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 iconic elements of those movies that might otherwise be forgotten in other franchises have lived on for decades. An 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 the beloved droid scream exactly? 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. As it turns out, the sound has some pretty interesting roots that actually make one understand why that iconic scream feels so 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 capturing the hum from a projection booth at a cinema to create the iconic lightsaber sound.

But Burtt revealed in that same interview that R2-D2 was his greatest challenge of all. After trying, and failing, a great many methods, it was in making noises back and forth with Lucas that Burtt realized making his own sounds 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 below 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.

When R2-D2 isn't screaming, he's cursing (probably)

R2-D2's scream is something we can all understand. It's relatable and, in some ways, universal. There are no language barriers with a scream. But what about the rest of the time when R2 is just beeping? We get some sense of the droid's language through reactions from other characters such as C-3PO or Luke Skywalker. But, it turns out they have left out another important element: R2-D2 likes to curse up a storm from time to time.

Marvel's "Star Wars" #13, published in 2015, sees Luke Skywalker in bad shape after a crash landing. In the aftermath of the crash, Doctor Aphra and her droid, Triple-Zero, come across the Jedi and his faithful droid. R2 starts beeping up a storm and, while the comic doesn't clue the reader into what the droid is saying, Triple-Zero interprets for the reader. "My, what language. He certainly is a foul-mouthed little astromech," he says. So, not only is R2-D2 willing to scream when the occasion calls for it, but there may be some cursing to go along with that screaming as well.