HDD Visits the Skywalker Ranch; Dennis Muren and Ben Burrt Talk Indiana Jones

Posted Thu Sep 13, 2012 at 01:00 PM PDT by

by Michael S. Palmer

The wait is almost over, HDD Fans! Review copies are out and in a few short days, you'll be able to own a copy of the 5-disc / 4-movie 'Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures' on Blu-ray. The movies are all housed on indvidual discs along with their teaser and theatrical trailers. The fifth disc is all special features, including the all new 57-minute On Set with Raiders of the Lost Ark featurette, produced by Laurent Bouzereau and culled from hours of behind the scenes film footage. Let me tell you, I have seen this documentary and it is an amazing fly-on-the-wall experience for one of the greatest action-adventures of all time, in HD no less. The packaging itself is beautiful, with original movie posters and behind the scene photographs for each film. However, retrieving each disc is slightly difficult and I foresee a few scratched-disc complaints in the future.

But this isn't the Blu-ray review (E's currently hard at work on that). We're excited to FINALLY share more photos and an interview from our amazing trip up to the Skywalker Ranch and the Lucasfilm Archives. Tucked into the pastoral hills of Marin County, visiting the Skywalker Ranch is essentially Geek Mecca. To walked the hallowed grounds where George Lucas and his merry band of artists built the modern age of blockbuster special effects and THX certified surround sound...

What a humbling experience.

HDD joined two busloads of journalists from around the world in the Skywalker Ranch Tech Building where we were treated to a 30 minute presentation from the legendary Dennis Muren (of ILM) and and Ben Burrt (of Skywalker Sound). If you've ever wanted to learn how the mine car chase from 'Doom' was filmed, or where to find Dennis Muren's 'Raiders' cameo, or how Ben and his team created the famous Indiana Jones punches and gunshots, this interview below is a must read.

If that wasn't cool enough, staff members then opened the doors to the Lucasfilm Archives, home to props, costumes, concept art, and minatures from all of the Lucasfilm productions. For us, they laid out costumes from from all four Jones adventures, and though we weren't able to photograph anything else, it's not my fault the second Death Star was sitting next to the Indiana Jones costume (muhahahaha!). Holy F-bomb, Batman, this is the place where the original / real versions of all your '80s childhood toys live.

Don't worry, there's more tucked into the interview below.

We also learned a little bit about how the first three Jones adventures were prepped for Blu-ray. The original 'Raiders' negative was scanned at 4K, restored (scratches removed), and color corrected. 'Doom' and 'Crusade' were "remastered", meaning they too received 4K scans and color corrections, but didn't require the repairs. No effects were changed, and there haven't been any Han-shot-second / walkietalkie-for-gun swapouts. Ben Burtt also supervised a new 5.1 surround mix for 'Raiders'.

Without further ado about nothing, here is Dennis Muren and Ben Burrt, hosted by Lucasfilm's Miles Perkins:

Dennis, Indiana Jones has been synonymous with huge action adventure blockbusters. How do you think the imagery holds up to today's standards?

Dennis: 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 lived through it, there's something in the reality of it that usurps the technical problems we might have had in those days. It gives it a very hand-feel look to it. I think the movies hold up extremely well. Not that the newer ones aren't good also, but the scale and the feel of the effects material fit the movie. You can tell, if these movies were all made in studios that would be one thing, but with the reality of everything, the real locations, really helps that the effects are all real things also.

The visual effects were as much of a character in the movie as Harrison. Can you speak to that, to how visual effects really carried the film as much as anything else?

Dennis: Yeah, I guess so, but Harrison is the movie and we were supplementary to all that. But they're important because what George and Steven wanted to be able to experience a hyper-adventure. The sky is wild and crazy enough to get into. The effects were there to supplement that and to go beyond what was going on in the James Bond movies that were pretty much rooted in reality. There are times when you get out of reality and have a real thrill ride adventure, and that's what they were going for in this film. That's where the effects need to come in, where things just couldn't be done for real.

Along those lines, Ben, can you talk a little bit about what it was like to embark on the Indy properties?

Ben: I started off my career with 'Star Wars' and, of course, the 'Star Wars' sound was being attached to give credibility to and highly imaginative universe of characters, places, and things. And along came Indy and the action-adventure genre was my favorite. The films that this series pays homage to are the films I love. It reminded me of the westerns and adventure movies, the Tarzan movies, 'Gunga Din', this sort of thing.

I was so excited to work on ['Raiders of the Lost Ark'] and I knew the sound effects in those classic movies, as they are today, almost all the sounds are added after the fact. They're not the sounds that are recorded during the filming because you want control of the sounds later. Mostly, of course, there is no sound on the set that is right for the final movie. My job, and the team I work with, is to create all of that and add it in.

I could have gone to a library at any studios and gotten face punches, fire explosions, trucks -- these things had been in movies many times before, and there were good recordings. But what I wanted to do was to build our own, customized Indiana Jones library. It 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 of all the movies that I loved. I would say, "how did they do it? How can make something that is better, but owes its origins to what has been movie language up until that point?" Because so many things about the Indiana Jones series were new visions of things that had existed in movies before, but now all put together in 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. And on top of that level of reality, there was always the mystical and supernatural elements to these films...the crystal skull, the shankara stone, the ark of the covenant. In order to portray the sounds of those objects, these were the supernatural things and possibly a little be more like 'Star Wars' in they related to unfamiliar alien things that were new. We would want to give those sounds -- those objects -- an expressive voice as well. That was also my department to come up with sounds for all that. There was both the science fiction element, I would call it, the fantasy element as well as the reality element.

I would imagine going back and looking at these films evokes certain memories. Dennis, are there any favorite moment you want to share about making these movies?

Dennis: Well, 'Temple of Doom' was really, really memorable. We had the big mine chase sequence, which was very difficult. These shots go on and on in this tunnel and, of course, they couldn't do it for real. They had a tunnel to get some shots with, but not the length of travel needed to get the dramatic effect. In order to build these long miniature sets, the size was dependent on the camera because the camera had to go through the tunnels. I came up with this idea of using a Nikon still camera, instead of shooting with one of the bigger movie cameras, that shoots still frame after frame. And these shots that only ran for 4-5 seconds anyway, we could get that on one load of the Nikon camera. That meant all the sets could be smaller. They only needed to be 100-feet long instead of 300-feet. And it just saved a heck of a lot of money, which everybody was happy about.

These films, no matter how they appear, were always on very, very tight budgets. We always had to work within that, and the work came out really great in that scene. The cave walls are heavy aluminum foil painted, and it's all done stop-motion, or go-motion, frame at a time. And it was really pretty neat.

The other thing, from my experience, was I got to act in a little sequence in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'. When Harrison goes on the airplane, there's a spy reading this life magazine, and that's me. I tell ya, that is the weirdest experience going from behind the scenes to being in front of the camera with Spielberg over here and Harrison over there. It's like "what the heck am I doing here?" They actually shot it over here in Richmond. The plane actually couldn't fly, but we went over there and shot all those scenes in one morning. That was pretty darn neat experience. I thought it would lead to bigger parts.

Ben, are there any particular memories you have from in the film?

Ben: Since we go out on special expeditions to gather the sounds, or invent special props, there's a story with every sound. Dennis just mentioned the mine car chase. We wanted the sound of these cars clattering down the tracks, squealing around corners, and we thought, "is there any place where we could go and record something full size like that?" And we ended up making arrangements to go to Disneyland at night when the park was closed and ride all the roller coasters and record them. We went into Space Mountain, turned all the lights on, turned the music off, and ride in the cars or stand along side the track to get them squealing around the corners. Gary Summers and I were working together on that, gathering all these wonderful all-night Disneyland experience. Big Thunder. Matterhorn. All of them completely out of context with the lights on. That was fun.

Right here on the [Skywalker] Ranch, at the time of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', this building did not exist. In fact, no building was on the Ranch. This was just an antique property, and Gary and I used to come out here every afternoon when it was quiet and there weren't any birds or frog to interfere with records. We would stage each sound effect's event here at the Ranch that we needed for 'Raiders'. When you walk out the front door, you'll notice up on the hill here, a big rock outcropping. We spent a day hauling rocks and gravel, everything we could find, to the top of that outcropping and we shoved it down the rock face, recording all the tumbling rocks and dust and grit. We have used, or derived from that recording, just about every rock effect you hear in these movies. When things are collapsing, or a temple falls apart, we'd slow the sound down.

Right here where this theatre is [the Skywalker Ranch Tech Building], we had a shooting range. There was a gully here and some old cars down in it. We brought out some of the explosives guys from ILM and we blew things up here for a while to get a lot of explosions. We found this canyon was wonderful with acoustics because the sound would slap back and forth. We did all the gunshots her for Indy's gun. We did it with much higher-powered rifles. Of course, everything in Indiana Jones is exaggerated. His pistol's not just a .38 caliber pop. We would have used a Howitzer if we could have brought one in here [audience laughs], but we did some gunshot recordings here. Slowed them down and beefed them up a lot to get these sounds. We did all the ricochets here.

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. We didn't tell anyone what we were doing and we were out here. We got a little carried away shooting things -- the ground and other targets with live ammunition. We had a permit, but we couldn't tell anyone, so finally a bunch of headlights come down the road. We were doing this in the evening. And people wanted to know if we were terrorists or something. The neighbors were complaining. In any event, this whole outdoor area was our recording studio. So much of 'Raiders' was done right here. We brought a truck up here, and I would run and through myself against the hood as the sound of Indy banging on the hood. Gary Summers did the whip cracks on the road right by here so we could get the echo off the trees. There are many pleasant memories about deriving sounds. There were hundreds of things to gather like that.

It's not just the simple matter of getting the right technical recording. It's about finding the right performance in the right acoustic location. We would tend to do things outside, there would be enough echo, especially in the trees, that when you put that sound in the movie, it would really fit into the context of the location. Like a jungle or something of that sort.

[NOTE: Mr. Perkins asks if there are any audience questions.]

What was ground breaking, in terms of visual effects, for the Indiana Jones movies?

Dennis: It was having to cut in, hopefully perfectly no sign of an effect in there / totally real to not break the reality of it. And that gets harder and harder to do that with every film we did. So, on the artistic side, the attention to the detail, the reality, the feel of a Steven Spielberg directed scene even though he didn't direct that [shot], though he certainly approved everything. Probably, some of the motion stuff we did with the mine chase cars so the didn't look like stop motion, or very much like a miniature, hopefully. So I wouldn't say we invited 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 those shots can just pop and look like they were done by a second unit or something like that.

Where did the Indy punches come from?

Ben: There's one part I'm going to tell you -- I have to protect a few things for future work [wink]. Of course, there's body punches and face punches and they're not so simple to do because, if you've ever had one or delivered one, it's not really loud. It's usually the person going "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, punching sound. What we did, right here on the road here, we setup a lot of baseball gloves and catchers' mitts and leather jackets and some football equipment. And what we would do is throw a catchers' mitt in the air and hit it with a baseball bat as hard as you could. You would get a good whack! We took pumpkins and, if you take a croquet ball and put it in a sock, it creates a sort-of nunchuck weapon. We beat the pumpkin to death. Every once in a while, one of those hits is really good, really meaty sounding. So a library was built up of those kinds of things and used for body blows or kicks. We preserved those particular set of effects just for the Indy films because we wanted them to be associated with Indiana Jones every time he swings his fists.

How did you react when you found out George Lucas was going to put a building over your favorite recording space?

Ben: Well, just a few years ago, I brought a gun in and fired it next to the building and recorded it to see whether it sounded the same and it didn't because of the building. I was let down, thinking we had lost... you know, when we initially did those gunshots, we went all around the Ranch. We probably went to 30 or 40 different spots because the whole key to recording gunshots is the location. A good gunshot is multiple syllables, a slap and repeats, but you also want to have some trees around to give it a slow decay and give it character. The best gunshots always have two syllables. That's one of the mistakes people make today, using one-syllable gunshots. That's my opinion.

Dennis: Sound effects, even though I don't do them at all. It's something like what I do, but anyway, sound effects, you can't just go to Garage Band and pull out a gunshot. Some people would think, you've got your punch, put it in the movie, and wouldn't understand why it wouldn't have the effect. All the time that Ben is going for this take-after-take, 30 times later on the Ranch, is that hearing the result and saying, "yeah, that's good." Or "no, that's not good enough." That judgment is really missing in a lot of the stuff today, I think. The Garage Band thing: "solution, boom, put it in, it'll work," but not at all.

Ben: Thank you, Dennis, that was good. I'll hire you for my next interview.

During the ['Raiders'] restoration process, did you talk about bringing in new sounds or changing the effects?

Dennis: There was never any talk of changing any of the effects.

Ben: When it came to sound, I'm an avid film historian and it's very hard for me to change the movie in some way that really modernized it or enclosed an idea that didn't exist at the time. What I did on 'Raiders', for instance, is we did some touchups on things. We had to expand the use of the surround tracks because that was available to us to listen to now in a way that it was not available to us back then. The interesting thing is, some of the sounds, the original monaural surround track on 'Raiders'-- Of course, I had the original stereo recordings of those sounds. Fortunately I had saved those and I could find them. So I was able to go back and take time to match the recordings with what was there in the original release of the movie and put them in stereo now.

So I did add something to the movie, but it was the same content, just now more spacial dimensionality to it. In a few places, where we added a few additional sounds, I took them all off the 'Raiders' library, off the tapes. I added a few missing body hits in fights that we might have missed, and I took them off the same tape that I had back in 1981. I wanted to make sure what was done was still of the same fabric that was originally there because I didn't want it to stand out and be different. I know there have been some restorations of other films where I've seen, on Blu-ray or DVD, where they actually changed the sound effects, imposed something brand new into an old film. It really throws me off because I immediately recognize it, and I wonder why they would do such a thing. So I didn't want to have anything like that occur. Nonetheless, additions that we made to ['Raiders'] because there's more space to put sound in the movie with now. More opportunity. We added material from the original library so it would be consistant.

It's interesting because the original surround track for 'Raiders'-- 'Raiders' was obviously the first one done. It was done at the Golden Mixing Facility in Los Angeles before we had our own mixing facility operation up here. The surrounds in theatres at that time in 1981 were very problematic. You didn't know if they would ever play at the correct level or at all. So the original mix on 'Raiders' was just left, center, right across the front. We didn't use the surround track. Got the balance right, got everybody's approval, George and Steven. Then, as a separate mix after that was approved, we began conservatively adding surround effects. The idea being we knew the movie would work upfront, and that's how it was going to play in most theatres with more of a guarantee that it would be played correctly. The surrounds were a nice enhancement. We didn't want to put content in the surrounds that was essential to the story telling because it could be lost. And that's just because we knew, at that time, many theatres weren't going to be able to get it right. This is before THX existed and any other sort of digital revolution, which have improved theatres.

So now, going back and listening to 'Raiders', we say "boy, we were awfully conservative, so we can have a richer experience." So we recreate with the same raw material. And that's what we did. The surrounds [in 'Raiders'] have been completely redone and we put stereo music in the surrounds.

Ben, what's your thought on frontal sound experience versus agressive surrounds?

Ben: Well, as time has gone on, we kinda predicted this. First as a joke years ago, we thought, "everything's going to move into the surrounds." That's what we kinda felt. And it's gone that way, to some extent. There's 5.1 and 7.1 and now we have 11.1 we did 'Red Tails' in, there's Dolby Atmos process, which is now being experimented with. I like it, I like to make it a more immersive experience. I think, for audiences, it's a learning curve too. At one time, when I first started working in stereo, people might be distracted if something was in the surrounds, especially if someone was sitting close to the speaker. You had to be careful not to put a line of dialog right next to their head. But as time has gone on, and filmmakers continually move the experience forward and it's always changing and evolving, we're at a point now where we're doing a lot more around the room, and we're expecting it to be played that way in the home theatre as well as theatrical. I think as long as its justifiable, in terms of the content of the movie, I like that direction.

HDD here. Thanks again to the folks at Paramount Home Entertainment, Lucasfilm, and Skywalker Ranch for flying us up to San Francisco for this special event! I can't wait to own Indiana Jones on Blu-ray.

Lastly, if seeing all those Lucasfilm Archives photos made you foam at the mouth, be on the lookout for Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology, a touring exhibition presented by National Geographic and belonging in a museum hopefully near you.

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Tags: Indiana Jones, Dennis Muren, Ben Burrt, Michael. S. Palmer, Fun Stuff (all tags)