Digging Up the Movie Magic That Made Indiana Jones an Icon

Legendary FX artist Dennis Muren and sound wizard Ben Burtt remember Indy's origins.

Director Steven Spielberg, producer George Lucas and star Harrison Ford are well remembered for their obvious contributions to the high-octane, whip-cracking adventures of Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

But just as Indy relied on his own band of indispensable allies like Sallah, Short Round and Marcus Brody, so too did the filmmakers turn to an elite band of inventive craftsmen and technicians to create a new standard of movie magic that would elevate their action hero into an icon – key among them being visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren (“E.T.,” “Terminator 2,” “Jurassic Park”) and sound designer Ben Burtt (“Star Wars,” “Wall-E,” “Super 8”), who have become legends in their own right.

Just as Indy’s four memorable film escapades – “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Crystal Skulls” – make their long-awaited debut on Blu-Ray within the deluxe set "Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures," PopcornBiz set out to excavate some of the buried secrets behind the making of the original films, and Muren and Burtt provided the map.

Setting new standards in SPFX and sound:

Dennis Murren: 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 sort of living through it, there's something in the reality of it that sort of usurps any technical sort of problems we might've had in those days and it gives it a very handmade feel look to it. So I think the movies hold up extremely well – and not that the newer ones aren't good also, but the smell and feel of the FX material and all, I think, fit with the rest of the movie. You can tell…if these movies were all made in studios it'd be one thing, but those real locations with the reality of everything, I think it really helps the FX of all the real things also…Harrison is the movie. We were supplementary to all that, but we they're important because what George and Steven always wanted was to be able to experience a hyper-adventure that this guy is wild and crazy enough to get into.

So the FX were there to sort of supplement that, and to go beyond what was ever going on, probably, in the James Bond movies, which were pretty much rooted in reality in their times. So you can get out of reality and have a real thrill-ride adventure, and that's what they were going for in this film and that's where the FX needed to come in, to do things that just couldn't be done for real.

Ben Burtt: I started off in my career with 'Star Wars,' and of course the sound was being attached to give credibility to a highly imaginative universe of characters, places and things. Then along came 'Indy,' and of course the action-adventure genre was my favorite. The films that this series pays homage to are the films I loved growing up, the westerns and the adventure movies, the 'Tarzan' movies, ‘Gunga Din,’ this sort of thing. I was so excited to work on it, and I knew that the sound FX in those classic movies, as they are today, almost all the sounds in films are added after the fact.

They're not the sounds that are recorded during filming because you want control of the sounds later, most of course there was no appropriate sound on the set anyways that is right for the final movie. So my job and the team that I work with is to create all of that and add it in. I could've gone to a library at any studio and gotten face punches, fire explosions, trucks. These things had been in movies many times before and they were good recordings. What I wanted to do was not do that, but to build our own new, customized 'Indiana Jones' library which would have it's own signature.

Conceptually it would be based on my favorite sounds from the classic movies of the past. I would study the gunshots in all the movies that I loved, and I'd say, 'Well, how did they do it? How can I make something that is better, but is a legacy and owes its origins to what's been movie language up to that point?' Because so many things about the 'Indiana Jones' series were new visions of things that had existed in movies before, but now put together all under the adventures of one character. So we set out to record everything over again: new fire and new explosions, new body falls, new truck skids, whatever it might be.

And then on top of that level of reality, there was always the mystical and supernatural elements of these films: the Crystal Skull, the Sankara Stone, the Ark of the Covenant. And in order to portray the sounds for those objects, these were the supernatural things, maybe a little bit more like 'Star Wars' in the sense that they related to things that were unfamiliar, alien things that were new. We would want to give those sounds an expressive voice, those objects an expressive voice as well. So, that was also my department, to try and come up with sounds for all of that.

Favorite production memories:

Muren: 'Temple of Doom' was really, really memorable, which we had the big mine chase in that, which was very difficult: shots that go on and on going through this tunnel, and of course they couldn't do it for real. They had a nice tunnel that they could get some shots with, but not the vistas or the length of travel that they needed to carry the dramatic effect. In order to build these long sets and miniature sets, the size though was dependent on the size of the camera, of all things, because the camera had to go through the tunnel. I came up with idea of using just a Nikon still camera instead of shooting with one of the bigger movie cameras – just use a still camera to shoot still frame after frame after frame, and these shots that only ran like four or five seconds anyway, we could get that on one load on a Nikon camera. That meant that all the sets could be smaller.

It just saved a heck of a lot of money, which everyone was happy about because these films, no matter how they appear, were always done on very, very tight budgets. We always had to really work within that, and then the work came out really great in that sequence, too…It was really pretty neat, and then the other thing for my experience was I got to act in one little sequence in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' which was when Harrison goes on the airplane and there's the spy who's sort of in front reading this 'Life Magazine' and that's me in there. I'll tell you, that's the weirdest experience, going from behind the scenes to being in front of the camera with Spielberg looking at you here, and Harrison is over there. It's like, 'What the heck am I doing here?'

Burtt: Since we go out on expeditions to gather the sound or we invent special props, there's always a story with every sound. Dennis mentions the mine car chase: we wanted the sound of these cars clattering down the tracks and squealing around corners. We thought, perhaps, is there any place 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 of the roller coasters and record them. So we would go into Space Mountain, turn all the lights on and turn the music off and ride in the cars, or stand alongside the track and get the squealing around the corners. We had a wonderful, all-night Disneyland experience. Big Thunder Mountain. Space Mountain. The Matterhorn. All of them completely out of context, with the lights on so that you could see all the behind-the-scenes stuff. That was fun.

At Skywalker Ranch, at the time of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' there were no buildings on the ranch. It was just an empty property, and we used to come out here every afternoon, when it was quiet and there weren't birds or frogs to interfere with recordings. We would stage sound FX events here at the ranch that we needed for 'Raiders.' We spent a day laboriously carrying rocks and gravel, everything we could find to the top of a rock outcropping and then we shoved it down the rock face and recorded all the tumbling rocks and dust and grit. We have used, or derived from that recording just about every rock effect that you hear in these movies, when things are collapsing or a temple falls apart. You slow the sound down. Where the theater is today, we had a shooting range. There was a gully here and some old car was down in it. We brought out some of the explosive guys from ILM and we blew things up here for a while to get a lot of explosions.

We found that the canyon where the tech building is today had wonderful acoustics, because the sound would slap back and forth. We did all the gunshots that you hear for Indy's gun – we did it with much higher-powered rifles. Of course everything in 'Indiana Jones' is exaggerated, so his pistol isn't just a little .38 caliber pop. We would've used a Howitzer if we could've brought one in…

We brought a truck up here, and I would run and throw myself against the hood of the truck for Indy banging onto the hood. Gary Summers did the whip cracks on road, right here next to where this building is today and we could get the echo and the trees and all of that. It wasn't just a simple matter of getting the right technical recording. It's all about finding the right performance and the right acoustic location. We tend to do things outside because there'd 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, in the jungle or something of that sort.

Secrets of the famous sounds of Indy’s punches:

Burtt: There's one part that I'm not going to tell you because I have to protect a few things so I have future work, because there's always punches to be needed in the movies. Of course there's body punches, there's face punches, and they're not so simple to do because an actual face punch, if you've ever had one or delivered one, it's not very loud. It's usually the person going, 'Ugh,' or '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 1930's. They started out using, like, clapboards and things to make a slapping sound, a punching sound.

What we did was right here on the road here. We had a setup. We got a lot of baseball gloves, like catcher's mitts and leather jackets and some football equipment, and what we would do, like for instance if you took a baseball bat, threw a catcher's mitt into the air and hit it with the baseball bat as hard as you could, you would get a good thwack. We took pumpkins and if you took – one of my favorites – a croquet ball and you put it in a sock, so that you have sort of a nunchuck sort of a weapon and you beat the pumpkin to death, every so often one of those hits, out of the five or so, is really good, meaty, kind of a choppy sound. So a library was built up of those kinds of things and used for a body blow or a kick and that sort of thing. We reserved that particular set just for the 'Indy' films because we wanted to be associated with 'Indiana Jones' every time that he swings his fist.


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