This Is What You're Really Hearing When R2-D2 Screams In Star Wars

"Star Wars" is so much more in the pop culture landscape than a popular series of movies. Few films have ever managed to penetrate the collective social consciousness in the way George Lucas' sci-fi saga has, and so many elements of those movies that might otherwise be forgotten in other franchises have lived on for decades. A sometimes underrated element of these movies is the astonishing sound design, which has resulted in sounds that even the most casual of fans recognize: a lightsaber blade igniting, Darth Vader's breathing, and even R2-D2 screaming.

But what is it that we're hearing when we hear that beloved droid scream? It's a unique notion — making a robot that doesn't communicate with actual words scream in a way that is discernible as a scream. The sound has some pretty interesting roots that actually make one understand why that memorable scream feels so, well, genuine.

Stress Led to R2-D2's Iconic Scream

It all starts with some advice George Lucas had for the team crafting the sound of this universe: rather than use a synthesizer "go out into the world with your tape recorder," as "The Sounds of Star Wars" author J.W. Rinzler recalled to NPR back in 2010. Sound designer Ben Burtt was then tasked with gathering a library of real-world sounds that could then later be manipulated to craft the sounds of this universe. This took him on a wild journey, from recording scuba gear to capture Darth Vader's breathing, to recording the hum from a projection booth at a cinema to create the lightsaber sound.

But Burtt revealed in that same interview that R2-D2 was his greatest challenge of all. After trying, and failing, with many methods, Burtt realized making his own sound was the way to go. It's a blend of Burtt's voice and the manipulation of a synthesizer that birthed the R2 unit's sounds. As for the scream? It was pretty much just Burtt screaming himself, perhaps motivated by stress.

"I had a room in George Lucas' house where their offices were, but I was down in the basement. When I wanted to record something — I didn't have a recording booth — I used to get under a big table down in the room where I worked, with a microphone, and kind of curl up in a corner. And one day, I just made a scream. I just screamed. Maybe there was some stress behind it. That scream, sped up, is used pretty much straight up as R2-D2's scream."

One Scream for Every Star Wars Project

One truly remarkable thing about that fateful scream is that it has never been duplicated, and no other scream has been used for R2-D2 ever since. That famed scream Ben Burtt did under that table has been used repeatedly for decades now, and it will probably continue to be used for decades to come. As we can see (or hear rather) in the above video, J.W. Rinzler explains that is the only scream that exists:

"Ben, probably because he was stressed, was able to do a really good scream which he's never been able to duplicate. So every time R2-D2 screams in the movies, it's always that 1977 one."

One fateful moment of stress managed to help define a character through more than four decades and nine movies in the Skywalker saga — and counting.