Thomas Edison invented sound recordings in 1877, a decade after Lincoln’s presidency. This created a unique challenge for Ben Burtt, the Sound Designer on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
Burtt has won numerous Oscars, including for his work on Star Wars. You might be familiar with the zap of the Lightsaber, which NPR explains was created using sounds from an old projector and TV set. For Lincoln, he wanted to capture as many authentic sounds as possible.
“I felt, well, here’s a chance to get in touch with actual history. I always do research when I’m collecting sounds and making sounds for a film, and authenticity is normally not necessarily the prime directive in doing sound design. I’m 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.”
In an interview with Soundworks Collection, Burtt explains his process.
“I started by reading as much as I could about Lincoln and those times to gather information, and then did research as to what kinds of sounds would have been near the White House at that time.”
Burtt and his team requested unprecedented access to the White House, and with permission, were able to record the sound of Lincoln’s clock, still on the same mantelpiece from the 1860’s in the Lincoln Bedroom. They also recorded themselves knocking on the White House’s original mahogany doors as well as other clocks that were present during the Lincoln administration.
“Anytime in the movie when you hear those sounds, it’s not foley, it’s not production sound, it’s the actual doors in the White House you’re hearing.”
One of the most fascinating sound details is the ticking of Lincoln’s pocket watch. Burtt and his team convinced the Kentucky Historical Society, where the watch now resides, to wind it up and see if it worked.
“They were very excited that they could hear the watch ticking. It probably hadn’t been wound up for a century, or a century and a half, who knows? This is the watch that allegedly was in his pocket when he went to Ford’s Theatre and was assassinated.”
Burtt has designed over fifty films, including John Carter, Super 8 and Star Trek, most of which involve loud explosions and effects. In contrast, Lincoln is a quiet, introspective film and Burt says it was a pleasure working on something so different.
“I love history and I have a great respect for Abraham Lincoln, and I’ve always read about him over the years and in a sense, dreamed of working on a film that would recreate his world, so here is that dream come true.”
Lincoln is now playing in theaters.
| via The Verge