Audio puppeteering is a term coined by film sound designer Ben Burtt, to describe the act of translating human language into a different but recognizable form. Through use of common sound patterns and correct usage of the available sound vocabulary, audio puppeteering can make non-human speech understandable to a human audience. This concept, pioneered by Burtt, has lead to what some call “robot speak,” as seen by characters in Star Wars and Pixar’s 2008 film, WALL-E.
Ben Burtt is a well-respected veteran of the film world, famous for his creation of alien, robot and creature languages. It was Burtt who invented the Wookie language for Star Wars, combining the sounds of bears, dogs, lions and an irritated walrus to create the distinctive sound. Burtt also engineered the robot language of R2-D2 in the Star Wars films, perhaps his first experiment with audio puppeteering. To most viewers, R2-D2 has clear intentions that are understandable, even though he is only using a series of robotic noises to communicate.
Burtt describes audio puppeteering as a form of translation. In the process of making WALL-E, screenwriter Andrew Stanton would write dialogue lines for the robot main character in English, and Burtt would translate using the variety of sounds that Wall-E could make. By depending on the intuition of the audience, and working in concert with the animators, this makes the robot’s intentions understandable to a human audience, even though the character is not speaking a human language.
One of the keys to successful audio puppeteering is using sounds that are familiar to the audience. In the creation of the Wookie language, Burtt combined known sounds to produce a new audio concept. Burtt has suggested that this gives the new creations credibility, as they seem grounded in the world of the audience, rather than the unreal setting of the film.
Just as humans have a word vocabulary, we also have a sound vocabulary. We have the ability to recognize what laughter or weeping sounds like and tend to associate meanings with certain sound patterns. If a sound pattern that is similar in rhythm, pitch pattern or cadence is reproduced by a non-human source, it can still carry the universal associations along with it. Thus, when R2-D2 makes a whimpering moan, we understand the intention behind it as fear or anxiety. This is one of the backbones of audio puppeteering, the capability to imbue non-human characters with human emotions.
Films that included sound have existed for less then a century, with the introduction of synchronized sound in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer. Since its invention, the art and practice of film sound has become a creative hotbed of artistry and innovation. Through the contributions of Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom, and other sound artists, the sound element of some films is now as important as the cinematography or direction. Audio puppeteering is still a young form of communication, but it looks to have a bright future as the imagination of filmmakers continues to soar to new worlds.