Pixar promotes sound guru to star

'Wall-E's' style forced unique publicity strategy

As animation budgets balloon, toon studios have learned to hedge their bets by casting stars. Suits don’t get nearly so nervous when you can flaunt an Eddie Murphy-caliber name in the marketing materials, stir up publicity by dangling a bee-suited Jerry Seinfeld over the Croisette or have Shia LaBeouf pose with penguins at a press junket.

Pixar, on the other hand, has been shying away from such thinking in recent films, casting lesser-known comic Patton Oswalt in “Ratatouille” and nearly doing away with recognizable human dialogue in “Wall-E.” For the latter, director Andrew Stanton tapped Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt (best known for creating R2-D2’s trademark twitter and beeps) to invent the robots’ nonverbal language — a decision that called for some unorthodox marketing tactics.

From San Diego Comic-Con to Sydney, Burtt effectively became the “star” of the movie, traveling the world to do press events and premieres.

“I suddenly found myself taken in limousines and staying in five-star hotels and having handlers and being a rock star,” says Burtt between interviews with Japanese outlets (the movie opened there Friday). “Of course, I’m not used to that. When does a sound editor ever find himself walking red carpets in 10 worldwide cities?”

The most attention Burtt had ever enjoyed before was at fanboy confabs, where the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” faithful convene. And though Burtt once spotted a groupie dressed as a minor character he played in “Return of the Jedi,” the below-the-line pro can usually slip by unrecognized.

“Most sound people are a little bit shy, but part of the requirements at Pixar is you’re also a public presenter,” he says, pointing out that toon directors are also expected to run the promotional gantlet.

“Everywhere we went, once there was a discussion of ‘Wall-E,’ there was always a discussion of ‘Star Wars.’ I would get a lot of questions about how do you do R2, how do you do Darth Vader’s breathing, how do you do the lightsaber,” he says. “It was appropriate, because Andrew was deriving the look and feeling of ‘Wall-E’ from the movies of the ’70s and ’80s that he liked. He hired me because of that legacy, and he got that pedigree.”

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