November 1, 2018
Behind-the-scenes of audio movie magic from Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings to The Matrix and Jurassic Park.
Sound is a major element of film that can often be taken for granted. It is used to introduce elements of the plot, provide clues and warnings, and even misguide audiences. From something as simple but distinctive as footsteps to the complex creation of a new language, sound has the important role of making us believe what we’re seeing, whether it’s possible or not.
Originally used to dramatise radio dialogue, sound effects have quickly developed into an expansive area of production alongside modern recording and editing technology. What has remained the same, however, is the high degree of creative spark required to make profound audio moments resonate in film.
Delve into eight iconic movie sound effects, and the processes that helped create them, below.
Star Wars (1977)
The lightsaber hum is integral to the Star Wars universe. It was the first thing sound designer Ben Burtt made for the films and has remained an exhilarating effect eight entries in. Still a student projectionist at UFC, Burtt was inspired by the wavering pitch of two Simplex projector motors harmonising with each other and recorded it. Paired with the transmission whir of a TV set, the basic lightsaber tone was established.
One final step was required to create the illusion of saber movement. By playing back the composite hum on loudspeakers and passing an active microphone in front of the speaker cone, Burtt was able to get the Doppler effect the defines the zipping lightsaber sound.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic Park sound designer Gary Rydstrom was given the creative task of coming up with animal noises no one had ever heard before. Without a dinosaur in existence for over 65 million years, he drew inspiration from living creatures instead.
Manipulated hoots from geese proved convincing as brachiosaurus speak. A friendly herd of cows and horses were turned into a stampede of gallimimus. The stitching together of a dolphin shriek and walrus snarl ended up a velociraptor bark. And the fearsome tyrannosaurus rex roar? That’s Rydstrom’s Jack Russell terrier, Buster.
The transformation of harmless animals into gigantic prehistoric beats was a success. In 1994, Rydstrom won two Academy Awards for sound editing on Jurassic Park, and has gone on to win five more for other films.
Poltergeist (1982), The Matrix (1999)
While you may be unfamiliar with its name, you have heard the eerie sounds of the Waterphone in films like Poltergeist, The Matrix, and Alien. Invented by Richard Waters between 1968-1969, the Waterphone consists of a stainless steel pan surrounded by metal rods of various lengths that can be drummed or bowed like a string instrument. Each model is handmade by Waters himself.
To produce sound, the instrument requires that water be poured into the basin portion. The amount of water used will influence the overall tonal character by varying the pitch and blend of notes. Its unhinged, resonant sound often crops up in films when something strange and unknown happens, and has also been used to call whales and other aquatic mammals.
The Predator Voice Click
Veteran voice actor Peter Cullen based the iconic pur of the titular character in Predator on a dying, upside down crab he came across once on a beach. After being shown the scene where the Predator takes off his mask to reveal his suitably alien face, Cullen quickly recalled the poor crustacean and the crackling sounds it made during its final moments.
With a throat burned up from extensive vocal roaring for King Kong, Cullen was reluctant to go full monster and instead came up with the unsettling clicks and gurgles, which announce the Predator’s location before an attack.
War of the Worlds (2005)
The Tripods in War of the Worlds are on a mission to destroy the planet. After rising up from beneath the streets of major cities, they begin to wreak havoc, vaporising everything in their path. Much like the Predator, Tripods release a warning call before striking.
Sound designer Michael Babcock created the terrifying horn-like blast emitted by Tripods by combining the sounds of a didgeridoo, an Aboriginal Australian wind instrument, and the djembe – a West African drum. Recordings of rollercoasters, bike chains, and trains performed at various speeds in samplers were used to simulate Tripod movement.
The Deep Note
To ensure accurate audio-visual playback of his third Star Wars film, The Return of the Jedi, director George Lucas created the THX certification in 1982. It has since become a quality assurance standard for theatres around the world, which we are briefly reminded of when the THX logo flashes on screen before the start of a film.
What lands THX on this list is the sound bite that goes along with its logo, a huge swelling glissando called The Deep Note. Having been played to thousands of audience members a day for 35 years, it is one of the most recognisable film sound effects never used in a movie. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you will now.
Audio Engineer James A. Moorer wrote over 20,000 lines of computer code to generate the effect of 30 different musicians picking a random note and slowly moving a target note that forms one giant chord, all while getting louder over time. Equal parts chaos and musical bliss, this sound effect is completely unique.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
To make the numerous mythical and fictional creatures that populate Middle Earth seem believable, extensive sound design was required. Across the Lord of the Rings series we encounter goblins, dragons, trolls, and talking trees alongside human characters. On top of this, there are regular battle scenes and moments of supernatural activity.
For The Two Towers, the audio team was tasked with generating the sound of thousands of savage Uruk-hai orcs chanting and marching into war. Uninterested with going the conventional route of recording a large group of people and stacking the results multiple times over, the audio team took a more authentic approach.
During half-time at a cricket match in New Zealand, director Peter Jackson conducted 25,000 fired up crowd members to chant phrases in Black Speech (the language spoken by orcs) as he recorded them from inside the stadium. Paired with recordings of metal armour clanking and feet stomping, the sonic identity of the Uruk-hai army was cemented.
In a film filled with bizarre twists, the apocalyptic rain of frogs in Magnolia takes the cake. To simulate the sounds of little green bodies falling from the sky, sound designers Richard King and Eric Potter took pieces of meat and recorded their impact on windows, walls, and ceilings in an abandoned house. For greater tonal variation, a loop of impacts was projected by loudspeakers into a canyon and re-recorded.
For a final sonic experiment, King and Potter strapped a loudspeaker to the top of a car and drove around while blasting the impacts clip. During playback, this provided a believable Doppler effect, simulating the different perspectives of the visual sequence.