While visuals obviously take the main stage in cinema, the sound works as an incredible support, setting the tone and queuing the audience when to laugh—or scream. Sound effects have a history that resonates past the theater, becoming pop cultural tremors in and of themselves (e.g. the T-Rex roar being your only lasting memory of the entirety of Jurassic Park).
Getting its humble start in radio, the evolution of sound effects has been a sprawling but rapid development, especially since the emergence of modern technology. Tin sheets no longer make us quake in fear of an impending thunderstorm, but modern gadgets and soundboards have created the stuff of nightmares, all while Foley artists work hard to fabricate everyday sounds rooted in reality. It’s an incredible process that’s birthed some of the most profound audio in pop culture.
From silent cinema to the first "talkie"
FIRST DIALOGUE IN CINEMA – The Jazz Singer
Sound effects were first creatively explored in radio with the Foley artist (named after Jack Donovan Foley, inventor of sound effects), who would create live environmental sounds—such as walking up a flight of stairs or a slamming door—in radio studios during live broadcasts. In the days of silent cinema, film was either accompanied by by a theatre organ or a photo player, both carrying multi-faceted electronic or percussion tools that could mimic a small range of sounds like train whistles, gunshots, sirens, and ocean surf.
The development of recorded sound paralleled the growth of cinema, but it wasn't until the 1926 film Don Juan that sound was incorporated into cinema—albeit without dialogue—with synchronized Vitaphone sound effects and musical soundtrack. Audible dialogue was introduced a year later with the debut of The Jazz Singer, Hollywood's first official "talkie." The dialogue for The Jazz Singer was also recorded on Vitaphone to be played in concert with the film; sound recorded directly on film would only start to become the industry standard a few years later.
First experiments: the primal screams
of Tarzan the Ape Man and King Kong
ONE OF THE FIRST SOUND EFFECTS — The Tarzan yell from Tarzan the Ape Man by Johnny Weissmuller
Sound effects were a primal affair in the 1930s, with lots of yelling, roaring and chest-beating. You may be familiar with the world famous yodel/scream from Tarzan the Ape Man, which swung into theatres in 1932 starring Johnny Weissmuller. No one can seem to agree just how this effect was created; MGM, who produced the film, reported that the yell was culmination of three animal noises spliced with opera vocals and string instruments, recorded with each sound played out of its own speaker. Others singularly credit opera singer Lloyd Thomas Leech for the spectacular vocal calisthenics; in a taped interview from 1987, Leech claims that he originated the yell, but that Weissmuller was able to replicate it with practice.
Most believe it was the sheer talent of Weissmuller, but it's never been officially confirmed except by his co-star Maureen O'Sullivan and his two sons. To Weissmuller's credit, he often accurately replicated the sound for fans, and became so attached to it that he requested the recording be played at his funeral.
As technology advanced, sound effects did too. Only released a year after Tarzan, effects created for King Kong displayed rapid progress in the cinema sound department. Sound editors mastered the track mixing, taking separate records for sound effects, music, and dialogue, and merging them onto one single master track used for the film.
King Kong scream, 1933
Murray Spivak, RKO’s sound supervisor, was in charge of sound effects for Kong. According to a 1933 issue of Popular Mechanics, Spivak stressed the gravity of perfecting Kong's angry chest beating, saying to his staff, "Gentlemen, this is our most important noise in King Kong. If it's okey [sic], the rest of our problems will be simple." Initial attempts hitting a fixed kettle drum with paddled-drumsticks didn’t work, with Spivak saying the sound wasn’t "fleshy" enough. An experiment beating the floor failed as well. So Spivak decided to beat one of his assistant's chests with drumsticks instead, saying "If wood will not take the place of flesh, then let's use flesh." Sure enough, this was the sound used for production.
Perfecting Kong's roar was far more straightforward. While you may naturally assume King Kong uses a gorilla's cry, Spivak actually recorded roars of lions and tigers at the Selig Zoo, an L.A. based wildlife center used to keep and train animals for film and TV appearances. He later combined the sounds together to make the primal scream we’re now familiar with.
KING KONG displayed rapid progress in the cinema sound department. Sound editors mastered the track mixing, taking separate records for sound effects, music, and dialogue, and merging them onto one single master track used for the film
Science Fiction Mania of the 1950s
One of the most unusual and elemental sounds is the oscillating theremin introduced by the 1951 classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still
After leaving it’s primal stages, innovation in sound design took an interest in science fiction. Early science fiction cross-pollinated with horror, and as such was more of a sensory experience that relied on suspense created by what lies just beyond the scope of the movie screen—the things that can only be heard and cast long shadows before they ever appear. At the same time, sci-fi introduced electronic audio experimentation, especially with the use of theremin and synthesizers.
Sci-fi has an assortment of creepy sound effects, but one of the most unusual—and elemental—sounds is the oscillating theremin introduced by the 1951 classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still. In his textbook exploration Sound Design in Science Fiction, William Wittington writes, "In general, the convergence of electricity and music/sound pointed toward the future and technical innovation with uncertainty, skepticism, and fear—themes that became genre conventions." With its use of the theremin, The Day the Earth Stood Still stands as the fundamental example. Chances are you’ve heard the otherworldly sounds of the theremin, that spooky ubiquitous high-pitched noise now synonymous with aliens. Operated by magnetic fields conducted between hands and two antennae, the theremin actually requires no physical contact—a point of mystery that exacerbates sci-fi's fundamental "otherness."
GODZILLA ROAR by Akira Ifukube
Making its debut in 1954, Godzilla roars its way into cinematic history, with some Hollywood historians saying that his scream tops King Kong's in terms of iconic-ness. When first molding the beast’s shriek, audio engineers tried the standard splicing of various animal noises, but the sound proved too "earthly" for a creature from the radioactive abyss. Needing a roar that truly signifies his god-like stature, filmmakers went outside the Foley realm and invited composer Akira Ifukube, who was also composing the film's soundtrack, to have a go at the task. Ifukube instinctually looked toward musical instruments and realized that friction would be the key to making the perfect unsettling disonance required. So he coated a leather glove in tar resin and rubbed it along the string of a double bass. Somewhat similar to nails-on-a-blackboard, but lower-pitched, the screech was so obscure that it made perfect for the prehistoric monster, Godzilla. What’s interesting to note is that each iteration of Godzilla afterwards has it’s own unique sound process for achieving the legendary roar.
This is also the decade of the Wilhelm Scream, which is perhaps the most ubiquitous sound effect on this list. Appearing in over 300 films, big blockbuster and indie alike, you’ve more than likely heard the Wilhelm Scream.
The scream recording was used in The Distant Drums (1951), The Charge at Feather River (1954), "Them!" (1954), "Land of the Pharaohs" (1955), "The Sea Chase" (1955), "Sergeant Rutledge" (1960), "PT-109" (1963) and "The Green Berets (1968) and many more.
The Wilhelm Scream originated in a 1951 Warner Brothers western called The Distant Drums, recorded for a scene in the movie in which a character gets attacked by an alligator (the sample is aptly named ""man getting bit by an alligator, and he screamed"). The name, however, comes from the sound sample's use in 1954 western The Charge at Feather River, when the character Private Wilhelm, well... screams after being shot by an arrow.
While studying film at USC, friends Ben Burtt, Richard Anderson, and Rick Mitchell noticed the pervasive stock sound in a number of favorite flicks, and would jokingly use it for school projects. A few years later, however, Burtt would take the joke to Hollywood when asked by George Lucas to direct sound for Star Wars: A New Hope, using the Wilhelm Screan when a stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into oblivion in the Death Star. Anderson would follow suit, sneaking it into the truck chase scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
and the legendary Psycho
The famous shower scene from Psycho
Not all monsters oversized creatures rampaging through metropolises; some are your neighborly cross-dressing serial killers. Enter in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller masterpiece, Psycho. Sound-wise, Psycho gets more credit for its electrifying score, but one of the most critical slasher scenes in cinema history comes from Norman’s shower attack. In it, we see Janet Leigh stabbed viciously over and over again, paired with agonizingly realistic sounds as the knife tears through her flesh.
There really isn't much to making the cringe-worthy effect; it simply took plunging a knife into a melon—or a number of melons, as a matter of fact, ultimately deciding on a Casaba melon. "In a recording studio, prop man [Bob] Bone auditioned the melons for Hitchcock, who sat listening with his eyes closed," writes Stephen Rebello in his book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. "When the table was littered with shredded fruit, Hitchcock opened his eyes, and intoned simply: 'Casaba.'"
The rise of Ben Burtt
Lightsaber effect from Star Wars
Wilhelm Scream aside, the original Star Wars trilogy developed some of the most iconic sound effects in film history. Even the most humble of Jedi duels adds in the signature sound of the lightsaber clash. Ben Burtt, the sound designer for A New Hope, designed the sound by taking two idling movie projector interlock motors and a mix of microphone interference caused by a television set—the latter sound discovered by happenstance when Burtt passed a television in the studio with a microphone in hand. "The lightsabers are one of my favorite sounds, and in fact it was the very first sound I made for the whole series, " Burtt says in his interview for the Star Wars Trilogy definitive collection. Burtt could hear the sound in his head even when just presented the lightsaber concept art, saying, "maybe somewhere in my subconscious I had seen a lightsaber before." By waving the microphone around, Burtt was able to get the Doppler effect that defines the whipping lightsaber sound.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Even beyond the film’s memorable score, Indiana Jones is a sound design treasure trove (also designed by Burtt) filled with key takeaways—the biggest being Indy's signature bullwhip crack. Ben Burtt decided to stray away from stock sounds, taking his assistant Gary Summers out to an empty countryside field (which would become the future home of Skywalker Ranch) and recording while Summers cracked the whip, getting it to echo just right off of some trees on the side of the road. "It's about finding the right performance in the right acoustic location," said Burtt, "We would tend to do things outside, there would be enough echo, especially in the trees, that when you put that sound in the movie, it would really fit into the context of the location. Like a jungle or something of that sort."
The '80s obsession with horror
Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th
Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th doesn’t contain a bounty of sound effects, but the signature “chi chi chi ha ha ha” heralds the arrival of slasher, Jason Voorhees.
Harry Manfredini, the chief sound engineer for Friday the 13th, compiled the effect from the scene in which Mrs. Voorhees, channeling Jason, tells herself to “Get her mommy, kill her.” Manfredini extracted the phonetics of “ki ki ki” and “ma ma ma” from "kill" and "mommy" respectively, adding an extra dose of subliminal disturbance to the killer's approach (the added delay effect creates the oft-imitated "chi/ha" sound). The ghost whisper has followed Jason in every film in the franchise, and only used when the villain is actually about to enter the scene.
From a cybernetic future to a lost land
T-1000 metal bars SOUND in Terminator 2
You’d think the sounds from dystopian cybernetic action classic Terminator 2 would be a cacophony of detailed mechanics, synthesizers, and gadgets. However, one of the most memorable scenes in Terminator 2 uses an audio solution that was highly cost-effective...as in 75 cents cost-effective. In Robert Patrick’s T-1000 prison break scene, the robot phases through the cell bars with a slurpy metallic sound. Oscar-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom revealed the effect was achieved by a simple solution from the sound of dog food being slowly sucked out of the can. "What's amazing to me is the combination of [visual effects company] 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.
Remarkably, noteable sounds throughout the film stay pretty close to this standard in terms of methodology. Take for instance the scene scanning the aftermath of a future nuclear attack in the year 2029. As the camera slowly pans to a skull, a terminator operative crushes said skull under its foot. The bone-crunching sound is simply a pistachio nut crushed by metal plating. And one of the most complex scenes in the movie, shows the T-1000 being frozen, broken, and melted, only to be reformed again? The shattering of the ice is a brittle ice tray being bent and snapped to make the cracking sound, while a box of nails poured on to the floor at an even pace makes for the T-1000's shattering pieces. For a franchise so futuristic, it’s impressive to see Foley artists use the most incredibly simple solutions.
JURASSIC PARK, T-Rex cry
Creating some of the world’s most iconic menagerie of prehistoric sounds, Jurassic Park holds it’s own as a king of sound effects. One of the most innovative components of sound s creating audio audiences had never heard before—in this case, the sound of dinosaurs.
Gary Rydstrom (a Terminator alum who also happened to apprentice for Ben Burtt) is the mastermind behind the collection of roars we’ve come to fear. Of his challenge, Rydstrom said that "there's a certain expectation of what standard dinosaurs, like a Tyrannosaur, should sound like. If I had him sound like a big, squawking parrot, no one would buy it."
Arguably the most iconic scene in the film happens after the park’s power shuts off due to Dennis Nedry’s scheming, inadvertently deactivating the electric fences thus allowing the T. Rex to escape with an assertive cry. That roar was as complicated to create as it was terrifying; it’s a compilation of a baby elephant’s trumpet, an alligator’s growl, and a tiger's snarl, mixed together and dramatically slowed down. Continuing through the animal kingdom, Rydstrom uses the sound of an orca spraying water from its blowhole to manifest the T. Rex's heavy breathing and ominous sniffing.
Marvel Universe and the sound of silence
Knife sound from X-Men
In 2000, movie goers entered the age of superhero cinema with Bryan Singer’s X-Men. The definitive sound effect is easily the "Snikt!" of Wolverine’s claws as they unsheathe, as seen in most comics.
Despite having decades of sampling and technology available, the retracting and extracting sounds of Wolverine’s claws is actually just a knife being drawn from its sheath. But the process gets messy when the claws need to get used; X-Men sound designer Craig Berkey reveals that, when Wolverine stabs someone with his claws, the iconic "Skint!" gets embellished with the sound of chicken and turkey carcases being torn apart.
Gravity release with sound of silence
2013 epic space thriller Gravity took Foley design to extraordinary limits by defining sound throughout the film by its natural antithesis: silence. Since sound doesn't transmit in a vacuum, silence takes an unusual amount of precedence in the film, and sounds from objects only occur if they impact the film's characters directly.
While the audience can hear Sandra Bullock's breathing or heartbeat, it cannot, for instance, hear two objects colliding unless Bullock happens to be touching one of them (like the muffled thump heard when Sandra Bullock grabs the space station to save herself from drifting away).
To recreate a realistic extraterrestrial sound experience, Foley artist Nicholas Becker and sound designer Glenn Freemantle did a majority of sound sampling for the film using transducer recordings, which record vibrations rather than airborne audio. Freemantle also experimented with guitars submerged under water recored by hydrophones, rubbing multiple items across the guitar strings to capture ghostly friction sounds. And anything mechanical? Turns out astronauts use the same tools in space as those used in ordinary manufacturing, so Freemantle took the recording team to a GM testing facility and went buck-wild. "We recorded the robots that make their cars, and we stuck mics to them," Freemantle explains, "anything we could get that was metal or moving. We even recorded these air conditioning units for inside [the spacecraft]."
Editor: Gabriella Garcia