10 Iconic Movie Sounds (And How They Were Made)
By Rudie Obias
While a movie’s dialogue and sound are recorded during filming, a majority of sound effects and foley work are created during post-production. The average movie has hundreds of different sound effects, from the sound of a door opening to water being poured into a glass. Considering that sound design is just as important to a finished film as its visual elements, sometimes sound designers have to get really creative to bring a movie to life. Here are 10 iconic movie sounds, and how they were made.
1. LIGHTSABERS // STAR WARS (1977)
Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt created the distinctive sound of a lightsaber by combining the hum of an idle film projector and the buzz from an old TV set. “The motors made a musical ‘hum,’ which I felt immediately would complement the image in the painting,” Burtt explained to filmsound.org. “I recorded that motor, and a few days later I had a broken microphone cable that caused my recorder to accidentally pick up the buzz from the back of my TV picture tube. I recorded that buzz, and mixed it with the hum of the projector motor. Together these sounds became the basis for all the lightsabers.” Burtt then captured the lightsaber swooshing sound when he twirled and swiped a shotgun microphone in front of a speaker playing the combined sounds.
2. T. REX // JURASSIC PARK (1993)
Considering that it would be impossible to accurately capture the sounds of animals from 65 million years ago, Jurassic Park sound designer Gary Rydstrom had to get creative with making the T. rex’s iconic roar. He slowed down various animal noises—from a baby elephant’s squeal to an alligator’s gurgling to a tiger’s snarl—to give the T. rex life. The sound of the king (or queen, as it were) of dinosaur’s breath was the sound of air escaping a whale’s blowhole. Rydstrom even used his tiny Jack Russell terrier, Buster, to create the sound of a hungry T. Rex killing a fleeing Gallimimus.
“The way they animated the T. rex was very doglike, especially when it grabs the Gallimimus and the lawyer and shakes them to death,” Rydstrom told Vulture. “Every day I would see my dog playing with the rope toy and doing exactly that, pretending like he’s killing his prey.”
3. SLIDING THROUGH JAIL BARS // TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)
In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the T-1000 phases through jail bars to try to capture the T-800, Sarah Connor, and her son John at the mental institution. Sound designer Gary Rydstrom revealed that he came up with a very cost effective way that involved a lot of dog food slowly being sucked out of cans.
“What’s amazing to me is the combination of Industrial Light & Magic using millions of dollars of high-tech digital equipment and computers to come up with the visuals, and meanwhile I’m inverting a dog food can,” Rydstrom said.
4. WARP DRIVE // STAR TREK (2009)
Although the series got its start on television, Star Trek has made a big impression on the big screen with 12 (soon-to-be 13) movies in the franchise. One of the most recognizable sounds from the entire film series is the sound of the warp drive. For the 2009 Star Trek reboot, director J.J. Abrams enlisted Ben Burtt to create new sounds for everything on the U.S.S. Enterprise, while paying homage to the original.
“The original warp drive sound was a very musical tone that ramped up and down in pitch, with all kinds of hum and distortion, and it was undoubtedly produced with a test oscillator going through a plate reverb chamber,” Burtt told synthtopia.com. “I wanted to go back to that musical idea, and get something with an emotional feel to it, so I reproduced that sound in exactly the same way in analog fashion, using a 1960s-era test oscillator that was once in the physics department at my old school, Allegheny College. I went back there and actually found that oscillator in a basement, and brought it back with me to use on the movie.”
5. THE SHOWER SCENE // PSYCHO (1960)
Along with Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score, one of the reasons why the iconic shower scene from Psycho is so terrifyingly effective is its sound design. Although you don’t actually see Mrs. Bates slice into Marion Crane, you can hear every stab going into her body. Alfred Hitchcock achieved this by stabbing through countless melons to find the perfect one for the scene. “In a recording studio, prop man [Bob] Bone auditioned the melons for Hitchcock, who sat listening with his eyes closed,” writes Stephen Rebello in Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. “When the table was littered with shredded fruit, Hitchcock opened his eyes, and intoned simply: ‘Casaba.’”
6. BOULDER CHASE // RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
The first scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark is arguably one of the most memorable in adventure movie history. While Indiana Jones is trying to dodge spares and tarantulas, the archaeologist accidently sets off a booby trap that triggers a giant boulder, which begins rolling straight for him. The boulder, of course, wasn’t real; it was made of fiberglass. To sell an audience on its authenticity, sound designer Ben Burtt used the sound of a car set in neutral, coasting down a gravel road.
“One afternoon we were coming down one of the hills here in a little Honda Civic station wagon that belonged to the sound department,” Burtt told the Los Angeles Times. “We were coasting on the road that had big rocks—sort of baseball size rocks. There was this great crunching and rumbling of a sound with the car moving over the rocks. I thought, ‘My God that could be the boulder!’”
7. WOLVERINE’S CLAWS // X-MEN (2000)
Throughout the X-Men film series, Wolverine unleashes a trio of adamantium claws from his fists to lay waste to anyone who would dares to cross him. Comic book fans know that his claws make a “Snikt!” sound on the page, but in film, X-Men sound designer Craig Berkey used the sound of a knife being drawn from a sheath mixed with the sound of a chicken or turkey carcass being torn apart.
“For the claw sound, essentially there were two main elements I was working on,” Berkey told Gizmodo. “One was the metallic blade sound, as it goes in or out. The other was the actual physical sound of something going through flesh and retracting.”
8. BALROG // THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)
Sound designer David Farmer created the deep drones of the Balrog for The Fellowship of the Ring by recording the sounds of a cinder block being dragged on a wooden floor. He wanted to give the audience the feeling that this monster was trapped underground for centuries, before Frodo and the Fellowship accidently unearthed it.
“I think my favorite moments are the very first ones when he’s sort of waking up in the distance,” Farmer told DesigningSound.org. “The rock grinds were all by themselves in several places as vocals, but there were also moments where it really needed a vocal bellow. I used donkeys and horses for the bellows and also any pain vocals.”
9. GODZILLA’S ROAR // GODZILLA (1954)
Godzilla’s mighty roar has evolved over the creature’s 62-year history. While the sound effects team on the original 1954 Japanese film unsuccessfully tried to use various animal noises and roars, the film’s composer, Akira Ifukube, had the idea to use musical instruments to create the monster’s iconic sound instead.
“It was actually a double bass, using a leather glove coated in pine tar resin to create friction,” sound designer Erik Aadahl told NPR of the original Godzilla. “They’d rub it against the string of the double bass to create that sound.”
10. THE WILHELM SCREAM // VARIOUS MOVIES
“The Wilhelm Scream” is a sound effect used in multiple movies when someone falls from a great height or during an explosion (take a listen). It was first used during the 1951 film Distant Drums when an alligator attacks a soldier, played by Sheb Wooley, and drags him underwater. It later got its name from The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm gets shot in the leg with arrows and makes the iconic yell. Over the years, sound designers have used the effect in movies as a hidden inside joke among colleagues. The Wilhelm Scream was popularized for its use in Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it also appears in countless other movies.