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10 Iconic Movie Sounds (And How They Were Made)

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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.

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15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
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Columbia Pictures

We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


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Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


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Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


Columbia Pictures

Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


Columbia Pictures

To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

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Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library
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10 Treasures From the New York Academy of Medicine Library
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Tucked away on a side street near Central Park, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. Open to the public by appointment since the 19th century, its collection includes 550,000 volumes on subjects ranging from ancient brain surgery to women's medical colleges to George Washington's dentures. A few weeks ago, Mental Floss visited to check out some of their most fascinating items connected to the study of anatomy. Whether it was urine wheels or early anatomy pop-up books, we weren't disappointed.

1. FASCICULUS MEDICINAE (1509)

The Fasciculus Medicinae is a compilation of Greek and Arabic texts first printed in Venice in 1491. While it covers a variety of topics including anatomy and gynecology, the book begins with the discipline considered most important for diagnosing all medical issues at the time: uroscopy (the study of urine). The NYAM Library's curator, Anne Garner, showed us the book's urine wheel, which once had the various flasks of urine colored in to help aid physicians in their diagnosis. Each position of the wheel corresponded to one of the four humors, whether it was phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, or melancholic. The image on the left, Garner explains, "shows the exciting moment where a servant boy brings his flasks to be analyzed by a professor." Other notable images in the book include one historians like to call "Zodiac Man," showing how the parts of the body were governed by the planets, and "Wound Man," who has been struck by every conceivable weapon, and is accompanied by a text showing how to treat each type of injury. Last but not least, the book includes what's believed to be the first printed image of a dissection.

2. ANDREAS VESALIUS, DE HUMANI CORPORIS FABRICA (1543)

Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Andreas Vesalius, born 1514, was one of the most important anatomists who ever lived. Thanks to him, we moved past an understanding of the human body based primarily on the dissection of animals and toward training that involved the direct dissection of human corpses. The Fabrica was written by Vesalius and published when he was a 28-year-old professor at the University of Padua. Its detailed woodcuts, the most accurate anatomical illustrations up to that point, influenced the depiction of anatomy for centuries to come. "After this book, anatomy divided up into pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian," Garner says. You can see Vesalius himself in the book's frontispiece (he's the one pointing to the corpse and looking at the viewer). "Vesalius is trying to make a point that he himself is doing the dissection, he believes that to understand the body you have to open it up and look at it," Garner explains.

3. THOMAS GEMINUS, COMPENDIOSA (1559)

Flap anatomy from Thomas Geminus's Compendiosa
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

There was no copyright in the 16th century, and Vesalius's works were re-used by a variety of people for centuries. The first was in Flemish printer and engraver Thomas Geminus’s Compendiosa, which borrowed from several of Vesalius's works. The first edition was published in London just two years after the Fabrica. Alongside a beautiful dedication page made for Elizabeth I and inlaid with real gemstones, the book also includes an example of a "flap anatomy" or a fugitive leaf, which was printed separately with parts that could be cut out and attached to show the various layers of the human body, all the way down to the intestines. As usual for the time, the female is depicted as pregnant, and she holds a mirror that says "know thyself" in Latin.

4. WILLIAM COWPER, THE ANATOMY OF HUMANE BODIES (1698)

Illustration from William Cowper's The Anatomy of Humane Bodies
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

After Vesalius, there was little new in anatomy texts until the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in 1685. The work was expensive and not much of a financial success, so Bidloo sold excess plates to the English anatomist William Cowper, who published the plates with an English text without crediting Bidloo (a number of angry exchanges between the two men followed). The copperplate engravings were drawn by Gérard de Lairesse, who Garner notes was "incredibly talented." But while the engravings are beautiful, they're not always anatomically correct, perhaps because the relationship between de Lairesse and Bidloo was fraught (Bidloo was generally a bit difficult). The skeleton shown above is depicted holding an hourglass, by then a classic of death iconography.

5. 17TH-CENTURY IVORY MANIKINS

17th Century Ivory Manikin
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

These exquisite figures are a bit of a mystery: It was originally thought that they were used in doctors’ offices to educate pregnant women about what was happening to their bodies, but because of their lack of detail, scholars now think they were more likely expensive collector's items displayed in cabinets of curiosity by wealthy male physicians. The arms of the manikins (the term for anatomical figures like this) lift up, allowing the viewer to take apart their removable hearts, intestines, and stomachs; the female figure also has a little baby inside her uterus. There are only about 100 of these left in the world, mostly made in Germany, and NYAM has seven.

6. BERNHARD SIEGFRIED ALBINUS, TABULAE SCELETI (1747)

Illustration from Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's Tabulae Sceleti
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

One of the best-known anatomists of the 18th century, the Dutch anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus went to medical school at age 12 and had a tenured position at the University of Leiden by the time he was 24. The Tabulae Sceleti was his signature work. The artist who worked on the text, Jan Wandelaar, had studied with Gérard de Lairesse, the artist who worked with Bidloo. Wandelaar and Albinus developed what Garner says was a bizarre method of suspending cadavers from the ceiling in the winter and comparing them to a (very cold and naked) living person lying on the floor in the same pose. Albinus also continued the dreamy, baroque funerary landscape of his predecessors, and his anatomy is "very, very accurate," according to Garner.

The atlas also features an appearance by Clara, a celebrity rhinoceros, who was posed with one of the skeletons. "When Albinus is asked why [he included a rhinoceros], he says, 'Oh, Clara is just another natural wonder of the world, she's this amazing creation,' but really we think Clara is there to sell more atlases because she was so popular," Garner says.

7. FERDINAND HEBRA, ATLAS DER HAUTKRANKHEITEN (1856–1876)

Circus performer Georg Constantin as depicted in Ferdinand Hebra's dermatological atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

By the mid-19th century, dermatology had started to emerge as its own discipline, and the Vienna-based Ferdinand Hebra was a leading light in the field. He began publishing this dermatological atlas in 1856 (it appeared in 10 installments), featuring chromolithographs that showed different stages of skin diseases and other dermatological irregularities.

"While some of the images are very disturbing, they also tend to adhere to Victorian portrait conventions, with very ornate hair, and [subjects] looking off in the distance," Garner says. But one of the most famous images from the book has nothing to do with disease—it's a depiction of Georg Constantin, a well-known Albanian circus performer in his day, who was covered in 388 tattoos of animals, flowers, and other symbols. He travelled throughout Europe and North America, and was known as "Prince Constantine" during a spell with Barnum's Circus. (The image is also available from NYAM as a coloring sheet.)

8. KOICHI SHIBATA, OBSTETRICAL POCKET PHANTOM (1895)

19th century Obstetrical Pocket Phantom
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Obstetrical phantoms, often made of cloth, wood, or leather, were used to teach medical students about childbirth. This "pocket phantom" was originally published in Germany, and Garner explains that because it was made out of paper, it was much cheaper for medical students. The accompanying text, translated in Philadelphia, tells how to arrange the phantom and describes the potential difficulties of various positions.

9. ROBERT L. DICKINSON AND ABRAM BELSKIE, BIRTH ATLAS (1940)

Image from Robert Dickinson's Birth Atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Robert Dickinson was a Brooklyn gynecologist, early birth control advocate, and active member of NYAM. His Birth Atlas is illustrated with incredibly lifelike terracotta models created by New Jersey sculptor Abram Belskie. The models were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where they became incredibly popular, drawing around 700,000 people according to Garner. His depictions "are very beautiful and serene, and a totally different way of showing fetal development than anything that had come before," Garner notes.

10. RALPH H. SEGAL, THE BODYSCOPE (1948)

The Bodyscope
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

This midcentury cardboard anatomy guide contains male and female figures as well as rotating wheels, called volvelles, that can be turned to display details on different parts of the body as well as accompanying explanatory text. The Bodyscope is also decorated with images of notable medical men—and "wise" sayings about God's influence on the body.

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