I remember sitting in the Grand Lake movie theater, terrified out of my skull that Indiana Jones just wasn’t gonna come back from the Thugee mind-control poison that had been forced down his gullet. Right at that moment my grandfather Clifton leaned over to me and said: “This isn’t such a good installment, I don’t think.” Let me tell you, it totally broke the spell. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
. Nobody seems to like it. Me, when I watch it, I’m still a little kid at heart, and all those old emotions kick in, despite the placement of a second-rate Busby Berkeley number, violence towards children, and questionable portrayals of India and Hinduism, all I want to be is 'Short-Round' for the rest of my life.
So when I heard that Ben Burtt
would be giving a presentation on his sound design at a screening for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I was all in. Ben Burtt is one of those guys who’s been shaping your movie going experience since you were a kid, whether you know it or not. Burtt came up with the light saber 'whoosh', E.T.'s “Phone home,” and more recently, he gave voice to Wall-E
. If you fell in love with that little trash compacting robot, you fell in love with the talent and skill of Ben Burtt.
What I learned at the screening is that through Burtt I’ve been influenced by old movies for even longer than I thought.
Case in point: 1939’s Gunga Din
. Gunga Din
is an RKO adventure movie that fires on all cylinders. The actors are a trio of old-school brilliance: Cary Grant’s fantastic, Victor McLaglen’s as grizzled as Tommy Lee Jones could ever hope to be, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. does his father proud. The action sequences still leave you breathless -- the Academy members at the screening with were left exhausted and cheering at the end of the best set pieces.
It’s got problems, of course: the cruel Thugee cult is filled with murderous, death-worshiping Indians. Sound familiar? That’s because Gunga Din
is the true inspiration for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
– and not just in terms of its impolitic representation of Indian religion (although that gets rounded out wonderfully by the end of the movie).
At one point during Burtt’s presentation, he brought out an electric keyboard. When sound editors from the studio era were doing their mix, he told us, they would pull from their studio’s library, which led to each studio having its own aural flavor for cars, airplanes, city backgrounds, and gunshots. Then Burtt started hitting keys on the keyboard, sounding off a bunch of wildly different gunshots, from bass-heavy gangster Tommy Guns, to powerful shots for war movies, to the big, epic sound of the gunshot for the RKO adventure movie. Although that last one, he told us with a grin, had to be recreated.
The story – which I’ve now confirmed as true – goes like this: in order to understand the proper sound design for Raiders of the Lost Ark
, Burtt asked George Lucas and Steven Spielberg whether or not Indiana Jones would lose his hat during fights. They said the hat’s gonna stay on, which told Burtt that the sound for the movie was the sound of big adventure, which immediately made him think of that big sound from the RKO adventure movies he loved as a kid – Gunga Din
Burtt wanted that sound so badly that when he discovered the old RKO sound libraries had been lost he went to the Sierra Nevada’s Alabama Hills, which director George Stevens had turned into the Khyber Pass for Gunga Din
. After a great deal of experimentation, Burtt discovered that the secret to that big RKO gunshot lay in the echo made in that valley in the Alabama Hills.
Burtt changed my life. Because now, when I watch a movie, I know I’m also listening to it. So yeah, you might agree with my grandfather that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
is the weakest of the original trilogy, but nowadays when I watch it I’m getting an echo from 1939. If Temple of Doom
bums you out, then trust me: go check out Gunga Din
. Check out last week's Movies that Changed My Life