The Weird Art-Science of Sound Design

If you think that sound effects aren’t that important take a look at this little video and get back to me.

Also, known as Foley Artists or Sound Designers these people are in charge of the sound for an entire movie. A big part of that is timing the sound correctly so that it doesn’t sound fake. In many cases, they even have to come up with new sounds that they can’t find in libraries or if a director or movie has a very specific soundscape (like Star Wars for example). So you could say that the job is a confluence of art, music, creativity and engineering.  OK, so I’m done praising the profession let’s see what’s behind everyone’s favorite sounds in their favorite movies.


The Wilhelm Scream

Instantly recognizable the Wilhelm Scream has been featured in over 300 feature films since it was first used in 1951 film Distant Drums and was intended as the sound of someone being eaten by a crocodile. Due to its flamboyant theatricality though it has become something of a Sound Design inside joke and has been used in Star Wars, Indiana Jones and even Toy Story. Honestly, it also sounds a little like Goofy falling.

Star Wars Blaster

This sound has become synonymous with lasers. So much so that you could give any kid a gun shaped stick or an actual gun (please don’t- that’s a joke, even if you are very very American, don’t) and they will run around going “PEW PEW PEW” which is the onomatopoeia for the blaster sound. IT IS! GOD DAMMIT STOP QUESTIONING ME!!!

The man that came up with it, Ben Burtt, also did the sound design for Indiana Jones, E.T., Howard the Duck, Willow and Wall-E. He has also worked on more than a dozen video games too. This man is legendary and not without warrant. He defined contemporary sci-fi sound design and moved away from the cheap electronic bleep and boops of the seventies (well except with R2-D2, but it works). The famous blaster sound was created when Burtt hit a radio tower’s supporting cables with a hammer. Apparently there are other ways to create the sound too, though, as illustrated by this creepy man masturbating a hung slinky while looking at the camera.

Legal Woes

Foley artists aren’t just people that try to compose believable fake sounds; they also have to be wary of lawsuits. No, it’s not from using a brand of shoe and not crediting the maker, but by using something from their extensive sound library and it being attributed to another Foley artist. Yes, it’s a horrifying reality of our times, even sounds are copy-written. Think of any sound. Horses neighing, yes there are versions of that which one person has the rights to use. Footsteps, yes. Oh, you poor crude soul even farts are copy-written. 

Explosions have cats in them

No, you dark, cynical f*ck, they don’t use cats in actual explosions, but they use the base-y growl cats emit when they are angry, look at the video above. The reason they do that is that explosions are usually rapid moving walls of sound that would create more of a loud thud (or a high pitched fssssh if it’s pressure being released from a container) than the resonating bright sound that we’re used to hearing in movies. You know what just check out this video as an example (maybe I should warn you although this is a very safe training video, the expansion of energy is still astounding and terrifying):

compared to this:

Immediately you see that the movie version of explosions lasts exponentially longer than even the slowed down real world version of the tank explosion. Other elements sound designers might add to beef up an explosion sound is squeaky car brakes, squealing pigs and even ice being scrapped. Of course, it’s mixed and manipulated so don’t expect to hear any of the little piggies in the next Vin Diesel film Fast and the Furious 37, The Spoiler that Touched the Sky.

Even “Reality” Shows do it

Like I mentioned already, when you record reality it tends to sound a bit anemic, so even shows based on reality use Foley artists to bring the bass. Dino DiMuro says that he was employed to make the sounds involving Jackass stunts sound more real, because they sounded flat in the recording. He says that he added the vomit falling into a helmet (don’t ask, its Jackass remember), a car being wrecked and the sound of a rocket. Although the stunts were recorded in real life, the sound was too weak to be used in the actual film.

Interesting Thing behind oft used effects

Flesh being torn- Watermelon being cut open

Light Saber- A working projectors hum and feedback from a microphone approaching an old CRT TV

T-1000- If you’re not a James Cameron fan let me explain this scene. The T-1000 is an advanced sentient robot that has a body made of liquid metal. As it passed through jail bars, it makes a squishing noise which was created with dog food falling out the can with a “slurp” like sound. See vid below (it happens around the 28 sec. point) ignore the fact that it’s an “alternative scene” the sound effect is unchanged.

Spiderman’s webbing- A pinecone shot through the air with a custom built slingshot (I told you, you had to get creative)

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The Michael Bay Monstrosity which is (allegedly) Transformers – I’ll admit I still make the original transforming sound when I fold clothes or unfold an umbrella, it’s an extremely iconic piece of sound design.

But I have to give props to the complex extremely mechanical transforming sound used in the Metalic Michael Bay Abortion formally known as Transformers.

The newer sound effect actually used elements of a bee hive during the transformation of one of the most beloved characters (of both old and new fans) Bumblebee.

See Also: 5 Jobs in History That Would Have Killed You

Do you know of any other interesting sound effects and how they are created please let me know in the comment section below. Also, this is how I feel inside when I watch the Michael Bay-ed version of my favorite childhood cartoon.




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