Nowadays, when people want to add a sound effect to a movie, they mostly just pull up a digital archive, choose a sound, and drag and drop. But in the pre-digital age, people created sounds using whatever objects were close to hand. Here are the 10 most unusual sources for your favorite sound effects.
The sound designer for Star Wars was Ben Burtt, whose name is synonymous with creative and practical sound design. The entire Star Wars movie catalog is full of outside-the-box sound effects — including the most unmistakable sound of all.
The lightsaber’s familiar and distinctive hum, which we all have imitated while wielding a cardboard gift wrap tube, was created by a TV and a 35mm projector. Explains Burtt:
The lightsaber was, in fact, the very first sound I created for A New Hope. Inspired by the McQuarrie concept paintings, I remembered a sound of an interlock motor on the old film projectors at the USC Cinema Department (I had been a projectionist there). The motors made a musical “hum” which I felt immediately would complement the image in the painting. 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.”
You can watch the video above to find out more.
2) The Green Death Ray from The War of the Worlds
The 1953 version of H.G. Wells’ classic tale of alien invasion had an arresting sound effect when the aliens unleashed their green wing-tip death ray. And this chilling sound was created by hitting a high-tension wire (like on an antenna tower) with a hammer. This same technique is used to create the iconic “pew pew pew” sound of the blasters in Star Wars. And many sources claim the same technique — hitting a wire with a hammer — was used for the photon torpedoes in Star Trek.
3) Phasers in Star Trek: The Original Series
The Death Ray wasn’t the only innovative sound effect in the 1953 War of the Worlds — the Martian “heat ray” also had a surprising source. According to a 1953 article by producer George Pal, The War of the Worlds’ Martian heat-ray sound was produced when sound designers played three electric guitars backwards and added some harp. And according to Ben Burtt (who also worked on Star Trek Into Darkness) the sound designers who worked on the original Star Trek were huge fans of the 1953 War of the Worlds adaptation, because whenever a phaser is fired in Star Trek, you’re hearing the same backwards guitar and harp sound.
4) The Martian Scream
Back to War of the Worlds — in that same article, Pal talks about how the Martian scream sound was produced:
How would a Martian scream sound? The boys thought a long time on that one. Finally they arrived at the unusual conclusion of scraping dry ice across a contact microphone and combining it with a woman’s high scream recorded backwards. It was the weirdest sound anyone has yet come up with for one of my pictures.
5) The Predator’s Heartbeat
Despite the Predator’s lack of empathy, sound designers spent a lot of time giving him a heart:
[The sound when the viewers are in “Predator Vision” mode] is the Predator heartbeat. I found an old glass flower vase with a very wide mouth. I put some water and a natural sponge inside it. John P. and I talked about how Predator should have a human-like heartbeat, but with something strange and alien in the rhythm. We decided maybe he had more ventricles than humans, or something.
Ezra Dweck helped me record the sponges squishing in odd rhythms. We gave that tape to John P. to play with. He processed and tweaked, and he would have had to edit my terrible sense of rhythm. So those “Predator heartbeat” tracks went into the library.
6) Indiana Jones’ Boulder Dash
The famous boulder chase scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, as enthralling and grandiose as it is, was actually just the sound editor’s Honda Civic rolling down the driveway.
7) The T-1000’s Jail Escape
That scene where the T-1000 walks through the bars of a jail cell? According to Oscar winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom, this effect was achieved with simply the sound of dog food being slowly sucked out of the can.
8) A Terminator’s Skull Crush
And there was actually more food inspired sound effects involved in this movie. In the scene where the viewers survey the damage done by a nuclear attack in the year 2029, the camera slowly pans to a close up of a skull. A robotic Terminator foot promptly smashes it. That smash you hear is a pistachio nut being destroyed by metal plating. Check out the video above for more great stuff, including how the effects were made for the classic scene where the T-1000 freezes, melts, and reforms.
9) The Jet Motorcycles in THX 1138
This movie featured both a jet car and a jet motorcycle. Unsurprisingly enough the jet car sound effects come from, well, a jet. Sound designer Walter Murch, however, wanted the motorcycles to have a different pitch so that the audience could differentiate between the two vehicles. What the audience hears as the bikes scream passed is, well, people screaming. He recorded 4 women screaming in a bathroom to achieve this sound.
10) The Marshmen in Doctor Who
Classic Doctor Who is full of innovative sound design — most fans of the show already know that the dematerialization sound of the Doctor’s time machine, the TARDIS, was created when sound designer Brian Hodgson rubbed his house keys back and forth on the strings of a broken piano. But the BBC Radiophonic Workshop had lots of tricks up its sleeve. When sound designer Dick Mills needed the cries of the Marshmen in the episode “Full Circle,” he went to a pig farm and recorded the cries of the pigs, slowed down to sound unearthly. Also, the sound of the Rutan monster in “Horror of Fang Rock” is “Dick’s fist churning in a tub of Swarfega.”
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