Film 101: Hark! From Whence Comes That Sound?(And Who is Wilhelm and Why is He Screaming?)

by | Sep 2nd, 2009 | 2:55PM | Filed under: Film 101

You know how it goes: you’re at your Oscar party, filling in your picks for your pool, and you come to… Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. Eep! Eeny, meeny, miny, moe time! So let’s do a quick rundown of some of the terms and stages of creating non-musical sound for film.

A sound designer is a creative and conceptual artist, like a set or clothing designer. He or she works on the film early, huddling with the director to make overall aesthetic decisions about how, in general, the film will sound. Will it be loud and bombastic to pound the viewer into submission? Will some scenes be intentionally soft and muffled to create a mood? Will the film’s sound effects strive for realism or will they be heightened or cartoonish? For example, I remember coming out of Die Hard in 1987 and noting that the punches sounded like gunshots and the gunshots sounded like cannon fire–that was a conscious decision on the part of the sound designer and the director to create the experience they wanted the audience to have.

Burtt 2 Or will the film require new sounds to be created for fantasy or sci-fi worlds? The classic example of the latter would be Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt hitting steel guidewire lines with a wrench to create the now-classic sound of blasters firing. (Or giving the Old Republic spaceships in the Star Wars prequels the sounds of prop WWII planes in order to underscore their “old-school-ness.”)

Not much actual sound gets recorded on a film set. Sure it’s best to capture on site as much actual dialogue as possible spoken by actors on the set. But there are a lot of things–crew noise, camera noise (though most modern cameras are heavily muffled), microphone issues–that can make set audio unusable, especially when shooting outdoors on location where wind or traffic can ruin an otherwise excellent take. (Christopher Nolan wants badly to shoot the next Batman film entirely on IMAX cameras, but one obstacle is that the cameras are very loud, making shooting dialogue difficult.) When that happens, the actors then return to a sound studio months later to do looping. 

Looping is also known as dubbing or additional/automated dialogue recording (ADR). It involves having the actor(s) watch the scene in the studio and repeat their lines for recording, usually multiple times in order to get the pacing perfectly synced with their lip movements on the film. Looping is also sometimes used to change lines later to make a plot point clearer–you see it a lot in comedies where weeks or months after a scene is shot the director or writers come up with funnier or more timely lines to dub in.

Sound effects are audio elements that are added in after shooting in order to enhance or bring to life a scene. Some very basic sound effects would include things like gunfire, doors opening and closing, and car noises. Sound effects are also used to fill in things like traffic or jungle sounds in order help transport the viewer to the film’s location. Watch your favorite films closely some time and notice how often impressions or ideas you have about where the scene is or what is happening are actually being created by the use of off-screen sounds. Sometimes just hearing someone get stabbed is much more disturbing than actually seeing the knife go in.

What do Foley artists, sound editors and sound mixers do? What is the Wilhelm Scream and why have you heard it more times than you realize? Over the jump!

Foley artist When a unique sound needs to be synced up to an action onscreen, a Foley artist is brought in. Named after a pioneer in talkie film sound effects, Jack Foley, a Foley artist is one of these guys or gals you see in old-time radio productions shaking a sheet of foil to make thunder or clopping coconut halves together to recreate the sound of horse hooves (as parodied in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) In kung-fu movies, they’re the folks coming up with new ways to make all those wild thumps and cracks when characters strike one another. (We’ve grown so accustomed to the exaggerated idea of what we think a fist fight sounds like that if a sound designer gave a fight realistic punching sounds, many viewers would feel let down, as if the scene lacked impact.)

The difference between regular sound effects and Foley effects is that Foley artists pride themselves on being just that, artists. They try to come up with unique ways of creating evocative sounds. If you need keys jangling or glasses tinkling that’s a simple sound effect. On the other hand, some very cool sound effects come from surprisingly simple Foley techniques For example, the sound of doors opening in the Star Wars universe was created by sliding a piece of paper out of an envelope.

When all these sounds have been recorded–from the set, from looping, or from sound effects–it’s the sound editor‘s job to choose the best takes or sounds and carefully prepare them; trim out unwanted noises (such as heavy breaths between words), fix dialogue that popped or clicked the microphone, and speed up or slow down effects. Then everything is put into its proper place on the film’s audio track.

Finally all of this is smoothed in with music to create the sound mix, a task performed, surprisingly enough, by the sound mixer. The sound mixer’s job is to take all those assembled sounds and adjust their playback levels so that the audio track emphasizes what the director and sound designer want. When does the music soar up above the dialogue and when does it play very subtly under the actors? How much traffic noise should be in the background? How much bass is needed? How loud should it be when an Autobot throws a Decepticon through a world landmark? Robert Altman was famous for shooting wandering scenes in which the viewer’s attention drifted through a room of people, in and out of different overlapping conversations. It was the sound mixer’s job to raise and lower the levels of the competing audio tracks so that everything that needed to be heard was heard.

Which brings us to the infamous Wilhelm Scream, an in-joke that got started among sound editors and designers of the ’70s and has today pretty much jumped the shark–or should we say the alligator?

Back in 1951 a sound editor needed a scream for a man being eaten by an alligator in the adventure film Distant Drums. He brought in one of his actors (many believe it was a guy named Sheb Wooley) and had him record several takes of a bloodcurdling scream. Well, it was such a good, gulping “aaahyyiiiiiaah” that other Warner Brothers film editors borrowed it to use in their action films. In one, 1953′s The Charge at Feather River, the scream was dubbed in as a cowboy named Wilhelm gets an arrow in his leg. Hence the Wilhelm Scream.

When he was doing sound design for Star Wars in the mid-’70s, young Ben Burtt pulled out and dusted off the old Wilhelm Scream as a joke and used it when Luke shoots one of the stormtroopers at the Death Star chasm. And so a running sound editor’s joke was born. Burtt went on to use the Scream in almost every Lucas or Spielberg film and soon it was popping up everywhere. (Most often when a character falls while dying.) It became a sort of geeky nod and a wink between members of the fraternity.

However, today many non-film crew folks are aware of the Wilhelm–once you hear it, your ear tunes to it and picks it out automatically, and I have friends who will often shout “Wilhelm” in the middle of movies such as The Two Towers. So it’s lost its cool insider cred and has now almost become an ironic commentary on the inside nature of the joke. Even Ben Burtt has sworn off Wilhelming.

But you can still enjoy a rousing tour of the Wilhelm Scream through the decades!

Not enough for you? Hear more Wilhelms here.

One Response to “Film 101: Hark! From Whence Comes That Sound?
(And Who is Wilhelm and Why is He Screaming?)”

  1. Bianconiglio
    Posted on September 14, 2009 at 9:06 am

    LMAO! The last video is SO funny!