The classic film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, opens up with the CLIP-CLOP sound of a horse running. But as a knight and his squire move into view, it quickly becomes apparent that there are no horses. Rather, it is the sound of two coconuts being knocked together that creates the illusion of there being a horse.
While this scene is just a gag, there’s definitely an element of filmmaking truth in it. When it comes to sounds in movies, not all is at it seems. In the words of Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt, “Some sounds, like footsteps, are created by recording something closely related to the reality of the noise. But that monstrous exploding battle station may require a lion roar or a diesel horn as an essential component.”
Ben Burtt is talking about the difference between foley and sound effects. “Foley” is everyday sound effects that are added to a film in post production. Examples would be rustling clothing, a door creaking open, or the revving of an engine. But what do you do if the sound you are looking for doesn’t exist?This is where “sound effects” come in — the creation of a sound that doesn’t necessarily exist in real life. The sound of the lightsaber from the Star Wars film is a great example. Since a lightsaber (sadly) doesn’t exist in the real world, Ben Burtt had to think outside of the box. He ended up combining the hum of an old movie projector with the buzzing sound of an old TV picture tube to create the now iconic sound of a lightsaber.
This is where “sound effects” come in — the creation of a sound that doesn’t necessarily exist in real life. The sound of the lightsaber from the Star Wars film is a great example. Since a lightsaber (sadly) doesn’t exist in the real world, Ben Burtt had to think outside of the box. He ended up combining the hum of an old movie projector with the buzzing sound of an old TV picture tube to create the now iconic sound of a lightsaber.
It’s no surprise that some of the most memorable sound design work was done in fantasy and science fiction films. The history of film is littered with iconic sound effects, although the way some of them were created might surprise you…
1. Chewbacca, Star Wars
There are dozens of sounds made famous by the Star Wars franchise, but one of the most memorable is the voice of Chewbacca. The furry alien’s gruff, throaty growl has become something that nerds everywhere have practiced to near perfection. But the actual origin of Chewbacca’s voice came from a non-human source, a black bear named Pooh. Pooh was a resident of an animal farm in south/central California and the first animal that Burtt recorded when trying to create the voice and language of Chewbacca. Burtt went on to record dozens of other animals sounds: cougars, walruses, lions, and seals. He would then sort the sounds into different categories based on the human emotions they seemed to communicate.
2. Dinosaurs, Jurassic Park
Gary Rydstrom, a protege of Ben Burtt, took a similar approach when designing the sounds for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park: he went straight to the zoo. The sounds of each dinosaur species required a different set of animals sounds. Take the velociraptors for example. For the times in which the velociraptors would talk to each other in growls and chirps, Rydstrom used the sounds of two tortoises mating. But when the velociraptors weren’t communicating with each other, the sound of a horse was used to convey the sound of heavy, nostriled breathing.
Perhaps the most interesting of the sound designs in Jurassic Park was that of the T-Rex. For the growling sounds of this beast, Rydstrom used the sound of his own dog attacking a chew toy. For the T-Rex’s ear shattering roar, he used an elephant. But for both effects, he slowed down the recordings considerably.
“It’s one of the secrets of sound design that if you slow something down, something small, it brings out elements of the sound that you could probably never get if you recorded something big.” Rydstrom even used this concept when choosing what to record. He used the trumpeting of a baby elephant instead of an adult, noting again that “a small animal making a small sound slowed down a little bit has more interest to us than what a big animal might do.”
3. Web Sling, Spiderman
Sometimes the sound is already there. The trick is putting it into a different context. That was the problem for 2002’s Spiderman. The “thwip!” sound of Spidey’s web was well established in the comic books. The problem was translating the “thwip!” to the screen. Sound designer Stephen Flick used a mixture of different sounds to create a web slinging sound aesthetic. These sounds included fishing line being plucked and squirts from a shaving cream bottle.
Paul Ottoson, the sound designer for the 2004 sequel took a different approach. He created a special slingshot that launched pinecones. He recorded the sound of the pinecone flying through the air and used the dry crackling sound it created for the crinkling sound of Spidey’s web.
4. Balrog, The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
There’s a scene from The Fellowship of the Ring that will always be imprinted in my mind. The company, seeking to sneak the One Ring into Mordor and destroy it, are forced to cut through the Mines of Moria (old dwarf mines dug deep into the mountainside). Deep within the tomb, one of the characters accidentally makes a huge racket, disturbing something deep within the depths of the abandoned, mountain mine. The creature, a fiery demon called a Balrog, is heard before it is seen, revealed with a low ominous growl.
Instead of looking to animal sounds, sound designer David Farmer chose to go a more bare bones route. He drug a block of concrete across different surfaces and slowed down the recordings. It was a genius move on Farmer’s part, especially when considering that the scene takes place in the stony underbelly of a mountain. The gravelly growl of the Balrog fits in perfectly within its environment.
5. Beam Me Up, Star Trek
In addition to doing the sound design for all of Lucas’s Star Wars films, Ben Burtt was the sound designer for J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboots. One of Burtt’s tasks was recreating the sound of the transporter beams. While researching the original show, he discovered that the beam sounds had a musical base. It was a mixture of organ music and chimes.
Burtt recreated this sound while adding a touch of his own – an electric crackle. But even this aspect was an homage to the past. To get the sound, he located the owner of the props from the 1931 Frankenstein film. He recorded the sizzling sound that these old-school gadgets made, and incorporated them into the final product.
For any film that contains fantastical elements or takes place in a world other than our own, sound design is crucial for suspending the disbelief of the audience. And in the case of a lot of sound effects, including the examples above, their implementation can have a major effect on future generations.
When Burtt created the hum of the lightsaber, he couldn’t have imagined the impact that the sound would have on kids for years to come, all of whom have at some point made lightsaber sounds with their mouths while reenacting a scene from one of the films. Most people, myself included, don’t tend to think much about the sound design in our favorite movies. But that’s kind of the point. Good sound design shouldn’t be noticed, it should seem to be a natural part of the world of the film. So, next time you watch a movie, be sure you listen closely. It may give you a further appreciation for an already great film.