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Peter Berkos GALACTICA.TV interview
Written by Marcel Damen   
Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Dale Long got in touch with Peter Berkos, the sound effects editor on the Battlestar Galactica 1978 series. In 2004 Peter Berkos was awarded lifetime achievement Oscar for his outstanding career in sound editing. For Battlestar Galactica he was responsible for the sound effects of the laser guns, the barking of Muffit and of course the distinctive voice of the Cylons. We talk to him about his career and how the sounds on Battlestar Galactica were created.

ou started out as a sound effects man in live radio drama back in the 1940s: walking in a sandbox, knocking on miniature doors and shooting off blank pistols in the studio. How does one become a sound effects man, what intrigued you in this profession and made you say: "I want to do this for the rest of my life"?

I became a sound effects man in radio quite by chance. It was in the late 40s and I was directing a repertoire company of actors. I wanted them to do a weekly radio show. When I approached the program director at station WVHA, he said he didn't have a slot open. However, I learned that the station needed a sound effects man. I figured if I was on the inside, I would have a better chance of getting air time for my group. I got the job, and in a few months, my company was on the air and I directed dramatic shows for two years.

You did sound editing for 35 years on 350 features and 1,000 television shows. Can you name some of the most interesting projects and of which you have the fondest memories?

Sound editing for films was a completely different craft. In the early fifties, when I started in the Editorial Department, we didn't have magnetic film. All sound tracks were optical. We learned to read variable density. An optical stripe ran down the edge of the film. It varied in shades of grey, from almost white to black. As the track ran over a light source the sound was dictated by the amount of light that passed through the film. Later we had striations, an etched, jagged line that ran along the film's edge.

Of course, my fondest memory is getting the Oscar for my work on The Hindenberg. An other Gray Lady Down. It was a submarine picture. I wanted it to be authentic so I asked the producer to arrange for me to take a sound crew on to a nuclear sub. He did and I took one assistant sound editor and a two man sound crew down to San Diego and we boarded a submarine. We were on the craft eight hours. By the way, I'm claustrophobic. I was a mess before the day was over. What made the film memorable happened just prior its release. I had moved on to another picture and was working at my Moviola when the film's producer came to my editing room with an Admiral. Walter had just run the film for him. When it was over, the Admiral was truly enthused with the authenticity of the sound, so the producer brought him to meet me. The icing on the cake came when Walter Mirich, the Producer, moved my screen credit up to near the beginning of the crawl.

Battlestar Galactica's sound effects editor Peter Berkos

Battlestar Galactica's sound effects editor Peter Berkos

What's the weirdest sound effect you ever made or what was the weirdest object you used to create a sound effect?

The weirdest object I used to create a sound effect had to be built by the prop department. It was for a film titled, Angels With Dirty Faces. The script called for stomach growls on cue from one character. The devise was a combination of varied size pipes, going from two inches down to a very narrow opening. A long wooden hand pump forced through the pipes a mixture of different densities of oil that produced a low rumbling gurgling sound on cue.

You've been spearheading the fight to obtain full screen credit recognition for sound editors. Did winning a "Special Achievement in Sound Editing" Academy Award in 1976 for The Hindenburg help in getting this recognition? Why was this so important to you?

When I became the President of the Motion Picture Sound Editors, I pledged to get recognition of the craft from the two academies and Screen credits for sound editors. I got the Academy recognition before I left the Presidency; however, it took a total of twelve years to get mandatory screen credit for sound editing. In 1975, when I got the Oscar, I did not get screen credit on the picture. Robert Wise, the Director, tried to put it on, but the studio refused to let me set precedence. You see, screen credit was an item to be considered during union negotiations. After that, I changed my direction and began working on the union for support. That was the approach that got us the screen credit.

In 1978 you worked on Battlestar Galactica. Can you tell us how you got approached for this project and what it included?

Battlestar Galactica fell into my lap. When it was ready for post-production, I was not working on a feature film. I met Glen Larson, a man I had great respect for, we hit it off and I was invited to be part of the team. I was asked to run the rough cut of the film, which had no sound refinements and conjure up appropriate sounds for the various space crafts, lasers, interiors, exteriors, robotics for animals, etc.

Can you name some of the sound editing you worked on for this series? Can you remember some of the instruments you used making the sound effects?

Every episode of Battlestar Galactica presented a new challenge. Glen [Larson] had a keen, inventive mind. The battleships, the Vipers, the Cylon craft, various modes of transportation were established early and used week after week. However, each week I had to create new fantasy sounds: radar mine fields, celestial castles, galactic night-club atmosphere, actually, too many to recall.

I can tell you how I got the sound of laser guns. I started with the snap of a bullwhip. We recorded sharp cracks, which we expanded electronically (It was so long ago that don't remember the name of the instrument we used). We then fed the elongated sound through the mixing panel to add highs. Frank Warner, who did the sound effects for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, used the same principal, however, instead of a bullwhip, he found a telephone pole with a heavy cable that extended to the ground. Frank recorded the sound of hitting the cable with a hammer and recording the sound. He then worked with that sound at the panel to turn it into laser shots. When you create sound effects, you find your own starting point.

You said you also worked on the voice of the Cylons. Can you remember any of the actors who did voice work on this? Did you meet or work with these actors or were you simply given the tapes with the lines? Can you explain the process of turning a normal voice into this very typical Cylon voice? Did you also work on the sound effect of the eye?

As I had mentioned to you, the vocoder was used in tandem with a companion sound, I seem to remember it was a synthesizer. Only one actor was used for all Cylon voices to keep the sound consistent. I was in the recording studio during the taping to insure a monotone reading. Then in the editing room to introduce the dialogue onto the sound track and finally in the dubbing studio to combine the recorded dialogue and the synthesizer through the vocoder.

The original manual of the vocoder used to create the Cylon voice

The original manual of the vocoder used to create the Cylon voice


Yes, I did create the sound for the moving eye; a simple electrical sound on a loop.

How about the sound effects of the walking and "barking" of Muffit?

Muffit was also created with the vocoder. The inner workings of a mechanical toy dog were recorded and married up with an alien sound. I don't recall what the added sound was.

You also worked on Buck Rogers. Were you also responsible for turning Mel Blanc's voice into Twiki's?

Yes, I did work on Mel Blanc's voice. I believe we used the same principal as the Cylons.

You have written and published "Reflections and Memoirs of Sally Ann Berkos," a collecting of your late wife's (pictured) writings. Can you tell us why this was important to you? Will we also see "Reflections and Memoirs of Peter Berkos" soon, because you also had an impressive career and probably a huge amount of interesting stories many people like to read about?

"The Reflections and Memoirs of Sally Ann Berkos" was a labor of love. It was a tribute to her memory. The book was never intended for the public. I had 250 copies printed for family and friends. Borders Book Store had expressed a desire to put it on their shelves, but said no.

I do have a book that I work on from now and then. It is titled, "The Vignettes Of  My Life". I begin with the birth of myself and my twin brother in the Roaring Twenties and progresses through our childhood, early schooling, the Army Air Force, my marriage, a divorce, second marriage, children, directing career, film business career, etc. Some day, I may get back to work on it.

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