daniel Day-Lewis is getting a lot of attention for his spot-on portrayal of the 16th president. But Ben Burtt, the sound designer, also deserves credit for the film's authenticity. You may not know his name, but you surely know his work.

Burtt is something of a legend in the movie sound world. He has won numerous Oscars, including for his work on Star Wars.

Burtt invented that iconic swoosh of the light saber, using the hum of an old projector and the buzz of a television set.

When it came to Lincoln, Burtt wasn't going to settle for recreating the sounds of Lincoln's life in some studio. He wanted to capture the real thing — sounds Lincoln actually heard.

So Burtt and his team set out, recording equipment in hand, to capture the sounds from actual objects that have survived the years since Lincoln knew them.

"I love American history and I've always been a student of it," Burtt tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.


Interview Highlights

On capturing the ticking of Lincoln's pocket watch

"A pocket watch, at that time was a very intimate item, something carried in the pocket of, say, Lincoln's vest, his coat — it's kind of next to his heart. It's something that would have been with him at all times."

"Eventually I discovered a watch which is in the possession of the Kentucky Historical Society. This was a watch passed down from Lincoln's son, Robert Lincoln. And so they brought in a watchsmith and they wound it up. It takes a key to wind a watch from that era. And lo and behold, there was the ticking of the sound of Lincoln's actual watch." 

On recording the bells of St. John's Episcopal Church

"I felt that another sound from Lincoln's era that he would have heard would be any church bells or bells ringing in the neighborhood of the executive mansion in that time period. And our investigation showed that there were at least two bells still in existence in Washington, which were in churches that you easily could have heard from the White House."

On tracking down Lincoln's actual carriage

"The carriage that Lincoln road to and from Ford's Theatre is actually in the Studebaker Museum in South Bend, Ind., and it's obviously too delicate and too valuable to be hooked up to horses and run through the streets anymore. But they allowed us to come and record the doors opening and closing, the latches and the doors."

On why he went to such lengths to get authentic sounds for the film

"I felt, well, here's a chance to get in touch with actual history. I always do research when you're collecting sounds and making sounds for a film, and authenticity is normally not necessarily the prime directive in doing sound design. You're always searching out sounds that have the right emotional impact and they may not even be authentic at all. But for this film I didn't want to make guesses. I wanted to essentially capture the spirit of what might have been."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. In the new film "Lincoln," Daniel Day-Lewis is getting a lot of attention for his spot-on portrayal of our 16th president.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (as Abraham Lincoln) It is a self-evident truth that things, which are equal to the same thing, are equal to each other.

RAZ: The film is already being praised for its attention to detail, including the detailed work of its sound designer Ben Burtt. Now, you may not know his name, but you definitely know his work.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHT SABER)

RAZ: That's the sound of a light saber. Ben Burtt invented that sound for "Star Wars," and he's something of a legend in the sound world. So when it came to the Lincoln film, Ben Burtt wasn't going to settle for just recreating old sounds. He actually wanted to record those real sounds - sounds Lincoln heard. So Burtt and his team set out - recording equipment in hand - to capture the sounds of Lincoln's life. And the first stop was in Kentucky to record an important Lincoln relic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TICKING)

BEN BURTT: The pocket watch at that time was a very intimate item, something carried in the pocket of, let's say, Lincoln's vest, his coat. It's kind of next to his heart. It's something that would have been with him at all times. And so I began to investigate the possibility would anybody actually wind up one of these watches and see if it still would tick. And nobody had ever done that, as far as I could tell, when I began talking to museum people across the country. Eventually, I discovered a watch which is in the possession of the Kentucky Historical Society. This was a watch passed down from Lincoln's son Robert Lincoln. And so they brought in a watch smith, and they wound it up. It takes a key to wind a watch from that era. And lo and behold, there was the ticking of the sound of Lincoln's actual watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF TICKING)

RAZ: Just across the street from the White House is the famous St. John's Episcopal Church. It's known as the church of the presidents. And it was there during a time when Lincoln was president. I mean, you wanted to capture the sounds you would hear from that church, which is this:

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

RAZ: So you went in and recorded the bells at St. John's.

BURTT: Yes. I felt that another sound from Lincoln's era that he would have heard would be any church bells or bells ringing in the neighborhood of the executive mansion in that time period. And our investigation showed that there were at least two bells still in existence in Washington, which were in churches that you easily could have heard from the White House.

RAZ: How did you get the sound? Did you - I mean, as a field reporter, I used to record church bells, you know, in Europe and stuff, and I would just do it from the street. I'm assuming you didn't do it that way.

BURTT: Unfortunately, because Washington now is a very busy town full of traffic, it didn't make sense recording the bell from down the street level. The best way was to get up in the belfry itself, crawl around and get really close next to the bell so you could isolate the sound as best as possible from the modern-day sounds of the city. And then we used it as an off-screen affect in the ambience of the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

RAZ: Let me ask you about one more sound, because this is amazing. This is the sound of carriage doors opening and closing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARRIAGE DOOR)

RAZ: You took this from Lincoln's actual carriage.

BURTT: The carriage that Lincoln rode to and from Ford's Theater is actually in the Studebaker Museum in South Bend, Indiana. And it's obviously too delicate and too valuable to be hooked up to horses and run through the streets anymore. But they allowed us to come and record the doors opening and closing, the latches and the doors.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARRIAGE DOOR)

RAZ: Ben, I mean, you could have recreated these sounds in studios and nobody watching the movie would have known the difference. Why did you go to such great lengths to get the actual sounds of the actual things that Lincoln interacted with?

BURTT: I love American history, and I've always been a student of it. And in particular, I've been very interested in Lincoln. And so when this opportunity came up, I felt, well, here's a chance to get in touch with actual history. I always do research when you're collecting sounds and making sounds for a film. And authenticity is normally not necessarily the prime directive in doing sound design. You're always searching out sounds that have the right emotional impact, and they may not even be authentic at all. But for this film, I didn't want to make guesses. I wanted to essentially capture the spirit of what might have been. And it was inspiring to do so because when you go and record some of these things, you feel very close to the subject.

RAZ: I know this takes place in 1865, but were you ever tempted to just, you know, throw in a little light saber sound?

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHT SABER)

(LAUGHTER)

BURTT: No, I wasn't tempted to put a light saber in the film. It's true that I often might pay an homage to something by sneaking in a Wilhelm scream or a light saber or something. But this film was just too sacred. It wouldn't have been appropriate to do that.

RAZ: Ben Burtt is the sound director for the new film "Lincoln." "Lincoln" is out now in limited release. It opens nationwide next week. We caught up with Ben at Skywalker Ranch just north of San Francisco. Ben, thanks so much.

BURTT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: You're listening to WEEKENDS n ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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