Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Wilhelm Scream and the rise of modern sound editing.

You may have not heard of the Wilhelm Scream, but if you’re a fan of the westerns or creature films of the 50’s, watched television during the 60’s or 70’s or seen anything made by George Lucas then you know what it sounds like. BEWARE!! Once you know that the scream you hear is Wilhelm’s you will hear it everywhere!

One of the most overlooked film making disciplines is the tapestry of sound created by the Sound Designer. The soundtrack of a film contains much more than the dialog of the actors and some background music. The Wilhelm Scream is a historical artifact of the development of how sound is used to help movies tell stories.

The scream originally appeared in the 1951 Warner Bros. Gary Cooper film "Distant Drums". In "The Charge at Feather River" (1953), the scream is heard when a soldier named Pvt. Wilhelm is shot in the leg with an arrow, which is how the sound got it’s name. The recording was archived into the studio's sound effects library, and was re-used in many Warner Bros. productions including "Them!" (1954), "Land of the Pharaohs" (1955), "The Sea Chase" (1955), "Sergeant Rutledge" (1960), "PT-109" (1963) and "The Green Berets (1968).

The same recurring sound was noticed by sound effects fan Ben Burtt (who was robbed of an Oscar for his work on “Wall-E”) who later was hired by George Lucas to create sound effects for Star Wars, he found the scream while doing research in the Warner Bros sound library. Ben adopted the scream as a kind of personal sound signature, and included it in all the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films, as well as many others.

Since then, other designers have used the sound in over 150 movies and television episodes including "Poltergeist" (1982), "Batman Returns" (1992), "Planet of the Apes" (2001), "Toy Story" (1995), "Pirates of the Caribbean" (2003)"Madagascar" (2005), "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), "Aladdin" (1992), "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), "The Fifth Element" (1997), Reservoir Dogs" (1992), "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" (2002), Tropic Thunder (2008), "The X-Files," "Angel," and "Family Guy."

One of the great mysteries of The Wilhelm Scream is who’s voice was on the original recording. Studio records are not conclusive, but sound designer and film historian Steve Lee suggests the scream belonged to Sheb Wooley a musician and character actor - but is probably most famous for the song "Purple People Eater," which in 1958 spent six weeks at Number One and sold 3 million copies.

Veteran Sound Designer Mark Mangini ("Gremlins"(1984),"Star Trek"(2009) describes the Wilhelm Scream as in a class by itself, fortunately and a sound designer "in" joke that's finally been outed. Whereas at the beginning of the industry expensive and heavy recording equipment kept the library of sound effects small and somewhat stock, the emergence of lighter more portable technologies gave designers greater choice in the sounds they can use. The trend in the industry now is to create more unique soundscapes and the use of sounds like Wilhelm and other familiar sounds like it are generally accepted that repeating library sounds is bad form, at least in cinema.

Mangini says “Sound Designers now strive to create iconic sounds for their individual projects. You should strive to make the sounds of your individual project resonate with the audience and create unique synergy yet, this goal should not extend beyond a given project. Can you imagine hearing the light sabers anywhere but in a Star Wars film?”

I agree, I love the movies and like the idea that the sound artists are striving to tell new stories with their soundtracks not just referencing old ones. I think that artifacts like the Wilhelm Scream can also open important discussions about how films are made and how sound is used by professionals to tell the best most compelling and original stories possible.

Many thanks to Mark Mangini, Steve Lee and for the images appearing on this post and for documenting this little gem of film history.

More on the Wilhelm Scream:
Wikipedia -
The History of the Wilhelm Scream -


Mister Sill said...

Thanks for sharing this great post, Frank. I will be sharing this with my students in the morning!

Cathy Rodriguez said...

Hey Frank, loved watching this...learn something new every day!

Frank Guttler said...

Thanks folks, really interesting tid bit huh?
Jim, how did it go over in class? My kids ate it up!

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