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Watch this: creating the sounds of 'Lincoln' from a silent era

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lincoln sound set
lincoln sound set

As the sound designer on the set of Lincoln, Ben Burtt was charged with the daunting task of lending aural authenticity to Steven Spielberg's Civil War-era drama. Burtt, a Hollywood veteran whose resumé includes work on Star Wars and E.T., quickly realized that he wouldn't have access to audio from Lincoln's time — sound recording only became a reality in the 1870s. — and that he couldn't rely on standard battle sounds, either, given the subdued nature of Spielberg's screenplay. On a set where historical accuracy was held sacrosanct, Burtt faced arguably the most challenging of jobs — creating sounds for an era that history has left silent.

Yet even within these constrained parameters, Burtt still strove for the highest in authenticity, as he explained in a recent interview with SoundWorks Collection. The designer began by poring over documents and primary accounts from the 1860s in an attempt to identify the church bells, steam engines, and other ambient sounds Lincoln may have heard during a typical day in Washington, DC. He then went hands-on, traveling to museums and even the White House to record the actual door creaks and clock chimes that echoed more than 140 years ago.

Spielberg's sounds come straight from the source

In fact, Burtt spent hours at the White House recording sounds from three clocks and several mahogany doors that have survived since the Lincoln administration. As a result, every door slam or key turn heard in the movie comes not from the set, but directly from the source itself.

In perhaps his most impressive achievement, Burtt even tracked down the pocket watch that Lincoln is believed to have worn on the night of his assassination at Ford's Theater. With permission from the Kentucky Historical Society, he wound up the watch and made it tick for the first time in more than a century, recording its noise within a customized soundproof box. This detail, Burtt says, imbues the film with an extra layer of intimacy, recreating the metronomic sounds that only Lincoln himself would have heard.