Dirk’s Five: The Art of Noise!

Back to school! Before the Summer Holidays I set an assignment for the students of Dirk’s Film School. It seems a long time ago now, but I asked the collective minds of Twitter to suggest the greatest sounds made by cinema.

It proved to be a tricky task, because the best noises are those that are almost unheard.

What is remarkable about the suggestions that were made by students was the influence of Spielberg and Lucas and how they have pushed the art of Sound FX into interesting directions.

Let’s hear it for these selections:


The Wilhelm Scream

Cinema Parrot Disco came back with this stock sound effect and cinematic meme. The story goes, Ben Burtt (a technician working on the Star Wars movies) coined the term Wilhelm as it was the name of the character in CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER let out the scream. It is a stock sound that has appeared in over 200 films. It was first noticed in the 1951 Warner film DISTANT DRUMS during a scene where a man is bitten and dragged under water by an alligator.

The sound was kept in the library with the label “Man getting bit by an alligator” and appeared in a number of Warner films, however it wasn’t until the 1970s when Burtt adopted the sound effect as his calling card in films like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and WILLOW (1988) and other films from the Skywalker Sound stable.

Since then, directors such as Peter Jackson and Tarrantino have included it as a pop-culture homage. There’s something mesmerising about watching the compilation Whhhahhhh!

Star Wars

The light sabre. The TIE-fighter interceptor jet. The whistles and beeps of R2 D2. The universe of Star Wars is built upon layers and layers of trademark sounds. The sheer scale 0f the inventiveness is remarkable, considering that the sampling technology was flakey in the mid-seventies. Burtt created the sounds from a galaxy far, far away by mixing everyday objects with various levels of distortion.

The light sabre was a combination of an old valve TV-set and a projector hum; the TIE scream was a bellow of an elephant with some adjustments and R2 D2 water pipes, whistles and Burtt’s own voice.

The most outstanding and recognisable sound is Vader’s asthmatic wheeze, which remains my party piece.

The Death Roar

Like Lucas, Spielberg has had an active role in developing sound design that both innovates and pays homage to early sound effects. JAWS (1975) relies on the use of a foreboding soundtrack by John Williams to create tension as the camera moves through the water to give the monster’s point of view. The sound effects are notable too – the screams of Chrissie in the opening scenes were actually the screams of actress Susan Backlinie as she was pulled on a harness by the crew in a tug-of-war.

The fizzing sound of the shark skimming through the water was achieved by shaking up a large bottle of coke and letting it spray against concrete.

The death roar of the shark in the final scene is the same one that Spielberg used for DUEL (1971) when Dennis Weaver’s nemesis truck does head-long over a cliff. Spielberg wanted to acknowledge his indebtedness to the earlier film for his opportunity to make JAWS. It was originally appropriated from the roar of the Gil-Man from THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).

That said, the sound that chills me the most is the (p) T-ihn-ngh (hh), T-ihn-ngh (hh)! of the metal life-bouys that ring during key moments in the film.

Leatherface’s Saw

Mark Foster @dudefozz directed me towards THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASACRE (1974) and the sound of the screen door and Leatherface’s saw. Excellent sound design that creates the chilling atmosphere.


Machines that go PING!

I watched GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) this week and the opening scene features one of the most cliched sound effects in the movie world: a machine that goes PING! It’s pulled out of the library whenever film-makers need to illustrate a hospital. It is only usually heard once, when someone is approaching another character in the throes of death. It put me off the complete film. Really.

They don’t have machines that do that noise in a hospital. I’ve no real evidence, only anecdotal experience of hospital visits, so I can say with the confidence of Ian Duncan Smith: “I believe it to be true.” It would be bloody annoying!

Don’t get me started on the PING in submarine movies!

– Dirk Malcolm

2 responses to “Dirk’s Five: The Art of Noise!

  1. Pingback: The Greatest Sounds In Cinema – The Wilhelm Scream | Cinema Parrot Disco·

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