The Sound Of Cliché
Things get to become clichés through our recognition of their semiotic grammar. It’s not just that certain sights and sounds get used often enough in film and TV for us to notice their strategic purpose within the narrative. Rather, the pleasure of clichés is that our recognition of them becomes enjoyable in itself.
In many recent films and TV shows, clichés are treated ironically; but since clichés are still the gears of genre, there’s plenty of unironic satisfaction to be had in seeing those gears mesh and the narrative drive forward. And over time, clichés accumulate a patina of all their previous uses, so that they bring a rich, multi-layered meaning to the narratives that employ them.
This is especially true of stock sound effects. Many of these, originally recorded by anonymous movie-studio sound departments for purely atmospheric purposes, have taken on names and lives of their own. Some have become in-jokes or calling cards among the sound editors who use them. Others are proprietary sounds that instantly evoke the entire histories of the companies and characters that own them – as if Proust had dipped a Madeleine™ into his tea to make memories come flooding back.
We’ve dug up some of the most evocatively clichéd sound effects.
The definitive movie thunderclap was recorded in 1931 for Frankenstein, a film that has given it inescapable connotations of portentous gloom, horror and the uncanny. This isn’t just the sound of air heating rapidly in the atmosphere; it’s the sound of mad scientists at work, of evildoers plotting and haunted houses lying in wait for the innocent.
Films incorporating Castle Thunder (the name comes from the recording’s archive label) include such spooky chillers as Ghostbusters, Death Becomes Her, Young Frankenstein and Clue, as well as ominous sequences in Citizen Kane, Cleopatra, Big Trouble in Little China and Trading Places. It was also popular in Disney animations including Bambi, Sleeping Beauty and The Great Mouse Detective.
By the late 1980s, Castle Thunder was well-known enough to be used mainly for comic and ironic effect, such as in the vampire spoof cartoon Count Duckula. As this montage shows, many cartoon series continued to use it well into this decade.
Most extant copies of the effect are so many generations removed from the original recording that its resolution has decayed and it sounds tinny, but despite the availability of much louder and clearer thunderclap effects, Castle Thunder’s weight of cultural meaning still makes it a sentimental favourite.
One of Hollywood’s best-known sound clichés was first seen in the 1951 film Distant Drums, in which some soldiers are making their way through the implausibly clear waters of the Florida Everglades when one of them is attacked by an alligator. The scream he emits was the fifth of six recorded at Warner Bros, most likely by character actor Sheb Woolley, who appeared in Distant Drums and who was apparently quite good at recording laughter and screaming sound effects.
In the 1970s, after appearing in dozens of Warner Bros films, the recording was discovered in the studio vault by Star Wars sound editor Ben Burtt, who’d joked about it with his film school buddies at the University of Southern California. Burtt nicknamed it Wilhelm from its use in The Charge At Feather River (1953), in which tardy, pipe-filling Private Wilhelm screams when he gets a Native American arrow through the thigh.
Burtt went on to use the Wilhelm as something of a personal sound signature in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films he worked on. It’s since popped up in other Lucasfilm and Skywalker Sound titles such as Willow, Toy Story and Pirates of the Caribbean. Burtt’s friend Richard Anderson was also fond of the scream and incorporated it into his library, where it appeared on films from Poltergeist, Batman Returns and The Fifth Element to Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin and Madagascar. The Wilhelm has become such an industry in-joke that directors including Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson and Joe Dante now ask for it by name.
Related: The so-called “Youraagh” scream, also known as the “Howie” scream because actor Howie Long emits it in Broken Arrow as he’s thrown out of an aeroplane. It’s actually produced by stock sound-effect library Hollywood Edge, who’ve dubbed it “Man Screams #3 – Gut-Wrenching With Fall”. There’s a great example in The Dark Knight as Batman throws the Joker out a window. But you might know it better as the Nutri-Grain scream.
Mighty Roaring Cougar
That’s not its actual name; that’s just what I called it back in 2006, when I became obsessed with this sound effect, which is variously dubbed a ‘wildcat’, ‘cougar’ or ‘panther’. As I blogged at the time, “its raw energy has put me into a sort of feline trance, and I wish I had a camera so I could take some awesome photos of myself prancing round the office with my teeth bared and my hands spazzed into claws, shaking my mane and making this noise repeatedly and generally justifying the poor impression we have left on our fellow tenants here at the Arts Precinct.”
Will Ferrell’s with me – this is the sound that Sex Panther cologne makes in the movie Anchorman. The cougar is also the spirit animal of Ricky Bobby, the hero of Talladega Nights:
Paging Dr Davis
This stock hospital background noise is meant to simulate doctors being paged. In full, it goes: “Dr Davis, telephone please Dr Davis, telephone please Dr Blair, Dr Blair, Dr J Hamilton, Dr J Hamilton.” Its origin is hazy, but it can be heard at the start of ‘I Remember Now’, the opening track on Queensrÿche’s 1988 concept album Operation: Mindcrime. The doctors also get paged at the kick-off of Dr Feelgood, the 1989 release from those other umlaut-merchants, Mötley Crüe.
The sound effect has appeared in hospital scenes in dozens of TV show including Nip/Tuck, CSI, NCIS and Prison Break, as well as movies including The Savages and Catch Me If You Can.
Birds Of A Feather
Every time a film introduces a desolate landscape, or an especially high cliff or mountain, you’ll hear the shriek of the red-tailed hawk. It’s sometimes also used to build tension during climactic scenes in westerns or adventure films. Some people believe they’re hearing a bald eagle; others a buzzard or vulture. The simple reason the red-tailed hawk got to be the definitive movie ‘bird of prey’ is that its call is high, clear and easy to record.
Meanwhile, when characters are stealthily making their way through a quiet moonlit forest, they might hear – but never glimpse – the great horned owl. This sound effect might be used to suggest stillness, but great horned owls, whose scientific name Bubo virginianus will definitely make a schoolboy snigger, are North America’s most vicious night predator: they can take prey two to three times bigger than themselves, and have been known to break into chicken coops and to wade into water to grab fish. They even hunt other owls. They’re sometimes known as hoot owls (after the male’s distinctive, resonant territorial call) or even ‘cat owls’, but you’ll never hear their distinctive miaowing cry in the movies. That would just be confusing.
The Universal Telephone Ring
When I was a kid, I thought this was just the way old-school phones sounded in America, but it turns out that it’s just the stock sound effect that was popular in TV shows produced by Universal Studios during the ’70s and ’80s, including The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, The A-Team and Magnum PI. As a result, it’s still in demand when a ‘period’ phone is required, as in Anchorman.
In Australian and UK series of the same period, phones used to sound like this. But the ringtone I remember from British TV shows in the late ’80s and early ’90s went more like this. I heard it in so many shows that I assumed it was just the way phones sounded in Britain. However, in Press Gang – the ITV series we can credit with kickstarting the careers of many Gen-X journalists – the phone at the Junior Gazette sounded more like this. Check it out in one of the most memorable episodes, ‘Monday/Tuesday’, in which Lynda Day quits as editor.
Leo, the MGM Lion
Over the years, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has used five mane (sorry) lions to create its trademark roaring logo – although several silent, unnamed lions appeared in the early 1920s pictures made by Samuel Goldwyn, and two more were used in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The logo was designed by Goldwyn’s house publicist, Howard Dietz, a 1917 alumnus of Columbia University, whose athletic teams are known as the Lions.
Slats was the first lion to represent the new conglomerate when Louis B Mayer Pictures Corporation and Metro Pictures joined Goldwyn, but remained silent; it was Jackie, who reigned from 1924 to 1953, who got to emit the first roar. My personal favourite lion is Tanner, who really throws his head around and roars most fearsomely. He was used from 1934 to 1955, appearing in colour films as Jackie continued to dominate the black-and-white ones. In the late 1950s, MGM used a fourth lion, variously known as Bob and Jackie II, who had a stupid mane that made him look like David Bowie in Labyrinth, however he had a pretty awesome roar.
The current lion has been used since 1957, however he no longer has his original roar. The roar used until 1982 was the lion’s own, with a stereophonic version created around the time MGM merged with United Artists. But in 1995 the roar was reportedly digitally beefed up by combining the sounds of several lions to make it sound more fearsome. The difference lies in the low end: compare the original roar with this version from 1996.
This is one of the most interesting stock sound effects because it’s proprietary and its copyright is fiercely protected by Toho Co. Ltd, which owns the character. Blue Oyster Cult paid an undisclosed sum to Toho to use the roar in its 1977 song ‘Godzilla’, and the 1998 American remake film couldn’t use it due to legal reasons, so its makers had to craft their own, similar-sounding, roar.
Perhaps Toho is able to assert its copyright so aggressively because the roar itself is so distinctive – and distinctively made. It doesn’t sound organic at all, more like a building falling down under pressure, or plates of metal grinding against each other. For the first (1954) movie, composer Akira Ifukube created it by running a resin-covered leather glove over the slackened strings of a double bass, then playing back the sound at a lower speed. Hence, the sound is relatively easy to reproduce, and to describe.
The estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs ran into much more difficulty when they attempted to register the Tarzan yell as a trademark in 2007. Johnny Weissmuller, the best known Tarzan, created this sound and insisted that it was his own vocalisation – although journalists reckoned it was created by splicing together several different sound effects (variously including male and female singers, a violin, a hyena, a yodeller and a hog caller from Tennessee).
The official description of the yell uses musical notation, claiming it involved short, long and “semi-long” octaves, fifths and major thirds. However, the Office for Harmonisation in the International Market rejected the application for copyright, responding, in part: “What has been filed as a graphic representation is from the outset not capable of serving as a graphic representation of the applied-for sound”. In other words, even though the sound is instantly recognisable as Tarzan’s, its odd ululations make it impossible to standardise – and impossible to prove it has been copied.
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