As sound designer for “Return of the Jedi” (and every “Star Wars” film in the franchise), Ben Burtt was tasked with inventing a language for the tiny heroic creatures known as Ewoks. But on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Episode VI, Burtt has revealed that creation of Ewokese began well before filming on the 1983 movie.
“George Lucas’ vision always included the development of sound prior to shooting, which is very unusual,” he explained to MTV News, referring to the fact that with most movies, sound isn’t developed until post-production. “One of the reasons was that you wanted to know something about the language before filming, so that the performers playing the Ewoks, and the director as well, would have some idea how to conduct the scene.”
The designer had formalized his method for crafting alien language while working on “Episode IV.” (In Lucas’ 1977 film, fans hear Chewbacca’s distinctive Wookieespeak for the first time.) “[By] ‘Jedi,’ we had somewhat refined the approach as to how I would create languages,” said Burtt, whose legendary sound work can be heard in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek Into Darkness,” among other box-office hits. “It usually meant doing some research and finding an existing language or several languages which were exotic and interesting, something that our audience — 99 percent of them — would never understand.”
Burtt would start the process by listening to different language recordings from around the world. For the Ewoks, however, he was looking for a sound that evoked the furry creatures’ playfulness. “I’d find something that was fun and interesting and kind of made you smile when you listened to it,” he explained.
The sound designer then sought out subjects who could recite folktales in their native language. One, a refugee from Inner Mongolia, was in her 70s. “She had been really living in the wilderness — by comparative standards to us — all her life,” he recalled. “And [she] had just recently come over and immigrated and didn’t speak any English. She would come in and speak for us and if she had a little vodka she was happy to do so,” which earned her the nickname Grandma Vodka from the designer and his team.
Eventually, the woman’s voice became the seed for the Ewok language.
“She was so expressive, she had a great laugh, she had a sing-songy kind of voice … and she really was a ham, I guess that’s the way to put it,” Burtt said. “And we got some wonderful recordings of her, and a lot of the recordings we had got from her were used for Wicket [the most recognizable Ewok in "Jedi"].
Burtt also recorded people from places like Tibet, Sri Lanka and India. “Over a period of a few months and sessions in the studio, I collected five or six of these different languages, which were all interesting,” he continued. (Ewokese incorporates parts of all those languages.)
When it came to casting performers who would actually voice the Ewok characters in the film, Burtt favored older female voices. “The voice as it gets older has a little more character to it; it gets raspier, gravellier,” he explained. “I found that these converted very well to alien creatures.”
The next step was editing the voice recordings into the film, and that brought its own set of challenges. “It was unknown up until a few days before filming the scenes how mobile the [Ewok] masks would be. That is, how much mouth movement or lip or tongue movement was going to be permissible,” Burtt explained. “As it turned out, the masks were a little more solid than what we had hoped. The characters didn’t have a lot of flexibility in the face [in the area] around the mouths and the lips, and so it became a little more challenging to complete the illusion when you would cut in lines of dialogue to make it look like it was in sync.”
Editors had to come up with creative ways around the problem. “You tended to put [dialogue] over the backs of their heads, or a side view,” Burtt said. “Fortunately, the people playing Ewoks were very expressive. Their body language told you a lot: the way they would move their head, their shoulders, wave their spear in the air, whatever, while they were acting. And that helped a lot in convincing the audience that these sounds were in sync with what was going on. If you look carefully, a lot of it is really not lip-sync, but it’s body-sync.”
Unlike Klingon from the “Star Trek” franchise, there’s no official dictionary for the Ewok language. “I was never literal about Ewokese,” Burtt said. “At the time of ‘Jedi,’ I would choose things that just sounded right at the moment.” More work on the language came afterward, for the various Ewok spinoffs. “We did do a bit of that for the cartoon shows and things, just to make it consistent — we didn’t realize it was going to have such longevity.”