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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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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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