Five Fabulous Sound Fx

Don Martin proved you can also do sound fx with invented words.

You may have heard the expression “seeing is believing”?  If you’re talking about accepting the reality of what’s presented in a TV show or film, then hearing is believing.  The sound is what convinces us that plastic armor is polished metal, that Jedi light-sabres hold electric power and that bones are broken in a fight between actors, even when we KNOW the punches are pulled.  We even believe that explosions in the vacuum of outer space are audible – because we demand that they be heard, and we won’t suspend disbelief without that sound.  Here are the stories behind five famous sound effects.  All of them helped audiences to believe.  None of them were the real sounds of what took place.

from The Big Snooze (1946)

1.)  Bob’s “Bee-woop” (alternate spellings available)

Bob Clampett (1913-1984) was one of the top directors of Warner Brothers cartoons in the 1930s and 40s.  His cartoons feature lots of physical distortion, uninhibited behavior and surreal backgrounds.  Although WB had brilliant sound resources available in musical form by Carl Stalling and “real” noises adapted and edited by Treg Brown, Bob occasionally did something audacious and loony instead.  He would step up to the microphone and produce a sound effect vocally.  His “bee-woop” noise ends this 1946 cartoon, just after the wolf says “Stop that dancing up there, ya thillies!”  Bob also mouthed the “poink” effect, used for finger pokes.

2.)  Godzilla’s Roars (1954)

Unlike the heavily re-edited version seen by most English-speaking audiences, the original Japanese film, Gojira, is about much more than an enraged dinosaur released by radiation.  Godzilla is an example of daikaiju, (giant strange creatures) and he represents both negative human emotions and the uncontrollable destructive forces in nature.  Japanese audiences found it moving and cathartic to symbolically revisit the recent nuclear devastation they alone had experienced directly.  Godzilla’s rampages are atomic explosions occurring in slow motion.  Critics there complained that the subject matter was inappropriate, but the film was a box-office success and was even nominated for the Japanese version of an Academy Award as Best Picture, competing against Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai !

The film’s composer, Akira Ifukube created unique roars befitting an impossible being.  He loosened the strings of a bass viol, put rosin (what you use on a bow) all over tight leather gloves, and stroked them up and down the strings at different speeds.  The recordings were slowed down, reverb and eq were added, and the roars were edited into the footage as required.  The sounds have an organic resonance that connects with our emotions because they come from a manipulated acoustic instrument.  Considering the inexpensive models and the man in a rubber monster suit we see, the roars help a lot.

 Here’s the original Japanese trailer, with subtitles —>  (A)

 3.)  The Wilhelm Scream (1951 – Now?)

This one represents the kind of in-jokes that develop over time in the technical areas of motion picture production.  It’s long been the custom for filmmakers to bring in a “screamer” to provide intense vocal reactions to be dubbed in later, because to make the onscreen actors shout so forcefully will cause hoarseness, and they’ll be unable to continue filming until they get their voices back.  In 1951, a bit player on the film Distant Drums was brought in to record the vocal reaction of a “man being eaten by alligator”.  Though we don’t know for sure, the screamer was probably character actor and singer Sheb Wooley, who would later become famous as the composer-performer of the song “The Purple People Eater“. The recorded scream became part of Warner Brothers’ in-house sound fx library, available for use in later movies.

It was next employed in the 3D western The Charge at Feather River (1953).  In this case a minor character is shot in the leg by an arrow and reacts with the scream.  When sound designer Ben Burtt was collecting fx for use in the post-production of Star Wars (1977), he found the original reel and named it “Wilhelm”, after this little-known character.  To date this scream has appeared in more than 150 feature films, but now that the sound itself has become well known some sound editors say they can’t use it.  It will draw too much attention to itself.

4.)  Doctor Who’s TARDIS (1965)

There’s no logical reason that a time-and-relative-dimension-in-space-travel machine has to make any noise when it “moves”, except that we are conditioned to expect that all machines make noise, and cool, futuristic technology therefore must be accompanied by sounds.  An inventive fellow named Brian Hodgson at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop came up with this one in a similar fashion to the Godzilla roar.  He took the back door key to his mom’s apartment, scraped it up and down the low strings of a gutted piano and added reverb to the recording.  The ambiguity of the sound has been described in ways from “wheezing and groaning” to one character’s assertion that Doctor Who causes it by “leaving the brakes on”.

5.)  The Well to Hell

I’ll end with this story of a marriage between clever sound design and the inestimable gullibility of humans.  Once upon a time there was an Italian horror movie called Baron Blood (1972), about an evil sadist who gets resurrected.  The Baron lived in a spooky castle containing a museum of torture instruments, complete with sound effects representing the reactions of the unfortunate victims (Aieee! eeYAAA! OY! oooOW! etc.).  Probably a good date movie.

Anyway, in unrelated news, scientists dug an experimental well in Russia’s Kola Peninsula in 1984.  The hole went down 12 Km, and at the bottom they encountered unusual gases and rock formations, and it was warm, about 180F degrees.  You wouldn’t want to live in a place that hot, but it’s still 40 degrees below what’s needed to boil water and 270 below the point where paper ignites.

Somehow this story about a deep well got exaggerated in retelling.  The newer, scarier version was that scientists in remote Siberia dug down 14.4 Km (9 miles) and the drill broke through, as if the Earth was hollow.  They measured temperatures of over 2000 degrees.  Then, when they lowered super-sensitive microphones down the hole, what do you suppose they heard?  THE SCREAMS OF A MILLION SOULS BEING TORTURED!  And that proves that hell exists, God too, so there all you smart-alecky atheists.

Unfortunately, the recording provided by a “Mr. Azzakov” was a loop of the screams from “Baron Blood”, thus proving (I suppose) that horror movies are popular everywhere, even at the center of the Earth.



Filed under Cinema, humor, Technology

28 responses to “Five Fabulous Sound Fx

  1. This was fascinating! I read about and listened to every one! How do you know this stuff?! I never even questioned many of the things you reported, like noises in space, how actors screamed and never got hoarse, etc. Wow. Now I have some great tidbits to drop into cocktail party chitchat. Just kidding. It has been decades since I’ve been to a cocktail party. But I’m sure this info will come in handy!

    • Really? I can’t imagine having much reason to know any of this. Pointless (but amusing) knowledge is one of my specialties. As far as why I knew, well, I’ve always been interested in sound, since childhood. From 1984-2005 I had a variety of jobs that required sound editing, fx and design.

      Should I have explained that there’s no air in space, so no medium for the sound waves to travel in? If you were inside a spaceship with air, you would hear your own ship if it had an explosion, but not the sound of something you saw blow up through your window. For that matter, no air, no flames either. Imagine the Death Star just flying apart silently. Not nearly as much fun. Dubbing in screams and shouts is officially part of ADR – Automated Dialogue Replacement.

      • No, you didn’t need to explain. Once you said it, it made perfect sense. Great image of the Death Star silently exploding. As for the reason to know such things, you would be surprised by what I can work into a conversation!

  2. Wow! this crosses the line from lovely to scary…I agree…How do you know this stuff?

  3. Love it, love it, love it, love it, LOVE IT! What a great post about sound. I haven’t seen Loony Tunes for years. It was one of my favourite cartoons, for all the reasons you stated above. That and the Jazz-type music they played. Brilliant stuff. I never noticed the Wilhelm scream until you put up that compilation video. I’ll be subconsciously looking out for that scream now (or maybe a variation of it) – I know it! I think I saw the later versions of Godzilla, but it was interesting to know how they got the monster’s sound. Not dissimilar to the Tardis, I think. It was good to see a Don Martin cartoon again. I’m sure he featured in Mad magazine, which, as a British child, I used to read avidly because the lines were funny and the drawings of the characters in the films or TV shows they spoofed were great. Mort Drucker was our favourite cartoonist in that mag.

    • You might enjoy a visit to YouTube to search “Wilhelm scream”. People are putting it into cartoon footage, games and editing battle sequences where every victim dies with the same sound. They’ve used those same original Godzilla roars for decades, with only a few variations in eq (indeed, much like the TARDIS sound). You are right about Don Martin and MAD, another of my formative humor sources. Drucker was unrivaled in his ability to caricature famous people. Martin was more like commedia dell’arte cartooning, with all those big-chinned, flat-footed goofballs. Thank you for the compliments, and I’m glad you enjoyed it, Pie.

  4. That is exactly what I was thinking the whole time reading it. “How in the hell does he know this stuff?”

    It did bring a smile to my face to see the MAD magazine cartoons. My brothers and I were avid readers. It was very random and risque for us back then.

    I always learn something with your blog, and it is always a novel surprise as to what that might be!

    • I don’t respect conventional boundaries for learning. I just keep following every trail that catches my fancy. That’s always held me back in terms of ordinary kinds of success, but it means that now I’m approaching retirement with a whole head full of interesting, little-known cool stuff. I’ll never run out of things to write about, and there’s still room for “normal”. Plenty of redundant tissue available in the brain, as you well know. Thanks for visiting!

  5. I don’t often laugh out loud but that “Wilhelm scream” compilation video.really made me giggle.
    Isn’t it funny that you don;t realise that you have heard this before (actually masses of times) but until I saw many of the clips together in the compilation I didn’t actually realise it.
    It’s logical that movie studios do as many vocal “stunt double” stuff as well of the falling, jumping, leaping kind, in order to save the voices of the actors but what struck me is that there is mostly just one kind of “Wilhelm”… I would have thought there might have been 50 or more to “choose” from…(or maybe there are but “Wilhelm” is the favourite).
    Like Pie, I’m going to watch out for it now…I’m definitely not into drinking games but this would make a good one: along the lines of an action movie marathon with a shot for every Wilhelm scream LOL.

    • Oh, there ARE many more shouts and screams available for use in the studio fx libraries. Several CDs worth. They usually aren’t as distinctive and easy to identify is all.

      Since you are always so generous when you come here and comment, I’ll admit something embarrassing for your amusement. Because I was a sound fx editor, and hung around with other editors, we did have a drinking game that was even geekier than “Where’s Wilhelm?” We all knew the most popular crowd noises, wind backgrounds, tire squeals, and squeaky door opens. We drank to those. I didn’t think it was as interesting to the readers as these five, however, and nobody features clips of THAT on YouTube.

  6. No one features clips of THAT on YouTube *Now*… but hey maybe you could start something and watch it go viral? LOL
    In a past profession we had clients who had very very limited knowledge of the technical field, and I know for a fact that there were certain members of the liaison /sales team who had a betting “book” running every time a client did a tour and touted out a few of the well worn stock phrases in order to not sound completely like they were in the dark about the technical process (all those in the actual workplace knew they had no clue of anything past those few phrases) and the loosers of the bets had to buy rounds in the Friday night pub gatherings.

    • That sounds fun, and kind of like stunts we used to pull when I sold high-end camera equipment. In the sales pitches we used in-joke phrases like “T-grain emulsion factor” and “macro extenders” that didn’t mean much of anything. Each sale of more than $100 using these phrases earned the salesperson a fiver. Gad, the bad karma I’ve accumulated being a Capitalist! At least now I’m just pitching ideas and things to make people smile or think.

  7. This was fantastic! I’ve always been fascinated by this kind of thing. It’s funny how certain sounds you hear in films/cartoons stick with you forever, even if they aren’t technically real.

    Like the cheesy background music they play in porn movies, for example. 😉

  8. I’m late to the party, so I’ll just say – WOW! Amazing stuff!

  9. That was awesome. I’m a huge Godzilla and Doctor Who fan so both of those sounds strike a chord with me.

  10. Glad you liked it. You’ll like the next one too, which is about dogs. Or maybe Sampson will…

    (This talented woman paints in oil and acrylics, and her blog features her work and photos of her mischievous art dummy climbing about the garden.

  11. This is a smart blog. I mean it. You have so much knowledge about this issue, and so much passion. You also know how to make people rally behind it, obviously from the responses. Youve got a design here thats not too flashy, but makes a statement as big as what youre saying. Great job, indeed.

  12. Wow. I do cartooning as a side job and I think I’ll have to use some of those sound effects! Thanks for sharing.

  13. I love your blog, you should add an RSS feed feature so I can get automatic notifications of new blogs. If you set one up please email me! i will bookmark you for now. Again Excellent Blog!

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